In March 2010 Nebraska state police made a traffic stop that produced a valuable insight into the movement of heroin out of Chicago to smaller cities around the midwest. Authorities have not disclosed who was pulled over or why. But while no drugs were seized, "the people in the car had information about what was going on in Waterloo," says federal prosecutor Lisa Williams.
Waterloo, Iowa, is a working-class city of 68,000 about an hour northwest of Cedar Rapids and five hours west of Chicago. Law enforcement there had already taken notice of a spike in heroin supply and scores of resulting overdoses, some of them fatal, prompting the Drug Enforcement Administration to form a special task force with local police departments.
On March 22, tipped off by the occupants of the car, authorities executed search warrants at four Waterloo homes, including two rented by an occasional hairstylist and former Chicagoan named Dwayne Appling. Officers searching his residences found about 86 grams of heroin, $7,800 in cash, and materials typically used to package drugs for street sale, including plastic bags, a digital scale, and rubber gloves.
In a videotaped interview at the Waterloo police station, Appling said he made trips back to Chicago once or twice a month to buy heroin for about $100 per gram—then brought it back to Waterloo, where he sold it for as much as double the price. He would buy up to 100 grams at a time, and since he further diluted the heroin before packaging and selling it, authorities estimated that he was making about $40,000 a month in profit.
Appling indicated that he might be willing to cooperate with additional investigations into heroin distribution in Waterloo. He was released from custody.
He vanished a couple of weeks later.
In the meantime, the heroin business in Waterloo stayed strong—and may have spread. "One witness described it as 'A grenade went off,'" Williams says. "When [Appling] left, other people stepped up and began distributing."
Like Appling, they relied on their ties to Chicago.
For generations, Chicago-based heroin distributors have exported their product to large urban markets in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. But the business isn't limited to big cities. In the last six months alone, authorities have arrested Chicago residents for allegedly setting up heroin operations in smaller cities and towns such as Burlington, Vermont; Steubenville, Ohio; and Jefferson City, Missouri.
In northeastern Iowa, the Chicago connection is so well established that Sergeant David Dostal brings it up during every interview he conducts with heroin users and dealers. "I'll ask them, 'Have you ever gone to Chicago to pick anything up?'" says Dostal, a Cedar Rapids narcotics officer assigned to the DEA's drug task force. In some cases, "they'll drive to pick up product, and in exchange they'll get one or two grams."
Dealers and users have moved to Waterloo for the same reason that many other ex-Chicagoans have: it seemed to promise better opportunities. The economic downturns of the 80s and early 90s slammed Waterloo, and the city lost more than 10 percent of its population between 1980 and 2000. But John Deere, Tyson Foods, and other companies, most based in agricultural products, still employ thousands of residents. The 4 percent unemployment rate remains far lower than Chicago's, making the area particularly attractive to African-Americans from crime-ridden neighborhoods. Waterloo's black population has grown over the last 20 years and now makes up almost 16 percent of the city's total.
"In Chicago, they're on the streets hollering for you. There, it was word of mouth."—Connie Johnson, who moved to Waterloo eight years ago with her husband and three adult children, describing the cities' different drug trades
In 2005 Connie Johnson moved to Waterloo with her husband, Lusta, and three adult children. The couple had little trouble getting hired at Tyson. Though she felt conspicuous in Waterloo as an African-American, "it was quiet and there was work," Johnson says. Her sister-in-law Catherine moved to Waterloo around the same time, and Catherine's son Lawrence followed.
In some ways, though, Waterloo wasn't as far from city life as it seemed. Both Lusta and Lawrence had been arrested for possessing crack in Chicago in the 1990s, and both had used heroin in the past, as had Connie and her sister-in-law. Connie says she was taken aback to meet heroin users in Iowa.
"I must say it was a surprise after leaving Chicago," she says. "In Chicago, they're on the streets hollering for you. There, it was word of mouth. You know, when you do that, you can tell when [other] people have done it. You say, where did you get that?"
Authorities say the heroin trade in Waterloo was controlled at that time by Appling and several underlings, most of them originally from Chicago, who saw a business opportunity.
