As part of the push to draw newcomers to the village, Forest Park touts its proximity to the city of Chicago as a convenience too tempting to pass up. A photo of the city’s skyscrapers, visible from the eastern edge of town, is offered up as proof on the village’s website of its most pragmatic locale.
But an unwanted side effect of this big city access is the drug use spilling over from Chicago’s West Side that may be tainting the small town charm championed in the municipal slogan. One of the undisputed hotspots for addicts retreating to the far west suburbs after scoring their latest fix is the gas station at 601 S. Harlem Ave.
“The very first suburban exit off the Eisenhower Expressway is Harlem,” Chief Jim Ryan said.
During the first 193 days of 2007, police were at Thornton’s 183 times. At least 116 of those investigations were drug related, according to police records obtained by the Review. Another seven inquiries were of suspected assaults, various thefts and the presence of weapons.
Lewis Santiago is the local manager of Thornton’s, a firm which has some 500 service stations in the Midwest and Connecticut. For two years, Santiago said, he’s watched as police routinely arrest “clean cut” 20-somethings from the far west suburbs who pull into his parking lot to shoot, snort and smoke their drugs. Santiago said this continues despite having installed four surveillance cameras with signs alerting customers that their actions will be recorded. The facility is well lit, he said and there is a near constant police presence.
“What are you going to do?” Santiago said.
According to police, many of the users pulling in and out of the gas station are from as far away as Barrington, Wheaton, Geneva and St. Charles. Once they pull off of Interstate 290, many of the suspects will simply park their car away from the gas pumps and take the drugs in their vehicle. Others prefer the privacy afforded by Thornton’s public restroom, which is not located within the store itself. Patrons must ask for a key to unlock the bathroom that’s on the southern end of the building.
“These are suburban kids,” Ryan said. “They’re not going to sit around on the West Side of Chicago and do their drugs, because it’s not safe.”
Stopping the flow of drugs to Harlem Avenue is a near impossible task, according to police. City authorities spend months, sometimes years building a case against upper-level distributors, meanwhile, for every street corner dealer that’s arrested there are another 20 or 30 willing to step in, Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas said.
The severity of a drug possession charge is dependent upon the quantity a suspect is accused of holding. Many of the users pulling off the highway have “miniscule” amounts, Aftanas said, and charges are sometimes dropped when the case goes to court. Once in a while police will arrest someone who has purchased narcotics for their friends, and the optimistic view is that those arrests help spread the word that Forest Park is not the place to pull over and get high.
But enforcement is something of a double-edged sword, according to Ryan, and police actually risk making their job harder by making too many arrests at Thornton’s. Right now, the gas station serves as a central location around which to target their efforts.
“They’re going to do it someplace,” Ryan said. “If we make the gas station too impossible, they’re going to move it into our residential streets.”
Mayor Anthony Calderone, who three years ago threatened to have the business declared as a nuisance property because of all the drug activity, said he does not necessarily agree with the police chief’s theory. Other communities have been successful in foisting their substance abuse problems onto Forest Park, he said, so perhaps it’s time for this community to push back. Calderone also speculated it may actually be easier to spot suspicious drug activity in otherwise clean neighborhoods.
In the several years since Thornton’s installed additional security measures as a result of discussions with the mayor, Calderone said he no longer receives complaints from area residents about the facility. According to police records, it appears those calls are now being placed with authorities. Of the roughly 116 drug-related inquiries conducted by police, 88 were prompted by calls to the department.
“It’s taxing our police department,” Calderone said. “We’ve got lots of better things to do.”