According to local and federal law enforcement officials, James “Trell” Triplett, 33, of Berkeley, controlled one of the deadliest drug rings in one of the deadliest open air drug markets in the city. Triplett and his associates, who controlled an area near the corner of West Grenshaw Street and Independence Boulevard in the North Lawndale neighborhood, may have been responsible for “as many as 41 shootings and four murders” in that area, said Chicago Police Superintendent Gary McCarthy. Authorities estimate the alleged drug ring may have been pulling in roughly $250,000 a month for at least 10 years.
All of that money and power may have come tumbling down the morning of June 24, when 32 people in the Triplett organization, including Triplett himself, were arrested on state and federal narcotics charges. In all, 42 people associated with the organization are facing drug charges, which means 10 are still on the loose and being pursued by law enforcement officials.
During the June 24 arrest, authorities say they executed seven search warrants on several defendants’ homes and three alleged stash houses. They reportedly seized 12 firearms, roughly $50,000 in cash, more than one-half kilogram of cocaine, nearly a half-kilogram of heroin and two vehicles — a 2014 Maserati and a Gran Turismo. In all, investigators say more than one and a half kilograms of heroin were seized since August 2014, when the operation began.
The sting is the culmination of what law enforcement officials have dubbed “Operation G.I. Joe,” an investigation comprising the Chicago Police Department (CPD), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Task Force and even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
McCarthy said the investigation was the result of a rash of complaints from residents in the community about the increased gun violence in the area, which apparently has been known for its drug activity for some time.
“Even before I was elected, I had been getting a lot of calls from my constituents about that block, before I was even sworn in,” said new 24th Ward Alderman Michael Scott, Jr.
“This is something that was very, very necessary and something the residents have wanted for quite some time,” he said. “Hopefully this brings about a bit of resolution for them, so they can feel safer in their own homes and while traveling in their neighborhood.”
Scott said Operation G.I. Joe may be the first sting of its magnitude in the ward.
“I know it’s the first of its kind since I’ve been elected and I haven’t witnessed anything like this in the ward since I’ve been living there — and I’ve been living there virtually my whole life.”
Among the 42 defendants facing charges, 16 were charged with federal offenses, including conspiracy, distribution, or possession with intent to distribute more than a kilogram of heroin. If convicted, they each could face a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years, and a maximum of life, in addition to a $10 million fine.
The 26 defendants who were charged with state offenses, face charges “ranging from Class 1 to Class X Delivery of a Controlled Substance and face a potential sentencing range of four to 30 years in prison upon conviction,” according to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Illinois.
“All of the offenders have been charged with operating and selling [heroin] within a thousand feet of the school, which raises the [felony charge] from a Class 1 to a Class X, depending on the charge,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
“This multi-agency investigation […] represents a significant hammer-blow to the open-air drug markets operating in North Lawndale and Douglas Park,” said McCarthy, who added that the area near West Grenshaw Street and Independence Boulevard could have been one of the worst narcotics locations in the city.
“People come in from the suburbs, buy narcotics and return,” he said.
The area is just south of the I-290 expressway, which is popularly referred to as “Heroin Highway” because of the easy access to the drug it offers city and suburban residents.
According to the 230-page affidavit, Triplett delegated responsibilities to several “operations managers,” who in turn presided over a team of “shift workers” who sold the drug throughout the day in the North Lawndale and Douglas Park neighborhoods. Collins’s heroin came in small “user-portion” plastic bags stamped with “purple lady logos, green Playboy bunnies, Hershey’s kisses, or black panda bear symbols,” investigators said.
Triplett’s alleged supplier, who was also arrested, was LeVaughn “Sweet Bobby” Collins, 34, of Chicago, who obtained the heroin in wholesale quantities that were processed and packaged to buyers like Triplett. Collins allegedly stored the heroin at primary stash locations, such as 561 E. 103rd Pl. and 2936 W. Warren Blvd.
It was an intricate operation embedded in an intricate web of a destructive, but wildly lucrative, drug trade — a force McCarthy acknowledged Operation G.I. Joe doesn’t begin to address at the roots.
“What we do wrong is we don’t address demand,” McCarthy said. “There’s supply and demand when it comes to narcotics. The supply, the dealers, generally commit violence to hold on to their spots and keep discipline in the organization. The demand side, the buyers, commit other crimes like burglary and theft to fuel their habits. This drives crime. By simply arresting people, we’re not going to stop what’s happening.”
Instead, McCarthy noted, his department will conduct what he called “a great social experiment” that it has successfully implemented in other places.
“We’re not going to fix supply, I’m not even suggesting that, but what I am suggesting is that we not allow people to go to that spot to buy [and sell] narcotics,” he said. “This is not just putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. I’m not claiming victory walking away. This is a location we’re going to stay at. We’re going to use city services to fix whatever conditions we can find — whether it’s painting over graffiti or fixing street lights or filling potholes. Whatever the case might be. We’ll bring in those wraparound services, build civic pride and get the community to come out and take control of that street.”