South Side Sleuth
It was in May 1999 that the call came in from British Customs and Excise to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Chicago. Agents had picked up a woman from Chicago with six kilograms of liquefied cocaine disguised as baby formula. She said the baby she was traveling with wasn't her own.
The case fell on the desk of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Senior Special Agent Peter Darling. A records search revealed that the baby had traveled frequently with a number of women. "It seemed very odd," Darling recalls. The parents claimed that the baby had been kidnapped, but Darling wasn't buying it.
It wasn't a sexy case, the kind that lends itself to photo opportunities with huge piles of drugs and money. But Darling's tenacious investigating revealed a widespread conspiracy devised by a Chicago gang to use infants as cover to smuggle drugs from Panama to the United States and Europe. Heading up "Operation Kids for Cover," he found that 22 infants were used as decoys on 45 trips. Eleven were rented from their parents.
Darling, along with fellow agent Billy Warren, conducted scores of interviews in Chicago's down-and-out South Side. "Every courier would put us onto another two couriers and another baby," Darling recalls. "The conspiracy just grew and grew." It took more than two years of investigating to reach the first trials.
Elissa Brown, special agent in charge of ICE's Chicago office, calls it "good old-fashioned criminal investigation work." But what impresses her most is how Darling, a white man with a thick Boston accent, convinced poor black Chicagoans to open up. "He treated them with such respect," she says. In the end, she recalls, many of the women who'd exploited their children regretted their actions. They thanked Darling, crediting him with rescuing them from a downward spiral and their children from abuse and neglect. "You just don't see that," says Brown.
The investigation has resulted in 49 convictions. The leader of the conspiracy was sentenced to life in prison in 2003. Darling praises prosecutor Scott Levine for keeping his eye on the case: "He wanted to get every single courier involved in this thing."
Darling says he simply used common sense to make it happen. "I knew this was not my neighborhood and these people have to live here every day. . . . I said, 'I understand you are in a tough position and made some mistakes.' "