It begins with what seems like a routine traffic stop in a Chicago suburb one late summer night.
The driver of a sedan heading east out of town doesn't signal a right toward the turnpike. The trailing Joliet police squad car flashes its lights as darkness sets in.
Officers approach the silver 2009 Hyundai Genesis with Ohio plates headed to I-80 East. The two guys inside the car, who look to be in their 30s, must not be local.
As Officer Bandy approaches the driver's side window, he notices the driver trembling and beginning to sweat. He takes his ID—Lamar Egler, 31, of Cleveland—as the man's shaking hands awkwardly fumble to find an up-to-date insurance card in the glove box of his recently leased car. Can't find one.
Officers ask if he's visiting family or friends.
"Yes," Egler sheepishly mumbles back. He's on vacation, he says.
On the other side of the car, Officer Gruber watches the passenger. He's sketchy too, and sweat is glistening on his forehead. The ID passes through the open window—Lewis Hall, 38, also of Cleveland.
Gruber asks if they are from around here.
Cleveland, Ohio, was the answer, but Egler says he's in town visiting his sick grandfather in the hospital.
"I-I have no idea."
"What's his name?"
"He's over a 100 years old."
The officers prod them more. There seem to be a lot of questions for an unused right turn signal stop.
"What's this all about?" asks Hall. "In Ohio, police officers don't talk to passengers in vehicles."
They must have criminal backgrounds, the cops think, asking the two Cleveland men if they have been arrested before. Egler says he's had weapons convictions. Hall says he's on parole for a federal drug conviction.
Officers take the two out of the car and call in the K9 unit. The handler asks Egler if there's any reason Ness, the department's drug-sniffing dog, would signal that there's narcotics in the car.
"No, go ahead and check," Egler says and hands over the keys.
The two have a reason to be nervous. Egler and Hall are not in Joliet, Ill., for vacation or visiting old, ailing relatives: they're in town for business, couriers for drug dealers on the east side of Cleveland, with $330,000 in cash and instructions on what to pick up. Now they're trying to deliver their boss's order back home. The product is sealed closed in six separate packages, wrapped in scented dryer sheets, and stuffed in the legs of two pairs of khakis mixed with other clothes in a red duffle bag deep in the trunk of the car.
Game over. Ness doesn't hesitate clawing at the trunk to get to the heroin. Officers pop it open. Ness goes straight for a red duffle bag.
Police get it all: 5.658 kilograms of heroin—almost 12 and a half pounds—worth more than a half million dollars if sold on the street. Back in Cleveland, somebody's out $330,000 in cash with no heroin to show for it, customers waiting on it, and two of his couriers facing major charges. Publicly, Joliet police took credit for that August 21, 2012 arrest in the local news. It was the largest amount of heroin the department ever seized thanks to officers on patrol suspicious of a "phantom grandpa" during the traffic stop, the newspaper wrote.
But behind the scenes, it was the FBI and an undercover police narcotics unit calling the shots. Chicago-based agents were deep into "Operation Red Barron," an investigation of Mexican drug suppliers selling heroin in Joliet and perhaps beyond.
When the FBI listened in on calls from an unknown 216-phone number to their targeted suppliers two days earlier, they knew the guys in the silver 2009 Hyundai Genesis would be there to pick up exactly what the guy on the other end of the line had ordered. They knew how much money it was for, they knew how much heroin they were bringing back, they knew who gave it to them and they knew it was all in the trunk.
What they didn't know was who was higher up on the heroin food chain operating via Joliet: Who was supplying them to supply the Cleveland guys? So they directed the Joliet police to the Cleveland-bound couriers and orchestrated the stop, to see what would happen next.
Lamar Egler and Lewis Hall were not making it back to Cleveland with the heroin, even if they lowered their heart rates, talked calmly and properly rehearsed a backstory about a sick grandfather in a local hospital. If it wasn't an unused right turn signal, it would have been for going 48 mph in a 45 mph zone or for having a view-obstructing pine-tree air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. For anything, really, so long as it was a technically legal traffic stop where probable cause to search the car for drugs seemed to come from the officer's own police work rather than FBI wiretaps and surveillance of the Joliet supplier. The investigation was not nearly complete and the Feds needed folks higher on the heroin chain to continue to operate business as usual.
It worked. The Joliet supplier and the unknown Cleveland distributor continued to use the phone as if Chicago FBI agents weren't listening to every word and reading every text, which is how investigators came to learn that the Cleveland distributor was making his way to Illinois six days after the courier bust to meet with the Joliet target. Agents were perched and ready for his arrival and soon learned his identity: 36-year-old Clevelander Antoine Matthews.
Back in Cleveland, officers of the Northern Ohio Law Enforcement Task Force—a joint unit led by Cleveland FBI agents and Cleveland police investigating local and federal crime—were into a heroin investigation of their own. Matthews' number had popped on the phone records of two Cleveland dealers—Eugene Miller and Frederick Darling, two long-established member in the eastside drug game—under surveillance by the task force, but the Cleveland agents didn't know who the number belonged to until the Chicago officers called them following Matthews' arrival in Illinois.
Now Cleveland agents knew where their targets' supply was coming from: a Mexican heroin ring by way of Joliet.
Over the next year, the drug dominoes fell on the east side of Cleveland, from small-time buyers to local kingpins bankrolling a major distribution operation, as the FBI preyed on their vanity and hubris. Even diligent dealers who consciously switched up burners, swapped out cars, and varied where they slept were taken down.
In all, 92 people were indicted in "Operation Fox Hound," the single largest heroin bust in Northeast Ohio history and a tale made for the silver screen in more ways than one.
The Undercover Agent
"Meech" was a ball-busting, no-nonsense dealer with a Los Angeles area code and a growing customer base somewhere back "out of town." He didn't know many people here, but he came to Cleveland with stacks of cash, ready to do business. He wanted his meetings on time and the drugs to weigh right. In 2011, Meech told his current Cleveland dealers that his heroin need had outgrew their capacity—he wanted to meet their suppliers directly.
Meech, of course, wasn't a mid-level dealer looking to move up; he was an undercover task force officer assigned to infiltrate and pin down heroin suppliers in Cleveland. He'd been paired up with a criminal informant who'd been on the Cleveland police payroll since 2008 for providing information on the city's drug traffickers.
Together, they began recording phone calls with dealers arranging meetings, wearing a wire when meeting in-person, using task force money with recorded serial numbers (so seized money could be traced back) and inquiring about their suppliers up the chain.
75 year-old Vernon Norman, a man with a slew of drug, weapon and theft convictions in the area between 1981 and 1993, was a lower-level rung.
"Wanna do eight for the brown?" Meech said in a call monitored and recorded by the task force, asking to buy a gram of heroin for $80 in a Sept. 2011 phone call.
"It might go for that," Norman replied.
"Okay, you, you got, I ain't got time to be wickey-wickey now. I mean, you know."
"Just give me nine," Norman said, asking for $10 more for the gram of heroin. "I know that. Just give me nine. Give me nine for the brown."
"Okay, hey check this out," Meech said, "Okay, you got nine on you."