Officials say Appling started out dealing small amounts of heroin himself, then hired others to distribute ever-greater quantities for him. Many of his sellers were users who needed to pay for their habits, and who knew Appling or his family through community ties in Chicago. Two sisters who bought from him had gone to high school with his parents.
Dealing didn't work the same way it did in Chicago. Rather than standing on the corner waiting for customers, heroin sellers met new customers through trusted acquaintances, who were usually paid in drugs for making the referral, known as "middling." Orders were placed by speaking in code or abstraction on phone calls and text messages.
After Appling disappeared, though, the heroin scene changed dramatically. His salesmen and other top customers began making runs to Chicago and then cutting and distributing the heroin themselves. They later told authorities that sometimes they'd buy it from a connection in Chicago, and other times they'd get it from salesmen on a west-side corner.
When someone ran out in Waterloo, he or she would refer customers to a friend. Arthur Scott, an underling of Appling's who grew up in Chicago, explained that it was like borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor. "It wasn't competitive. It was more of, if you've got it and I don't, I'll get it from you."
Catherine and Lawrence Johnson's homes became known as places to buy. On one occasion, a customer recalled meeting a girlfriend of Lawrence's who'd just arrived from Chicago with a supply of heroin: "She was under the impression that she could come here and get rich quick," the customer recalled.
On November 9, 2010, a former Waterloo dealer who'd been run out of town by Appling was arrested with another man in Memphis after they were caught with two handguns and almost two kilograms of heroin. Facing a long prison sentence, Lucious Simmons agreed to return to Waterloo and wear a wire while he bought heroin from local dealers. Over the next three months authorities tapped the phones of a number of other Waterloo residents who were making trips to Chicago, cutting and packaging the heroin they purchased, and selling it out of their homes in Waterloo.
On January 12, 2011, Simmons called a Waterloo heroin dealer to place an order. The dealer didn't have any product, but he thought he knew someone who did. A few minutes later he called Simmons back and offered to make an introduction. "He said he had really good stuff and to come over and get him and he would take me around," Simmons said.
Simmons picked him up, and the two drove the six blocks to Lawrence Johnson's. They parked across the street. With police secretly watching from cars nearby, Lawrence Johnson came out of the house and got into the car with them. Simmons bought 12 small plastic bags of brown chunks that were wrapped in foil—and gave two of them to the other dealer for serving as the "middler."
Afterward, Johnson proposed that they cut out the middleman. "He had heard about my reputation, as far as being a drug trafficker," Simmons testified. "So he was willing to make a deal with me as far as going out of town to Chicago to meet his connections."
Instead, just over a month later, authorities moved in, raiding 17 Waterloo residences, including Lawrence Johnson's, and seizing heroin and five guns. That April, Lawrence Johnson, Appling (who was still on the lam), and six others were indicted in federal district court in Cedar Rapids on drug conspiracy and distribution charges.
Johnson was convicted after a trial in January 2012, and he was sentenced in May to life plus five years in federal prison.
Three months later Catherine Johnson, her brother Lusta, one of Lusta's sons, and 11 others were indicted for participating in a drug conspiracy.
Appling finally turned up in November 2012, when police in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pulled him over and discovered a federal warrant out for his arrest. He was returned to Iowa, where he pleaded guilty to drug distribution charges this August and is set to be sentenced next month.
Altogether, more than 30 defendants tied to the Waterloo heroin distribution network have been convicted so far, and others are awaiting trial, according to the U.S. attorney's office. Other indictments have targeted Cedar Rapids users and sellers.
Yet the heroin trail from Chicago hasn't been shut down. Since 2007, at least 200 heroin users have overdosed in the Waterloo-Cedar Rapids area, 50 of them fatally, according to the DEA. Authorities say the investigations are still open.
Meanwhile, Connie Johnson has moved back to the west side of Chicago. Her son, nephew, and sister-in-law are all in prison, and her husband is awaiting sentencing. She does not believe that justice has been served.
"I'm not claiming no innocence or guilt on anybody's part, but they're giving time for major drug dealers to people who were users," she says. "It's a sad story."