Gang members blamed for 5 heroin deaths: Mickey Cobras members sold MCs Connected To Mexican Cartel

Chicago Sun-Times,  May 2, 2007  by Annie Sweeney, Frank Main

Members of the Mickey Cobras street gang are responsible for at least five fatal overdoses from fentanyl-laced heroin they sold, according to a federal indictment unsealed Thursday.

Reputed gang leader James Austin, his cousin Johnny Shannon and five others were charged with the deaths and pleaded not guilty. They each face 20 years to life in prison if convicted.

Thirteen others are charged with conspiracy to make fentanyl at a laboratory in Toluca, Mexico, and smuggle the synthetic drug to Chicago and Detroit using a front company, according to another indictment unsealed Thursday. The Mickey Cobras were among those who bought the fentanyl, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which led the probe.

$12 MILLION IN DRUG PROCEEDS

The government is seeking to recover $12 million in drug proceeds from the Mexican ring.

The Cook County medical examiner's office started seeing overdose deaths from fentanyl-laced heroin in late 2005 at the Dearborn Homes -- but the Mickey Cobras have been selling the potent mixture there since at least 1998, authorities say.

Michael Virzint, 24, was one of five people investigators linked to Dearborn Homes drugs, his family said. He died Jan. 20, 2006, under a viaduct at 29th and Dearborn -- 20 minutes after buying drugs at the South Side complex.

Virzint grew up in Burbank and played football at Reavis High School. He was known as a funny kid who got along with everyone, but he also struggled with a drug addiction.

'PEOPLE LOVED HIM'

He was one of 342 people in Cook County who have died of fentanyl- related overdoses since late 2005, said Dr. Scott Denton, acting chief Cook County medical examiner.

Virzint's family, like others, has waited for justice, hoping that someone would be held accountable for their loss.

Last month, Debra Pasciak was told police had connected her son's death to the dealers at Dearborn.

"I thought they forgot about Michael because he was a drug addict," Pasciak said. "It made me feel that he mattered. . . . I don't think he realized how many people loved him."

Detroit has experienced a similar spike in fentanyl-related deaths. An estimated 133 people died in the Detroit area in 2005 and 2006, officials said.

IN A SECRET COMPARTMENT

Fentanyl -- manufactured for legal use as a pain-killer -- is far more potent than heroin. According to some estimates, about 22 pounds of fentanyl were shipped from the Mexican lab to Chicago. When mixed with heroin, that could supply addicts for up to 10 months, said Frank Limon, chief of the Chicago Police organized crime division.

The Mickey Cobras were selling the laced heroin under street names such as "Reaper" and "Penicillin," authorities said. Chicago Police Officer Tashika Sledge has been charged with providing information to the gang about law enforcement activities.

One alleged member of the Mexican operation, Lutgardo Chavez Jr., is accused of mixing the fentanyl with heroin in a Chicago home and transporting the drugs in a Honda Accord with a secret trap compartment.