Pushed by families who lost loved ones to drugs, the Chicago Police Department quietly has begun to investigate drug-related deaths as potential homicides.
Sylvia Schafer is among dozens of parents in the Chicago area whose children have died from drugs and demanded justice, calling on police and prosecutors to treat the deaths as homicides and go after those responsible.
Their lobbying paid off. In late December, the Chicago Police Department quietly approved its first-ever guidelines for detectives to investigate drug deaths under what Illinois law labels drug-induced homicides.
“I am very grateful that the department has taken steps to treat these cases, like surrounding counties do,” Schafer says.
Last year, at least 1,600 people died in Cook County as a result of opioid poisoning. But few of those deaths resulted in homicide charges against sellers who provided the drugs.
Prosecutors in the collar counties charge far more people with drug deaths than in Cook County. In McHenry County, officials have said their efforts might be making a difference. The number of drug-related deaths in that county declined in 2018 and 2019, which they think might be in part because of aggressive prosecution of dealers under the state’s decades-old drug-induced homicide law.
About five years ago, Chicago police officials met with their suburban counterparts to see how they were investigating drug deaths. But interest in those cases seemed to wane until last year, when Brendan Deenihan, Chicago’s new chief of detectives, said he was committed to pursuing these cases.
“I was especially impressed at how welcoming Chief Deenihan has been, and he literally got busy on this the day I met with him,” Schafer says. “He followed through on his promise, which those before him did not.”
Not every drug death will result in a homicide investigation because detectives are busy with the rising numbers of fatal shootings, Deenihan says.
“This isn’t going to be something where the detective division can do 2,000 investigations on overdoses or even 1,000 — or even 100 a year,” he says.
Deenihan says a strong homicide case might involve a dealer who sells narcotics that kill a group of users in a short period.
In recent years, the police have opened investigations after clusters of addicts die from taking highly potent Fentanyl. Some of those dealers have been charged in federal drug conspiracy cases.
“This gives us another tool,” Deenihan says.
Still, filing drug-induced homicide charges remains controversial. Some say the fear of getting locked up on a homicide charge can keep a dealer from calling 911 to seek help for a customer suffering from drug poisoning.
Before they drafted their six-page policy for investigating drug deaths, Chicago police officials consulted with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, prosecutors in the collar counties, the Cook County medical examiner’s office and other agencies.
The new policy makes clear why these cases will be pursued: “Drug-induced homicide incidents are serious crimes, not only against the victim but also to the decedent/victim’s family, loved ones and the entire community.”
If detectives investigating a death think the person likely died from drugs, they’re supposed to canvass the scene as they would with any other murder case. They’re being told to collect evidence such as drug paraphernalia, cell phones and any remaining drugs, to identify witnesses and to conduct interviews. In the past, the police didn’t do all of that with drug-related deaths.
The new guidelines tell detectives to focus on cell phones and social media for potential evidence of communication between victim and seller.
They’re being asked to stay in contact with the medical examiner’s office for autopsy and toxicology results. And they’re being told to make sure that any drugs recovered at the scene of the death get tested by the Illinois State Police crime lab.
Deenihan says these cases aren’t easy to investigate.
Detectives will have to prove that a dealer sold the particular drugs that killed a user, Deenihan says. That’s complicated, he says, because drug users often get drugs from multiple sources.
Victims’ families say the law only requires police to prove a drug was a contributing factor to a death.
Terry Slaw, a lawyer whose 33-year-old stepdaughter Valerie Teper died of drug poisoning in 2016, calls the police department’s new guidelines “overdue.”
But Slaw worries about possible legal problems involving such cases. He points out that the Cook County medical examiner almost always finds drug deaths were accidental — even in cases in which prosecutors later charge the supplier with a drug-induced homicide.
“They’re either homicides or accidents,” Slaw says. “You can’t have it both ways.”
His view is that, under Illinois law, drug-related deaths are homicides and that the medical examiner doesn’t have discretion to say otherwise. Slaw filed a lawsuit to compel the medical examiner to rule drug deaths as homicides but lost last year in Cook County circuit court and then on appeal.
Schafer says her 29-year-old son’s drug death in 2019 was ruled an accident, but she was able to persuade the Chicago police to investigate it as a homicide.
“Had I not hired a private attorney to help me navigate, I would not have gotten very far in any of this,” she says.
Schafer’s son Joshua Bloomfield died in his Edgewater apartment of toxicity from alcohol and a cocktail of drugs including heroin, Fentanyl, methamphetamine and clonazepam, according to the medical examiner.
Last summer, Christopher Paulus was arrested on a drug-induced homicide charge in Bloomfield’s death. Paulus and Bloomfield were friends who met in drug rehabilitation. Phone records showed Bloomfield planned to buy heroin from Paulus the day before he died, according to Cook County prosecutors.
Paulus’s lawyer told a judge his client never would have intentionally sold Bloomfield a fatal dose. Paulus is free on bail, awaiting trial.
Theresa Almanza, a former Chicago cop whose 18-year-old daughter Sydney Schergen died from drugs in 2015, pushed for the police to look more deeply into her daughter’s death after initially closing their investigation without seeking criminal charges.
As a result, Brent Tyssen of Midlothian ended up being sentenced in 2018 to six years in prison for drug-induced homicide. And an accomplice, Cynthia Parker, got probation.
“It is my hope that this protocol will be strictly enforced by the Chicago Police Department and Cook County state’s attorney’s office,” Almanza says. “Locking up a drug dealer will not bring my child back. But it may just save yours.”