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Students pay a high price for drug ring arrests

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Check out these courses at go.depaul.edu/snlsummer

Check out these courses at go.depaul.edu/snlsummer

On the afternoon of March 27, Chicago police officers waited on the 2400 block of North Seminary Avenue, within sight of the DePaul Quad, for two DePaul students who were unaware they would soon be busted for illegally dealing Xanax, a drug commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders.  Not long after, a similar scene played out on the street near the Halligan Bar on the corner of Lincoln and Orchard, where Chicago police arrested two more DePaul students.

Now Marc Anthony Randazzo, 21, Chad Yale, 20, Cole Hanusa, 20 and Paul Fontana, 20 are scheduled to face a criminal trial in July, charged with felony manufacturing and delivery of a controlled substance. One of the charges involves selling drugs within 1,000 feet of Lincoln Elementary School on West Kemper Place.

The students, all juniors at the time of their arrests, have already suffered consequences.  Randazzo has been expelled from DePaul, according to his lawyer. The other three students left the university at the end of winter quarter, according to a DePaul spokesperson who would not confirm if any disciplinary sanctions were placed against them because of federal privacy law.

For the students, one of the arresting officers was not a stranger. On March 17, according to police arrest reports, surveillance footage shows the first exchange with the undercover officer, where he bought 30 Xanax pills from two of the men for $140.

The investigation included at least three separate sales by the four men, totaling 104 Xanax pills. According to arrest reports, police recorded serial numbers of the cash before the busts and videotaped the transactions. 

All four students spent a night in jail at the 11th District lock-up on Chicago’s West Side before being released on $10,000 bail.  Court documents show parents and other relatives posted bail for three of the students. Fontana was bailed out by a friend who charged the required 10 percent, or $1,000, on her credit card.

This is the first offense for Yale, Hanusa and Fontana. Randazzo has a previous arrest from October 2015 for cannabis and paraphernalia possession, according to Chicago police records.

A DePaul freshman, who asked to remain anonymous, knows the four and was shocked to hear about the arrests.

“It was surprising,” she said. “They’re all really good guys.”

But the arrests shed a light on the illegal trade of prescription drugs, including Xanax, Ritalin and Adderal, which many students say are easy to get on campus and relatively cheap. 

For example, Xanax pills have a “street” value of $3 to $5 each, according to Chicago pharmacist John Knapp.

Xanax, the brand name for the chemical alprazolam, is part of a larger classification of drugs known as benzodiazepines, or benzos. Xanax falls under the same group as drugs such as Valium and Ativan, often used to treat anxiety and depression. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), these drugs are classified as Schedule IV drugs that pose a low risk for abuse or dependence.

Some students mistakenly believe benzos, like Xanax, are safer than other drugs sold on the street, according to Angela Riley, a research assistant in DePaul’s psychology department.

“I think some individuals also might feel more comfortable taking prescription drugs versus other drugs because they are regulated through the FDA,” Riley said.” But they are using them without a condition…and not considering the very serious consequences of mixing drugs and alcohol.”

New research suggests those consequences are increasingly deadly.

A recent study cited by the Washington Post showed an increase in the legal purchase of benzos by 67 percent between 1996 and 2013. During that same time period, death rates from overdoses increased more than fivefold, from .58 to 3.14 deaths per 100,000.

Jason Leonard, director of the Center for Community Research in DePaul’s psychology department, studies drug use among students and young adults and says students are not considering the bigger picture.

“Illegal drug use has tremendous risks,” Leonard said. “And people in college settings seem to minimize (those risks). So although there are short-term benefits (…) many people don’t realize the long-term downside.”

Students also face legal jeopardy that could leave felony convictions on their records and make it more difficult for them to land jobs. “It’s happening a lot,” said Robert Irusuto, a Schaumburg attorney who represents Randazzo and other young people accused of drug crimes. “Students just don’t think about the serious consequences.”

The official DePaul policy states a zero tolerance for drug use and distribution on campus. 

“Students should be aware that it is unlawful to distribute prescription medication to other students for whom the medication was not prescribed. Use, possession, manufacturing or distribution or drug paraphernalia is also prohibited.”

“A student chooses to use drugs, that is one thing, but selling is worse,” Bob Wachowski, director of DePaul’s public safety department, said. “Selling is exposing other people to danger because you don’t know what you are getting into. It is dangerous.”

Wachowski says his officers refer all campus drug violations to the Chicago Police Department.

In 2015, the most recent reporting year, DePaul documented 39 drug use violation arrests between the Lincoln Park and Loop campuses. That year, the department of public safety referred 26 students for disciplinary action. DePaul officials would not provide any information on how many students were expelled, suspended or otherwise disciplined, citing university policy to protect the privacy of students.

Wachowski emphasized that his department considers marijuana and alcohol, not prescription drugs, as the biggest substance abuse issues on campus. In 2015, U.S. Department of Education records show nearly 900 liquor law referrals for disciplinary action on the Loop and Lincoln Park campuses.

Leonard said the increase in students mixing prescription drugs with alcohol is especially dangerous.

For students seeking help, DePaul offers BASICS, a one-on-one program focusing on alcohol use or abuse, and CHOICES, a group session for students covering either alcohol or marijuana use. No counseling or educational services are offered strictly surrounding prescription drug use, but students may be referred to outside counselors.

DePaul’s Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist, Kate Lower, works with students seeking help with substance abuse or conduct violations. Lower noted students use “study drugs,” or drugs used as a coping mechanism to handle academic pressures, but she says it is a misconception that these drugs aid in academic success.

Randazzo’s lawyer said all four accused students, who have pleaded not guilty to the charges,  may wind up with plea deals from the Cook County State’s Attorney if they agree to participate in drug rehabilitation programs.

The Illinois drug intervention and education drug program is for individuals who have been convicted of low-level offenses.

To qualify, they must have no prior history of drug dealing, violence or felony convictions.  Upon successful completion, prosecutors drop felony charges and suspects can apply to have the crime expunged from criminal court records.

Another Cook County program for more serious offenses, known as  “410 Probation,” is a two-year suspended sentence requiring the offender stay out of legal trouble and participate in periodic drug tests. A minimum of 30 hours of community service must be completed along with fines or psychiatric treatment. Once this probationary period is completed, the charges can be dismissed and felony convictions expunged.

For the four former DePaul students involved, the consequences are still unfolding. 

Since their arrests, all have been seen around Chicago, including in local bars, according to several DePaul students and social media accounts. 

Randazzo’s attorney says the 21-year-old former student has since left the city to live with his family in suburban Miami.

The DePaul freshman familiar with the four suspects said she has recently talked to one of them.

“I’ve heard from one guy and they seemed to regret their actions because it is affecting all aspects of their lives,” she said.

Indeed, at least for now, their DePaul college careers have abruptly ended and, barring any plea deals, the four are scheduled to re-unite in a Cook County criminal courtroom on July 11.

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Students pay a high price for drug ring arrests