DOUGLAS — Chicago Police and federal prosecutors said Friday they’ve arrested 15 people involved in a heroin operation that included buyers first calling a hotline to set up a meeting spot.
And that hotline was so busy, the feds say it rang about 1,000 times a day.
U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said at Chicago Police headquarters, 3510 S. Michigan Ave., that the prosecutors believe the 15 people arrested were selling more than 11 kilograms of heroin every six months through a single phone line investigators dubbed “the Vanna White line.”
He said investigators tapped the phone line and estimated 193,000 phone calls were made in six months to that one land line in an apartment in Wentworth Gardens, the public housing complex between 37th Street and Pershing Road on Wentworth Avenue.
“That is, if my math is right, about a 1,000 calls a day,” Fardon said. “Think about what that means from the perspective of the demand and the heroin problem.”
Police said the investigation ramped up after a 16-year-old shot and killed 49-year-old Yvonne Nelson, a 311 dispatcher who was getting a cup of coffee on May 20 when she was caught in crossfire outside the Starbucks in the 3500 block of South State Street.
Anthony Riccio, chief of the organized crime bureau, said police had gotten tips about the heroin problem in the area before Nelson was shot and were already setting up wiretaps and undercover operations.
“The motive for that murder was the drug sales that were occurring over in these locations over by Wentworth Gardens,” Riccio said. “The woman that was killed, was killed as a result of the fight over a drug spot.
Chicago police characterized all the arrests announced Friday as mid- to high-level operators within the drug operation.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Joseph Thompson, 33, Mario Cooper, 28, Dewayne Bolden, 26, and Devante Reed, 23, were arrested Thursday and are each charged with conspiracy to possess a controlled substance with the intent to distribute.
Judge Michael T. Mason ordered all four remain in federal custody pending detention hearings next week.
Charges for the other nine arrested were not immediately available.
Police at a Friday press conference laid out how the operation differed from the open-air drug markets on the West Side.
Lt. Mike Ryle of the narcotics division said buyers allegedly would need an introduction to the seller and then would be given a phone number for an apartment in Wentworth Gardens. He said the buyer would be given a location to meet a seller.
It’s unclear why investigators dubbed the phone line the “Vanna White line” or the called the investigation the “Wheel of Fortune” operation.
The drug deals would often happen in the 3500 block of South Calumet Avenue, not far from where the heroin was believed to have been stored on the 4700 block of South King Drive, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Ryle said most of the heroin that has been confiscated by police in the area recently has been 95 percent fentanyl, a prescription pain-killer police believe is being smuggled from China into California, where it is mixed with heroin from Mexico.
“It’s getting mixed in California and then getting shipped out to Chicago,” Ryle said.
Police are seeking five other people believed to be associated with the heroin operation.
Chicago Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said police are aware that the arrests could cause a power vacuum in the area that rival drug dealers may try to exploit. He said the Wentworth District is getting extra federal resources and help from the gang violence reduction team and police suppression team.