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DeKalb police unit targets high-end drug dealers

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DeKALB – When it comes to drug traffic, DeKalb isn’t considered a small town anymore.

Not long ago, users looking to score illegal narcotics would travel to Rockford or Chicago, both of which are about an equal distance from DeKalb, DeKalb police Cmdr. John Petragallo said. But dealers are realizing there is a profitable delivery market in DeKalb.

“Customers don’t have to leave town as much as they used to,” Petragallo said. “We’re having people from more rural towns come into DeKalb now to purchase their drugs. To someone from a very small place, we’re a place to go.”

But DeKalb police have a new method for dealing with the high-end drug distributors who bring large quantities of contraband into the city, sell it to street-level dealers and leave town, Petragallo said. DeKalb police have formed the Targeted Response Unit, with four full-time officers assigned to investigate specific illegal activity full time.

Petragallo credited police Chief Gene Lowery with recognizing the need and creating the unit about a month ago. Before the team was formed, detectives were split between immediate-response calls and long-term investigations.

“We’ve never had officers dedicated to these problems,” Petragallo said. “In a month, the results that we’ve gotten have been incredible. It’s only going to get better with the intelligence they develop.”

Twelve of 20 arrest warrants issued last week, largely through the work of this unit, were related to the sale of illegal narcotics. The unit is designed to methodically collect information and track local trends to operate in a more proactive, pre-emptive way.

“I think it fits a need that out department and our city has had for a long time,” DeKalb police Sgt. Steve Lekkas said. “We haven’t had a lot of time to focus solely on proactive investigations.”

Lekkas said the unit is using investigative information to track down criminals sooner.

“We’re already learning all sorts of new trends and new things that are going on in and around town, especially with some of the gang activity,” he said. “We’re able to stay one step ahead of them.”

The two most defined trends in drug activity the unit is seeing are increases in heroin and “molly” activity. Molly is a powdered form of MDMA, known by the street name ecstasy.

“Years ago, those aren’t things we would have seen,” Petragallo said. “To be able to say there are people in DeKalb selling it locally, that’s a new trend.”

Molly is on the upswing among college-aged users because it’s relatively inexpensive compared with other narcotics, and considered a party drug.

“It’s an environment that is very target-rich for drug activity,” Lekkas said. “It’s almost perfect for dealers, because there’s a lot of people willing to try something new.”

Lekkas said police are seeing heroin use more among older city residents. The drug has been associated with more theft around DeKalb, with offenders often scrapping metal taken from construction areas, dumps and abandoned properties.

“Years ago, our patrolmen would never see heroin,” Petragallo said. “They’d never see needles. It seems somewhat common now. If we stop someone scrapping metal, we’re very careful on our pat-downs, because a lot of times we find that they are carrying needles.”

It’s not clear why, Petragallo said, but it could be that dealers are making the substance more readily available in DeKalb.

Drugs usually are smuggled into DeKalb by car, and sometimes by mail. However, police were faced with a new possibility last month when 22 kilograms of cocaine were found on a small plane at DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport. Two Arizona men have been charged in connection with that drug seizure.

Although police believe that it’s rare narcotics are shipped through the local airport, Lekkas said the incident has made police be more hawkish regarding aircraft there.

“It’s a lot easier to land a small plane somewhere like here than it is at O’Hare,” Lekkas said.

Lekkas added that police also are seeing more drugs enter the city by mail. He said police can be alerted to suspicious packages through several sources involved in the investigation of the drug trade and shipping process.

Lekkas said he looks forward to developing an enhanced crime intelligence team through the Targeted Response Unit. The entire design of the unit is focused on snuffing the rising trends patrolmen are seeing.

“With the intelligence that we’re gathering now,” Lekkas said, “we’re hearing of local dealers we didn’t know about.”

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