Dozens arrested after sting of Facebook groups selling guns, drugs

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Anthony Riccio, chief of the Bureau of Organized Crime. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Minutes after holding a news conferenceThursdayduring which Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson offered up a public shaming of Facebook for not assisting a year-long investigation into “secret” pages that act as virtual flea markets for guns and drugs, the phone rang in the superintendent’s office.

It was folks from Facebook. Perhaps they saw the news conference; it was streamed live on Facebook.

Johnson’s parting words to the cameras were: “Facebook has a responsibility to the people that they serve to ensure that these types of things don’t go on, and quite frankly, they haven’t been very friendly to law enforcement to prevent these things, so maybe with you all’s help, they will become that.”

The phone call resulted in a commitment to hold a “high-level” meeting between the Chicago Police Department and Facebook shortly after the New Year, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.

The investigation, which began in February after a tip from a criminal informant and resulted in 50 arrests over the last few days — including a Chicago Public School gym teacher — could have been much quicker with the assistance of Facebook, Guglielmi said.

“It’s ridiculous it’s taken this long,” he said.

In a puzzling response, Facebook spokeswoman Sarah Pollack, reachedThursday, said the company just learned of the situation.

Chicago Police released this photo of one of the ads posted on Facebook.

Chicago Police released this photo of one of the ads posted on Facebook.

“We are investigating this report now as it is the first time we have been alerted to it,” Pollack said in an emailed statement. “We do not allow the sale of guns or drugs on our platform. We routinely work with law enforcement and outline how officials may submit a request on our site.”

Asked about the discrepancy, Guglielmi, via text message, saidThursdaynight: “Without getting too much into tactics on how we conducted the operation, I’ll just say we greatly appreciated Facebook reaching out and look forward to collaborating better to target illegal activity.”

Anthony Riccio, chief of CPD’s Bureau of Organized Crime, said officers using false identities were able to successfully join several of the closed or secret groups that were trafficking in the sale of firearms and narcotics, Riccio said.

More than 17 types of illegal drugs with a combined street value of over $40,000 were purchased by undercover officers who arranged meetings on Facebook.

“Even more troubling was the purchase of 18 illegal firearms,” Riccio said. “Many with serial numbers scratched out, some with magazines capable of holding more than 30 rounds of ammunition, and most fully loaded and ready to use at the time of purchase.”

Daniel Caponigri, a gym teacher at Leland Elementary, faces drug charges after he allegedly used Facebook to arrange three meetings with undercover officers during which he sold them drugs. Caponigri was arrested this week at the school, 512 S. Lavergne Ave. In his backpack, arresting officers found a scale, packaging materials, 100 pills that have yet to be identified and a container holding an unknown white powder, Guglielmi said.

“We are deeply concerned by these allegations, and we have removed the teacher from his position,” a Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman said in an email. Caponigri started at Leland in September and had previously worked at Rudolph Learning Center.

Chicago Public Schools teacher Daniel Caponigri, a gym teacher at George Leland School, was among dozens caught up in a sting of closed Facebook groups that acted as online marketplaces for guns and drugs. | Chicago Police Department photo

Chicago Public Schools teacher Daniel Caponigri, a gym teacher at George Leland School, was among dozens caught up in a sting of closed Facebook groups that acted as online marketplaces for guns and drugs. | Chicago Police Department photo

The Facebook groups operated as a sort of illegal version of Craigslist, with pictures and descriptions of items posted for sale.

Chicago Police released this photo of one of the ads posted on Facebook.

Chicago Police released this photo of one of the ads posted on Facebook.

One recent post offered a “Thanksgiving special” on drugs.

The guns were sold sometimes at triple their original price, he said.Police have warrants for 18 more they are still seeking.

Investigators were caught off guard by the online sales.

“We were kind of surprised,” Riccio said. “We didn’t know the secret groups existed on Facebook.”

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