THE LOOP — More than two dozen people were arrested Thursday after police and federal officials busted a West Side drug ring supplying heroin and crack cocaine to the North Lawndale area, authorities said.
U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon was joined by local and federal law enforcement officials Thursday afternoon to announce the charges.
Police and federal agents seized about $140,000, nearly half a kilogram of heroin, cocaine and nine firearms, including an AR-15 assault rifle in raids Thursday morning, according to a statement. Another half-kilogram of heroin was also seized during the nearly year-long investigation into the drug ring, authorities said.
Fourteen people will face federal charges of conspiracy or possession with intent to distribute narcotics. Another 13 people will face charges of delivery of a controlled substance in state court, according to a statement.
The drug ring was run by 47-year-old Kenneth Shoulders, allegedly a high-ranking member of the West Side's Conservative Vice Lords street gang, officials said.
The Conservative Vice Lords ran the operation in a 12-block area in the Douglas Park neighborhood roughly bounded by West Roosevelt Road and West Fillmore Street and South California Avenue and South Kedzie Avenue, they said.
"This is a neighborhood that's been unduly afflicted by heroin trafficking that's occurring across those 12 blocks," Fardon said. "And from where I sit...that's 12 blocks too many."
The area is just south of the Eisenhower Expressway. The stretch has earned the moniker the "Heroin Highway," as western suburbs have seen a rising amount of heroin coming into their communities from the West Side of the city.
While the 169-page criminal complaint does not allege where the customers of the drug ring were coming from, Fardon said heroin has become a "huge problem" not only in Chicago but in its suburbs and across the country because of its availability and cheap price.
Fardon and other law enforcement officials could not say what portion of Chicago's heroin came from Shoulders' operation.
"Whether and to what extent this makes a dent in the city of Chicago or more broadly is something only time will tell," Fardon said.
The investigation was touted as one of the first major cases brought by the Chicago Strike Force, a multi-agency unit formed two years ago. The force is made up of local, state and federal agents and officers who work full-time in integrated units out of Chicago.
Shoulders, also known as "Kenny Shannon," was allegedly a wholesale supplier of heroin and worked with his sister and son to distribute the drug to dealers in the North Lawndale area.
Although the operation was run mainly by Conservative Vice Lords, members of other street gangs — including the Traveling Vice Lords, the Black Souls Nation, Gangster Disciples and New Breeds — were also involved.
Last year, a member of the "12th Street" faction of the Traveling Vice Lords allegedly kicked off the investigation, telling law enforcement that Shoulders ran the Vice Lords drug operation in the area. The operation's heroin was usually packaged in small plastic bags stamped with a green dollar sign or black bomb symbol, officials said.
Chicago police led the strike force unit that investigated Shoulders' operation, officials said.
Shoulders, along with his sister Sandra "Penny" Shoulders and his son Kenneth "Lil' Kenny" Williams, are named with six others in one federal complaint. If convicted, they face a minimum of 10 years in jail and a maximum of life in prison.
Shoulders' alleged supplier, 40-year-old Rodney "Bump" Bedenfield, was separately charged, as was Bedenfield's alleged supplier, 45-year-old Marc Davis. Queenie Vargas, 25, was charged as an alleged courier who transported heroin for Davis. If convicted, the three face a minimum of five years in prison.
Dorian Miller, 42, of Riverdale, and Jewneus Wilson, 35, of Chicago, were also charged separately for allegedly buying heroin from Bedenfield. If charged, they face a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Fardon said none of the 27 people arrested are facing charges of violence but said he believes breaking up drug operations run by street gangs is "an effective tool in reducing violence" in the city's neighborhoods.
Chicago First Deputy Superintendent Alfonza Wysinger said the challenge now will stopping the Conservative Vice Lords or any other gang from trying to claim the area left by Shoulders' operation.
Jack Riley, who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago, said Thursday's arrests prove the multi-agency approach of the strike force is working to take down gangs, the "new face of organized crime" in Chicago.
"Here's the one thing I know: organized crime, the bad guys, they really plan, hope that law enforcement doesn't talk to each other...that we don't connect the dots, that we don't share information," he said.
But that's not the case in Chicago, Riley said. Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez echoed that on Thursday.
"While the gang members we arrest and prosecute may fight over power and turf...the law enforcement agencies represented here today do not," Alvarez said. "We stand united to work together to adapt our investigation and adopt multiple approaches to help us effectively target the gang members who are wreaking havoc in all our communities."