A Break in the Deadly Drugs Case?

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For months now, police in Illinois have joined forces with officers from other Midwestern cities, federal agents and even Mexico to chase a rabid killer — a silent but deadly assassin that has so far claimed at least 70 lives in and around Chicago, as many as 200 others in the Detroit area and dozens more in states from Missouri to New Jersey. But the suspect isn't a serial killer; it's a lethal brand of the drug fentanyl, sometime mixed with an already potent batch of heroin, or even cocaine or alcohol.

If you want an indication of just how bad the outbreak of drug deaths has gotten in and around Chicago lately, just climb into one of the city's ambulances, which are now stocked with four times the usual amount of antidotes to handle such overdoses — if they get there in time. "I never remember another outbreak of overdoses [like what] we have had in recent months," says Chicago Police Superintendent Phil Cline. "Over one weekend, we had 24. More than 60 fatalities, and more than 700 overdoses. Even in the crack years, I've never seen it with the same deadly consequences."

Authorities hope they may be one step closer to putting a stop to it; a police source told TIME Friday that a major operation that could wrap up as early as next week may tip the investigation. Officially, they said Friday that a big step was taken with the bust of a 26-year-old man taken into custody earlier this week. Frank Limon, Chicago's chief of organized crime, described the man, who has yet to be charged, as a potentially crucial link to larger dealers and perhaps the root of the outbreak. While overseeing operations on Chicago's West Side and just southwest of the city, the man allegedly used children, including a teenage Russian girl, as runners because juvenile laws are more lax on those busted. "He's like a street boss. We've moved up a level with this arrest," said Limon.

Still, the suspect appears to be only a piece of a large, confusing puzzle that has seen monthly fatal overdoses in the Windy City increase by more than 50% since at least March. Chief among the confusion was that all the overdoses were initially blamed almost entirely on heroin.

"Everyone's saying this is heroin causing the problem, but it's fentanyl, which is an even more dangerous narcotic," said Edmund Donoghue, the chief medical examiner for Cook County, which covers Chicago. "It seems to be getting them into trouble very fast," mainly by interrupting breathing patterns and essentially causing the body to shut down. We're finding people dying in their cars, not even making it inside. I guess the attraction seems to be a more powerful high."

Officials said the deaths — ranging in age from young adults to people well into their 60s, mostly men — are hitting people of all walks of life, including victims from some 20 towns surrounding Chicago and also Detroit, where suburbanites trek along the expressways into the inner city to pick up the drug.

Dozens of operations, many undercover, to weed out the source of the drugs have been launched and police said they are having some luck getting lower-level dealers to turn on bigger catches. But they are careful not to promise too much, noting that arrests have been made, drugs have been confiscated, and conferences have been held in Chicago with investigators from the Midwest and even some East Coast cities. But so far, the scourge goes on, leaving police frustrated — and puzzled.

"We're having difficulty understanding the attraction," says Donoghue, the medical examiner, "because, frankly, they'll die."