[h2]Man used Oak Forest store and Harvey recording studio as fronts, authorities say[/h2]
Federal authorities say a high-level drug-dealing suspect and reputed gang leader used his Oak Forest shoe store and Harvey recording studio as fronts for his narcotics business, which brought in so much cash that he owned a $188,000 Bentley, two Range Rovers and multiple properties.
But, in a twist, Robert Harper hasn't been charged with any crime. Instead, the Internal Revenue Service has seized his Bentley, more than $200,000 in jewelry and more than $170,000 in cash over the last four years, court records show. This month, the agency moved to take $84,000 and a woman's diamond ring found in a search of one of his homes.
Harper, who lives in a 3,400-square-foot brick home with five bathrooms in St. John, Ind., last year filed for bankruptcy. The case was dismissed after he failed to disclose necessary information about his finances, records show.
Attempts to reach Harper were unsuccessful. His attorney declined to comment.
Representatives of the Chicago offices of the U.S. attorney, IRS and Drug Enforcement Administration said they could not comment on the case.
Authorities began investigating Harper in earnest in 2006 after German authorities found heroin hidden in a honey jar being shipped from Nigeria to Harper's Near North Side condo building, court records show. But Harper was known to police at least 12 years earlier, when a picture of him holding a shotgun in front of a coffee table piled high with cash was entered into evidence in a Missouri drug case against Arthur Eckles, an alleged employee, court records show.
Harper started small, selling crack cocaine he cooked himself in the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex after his mother died, according to an account in court records of his career given by three cooperating witnesses.
But by 2006, Harper had "significant unexplained wealth" that authorities believe came from his cocaine and marijuana operations, according to an IRS agent's affidavit. At one point, he owned a Bentley, two Range Rovers and a 1965 Chevy Impala. Harper was linked to the seizure of $557,000 in South Dakota and, a year later, 132 pounds of marijuana in Oklahoma, records show. Los Angeles police also found him carrying $24,000 at Los Angeles International Airport in 2005, records show.
He was also "directly connected" to the arrest in Utah of a Hazel Crest man in 2005, according to the IRS affidavit. Utah State Police found 20 kilos of cocaine in the engine block of a 1964 Chevy Impala the man was towing, records show.
Harper owned or rented property in Chicago, South Holland, Harvey, Monee and St. John. Authorities said money from a Joliet woman's Section 8 housing voucher was used to pay the rent on the Monee property. And the $2,800-a-month rent on his Near North Side condo was paid by another woman on food stamps and public aid, documents show.
In their searches of his various properties, agents have found guns, a bulletproof vest, a money-counting machine, small amounts of cocaine, tools for growing marijuana and even a book titled "DEA Narcotics Investigator's Manual," records show.
In 2007, Harper opened an Athlete's Foot, 4142 W. 167th St., Oak Forest, running it for about a year before being evicted from the property for failing to pay rent, according to court records. Authorities said the store only appeared to be open for about eight hours a day and few people left with purchases, but Harper claimed sales of more than $11,000 a month.
Harper also claimed annual income of as much as $500,000 from Rilla Rilla Records, his Harvey recording studio, which authorities say also didn't do much business. A producer who used the studio several years ago told the Tribune that it was a popular spot at the time.
Authorities allege that more than just beats may have been recorded in the small brick Rilla Rilla building at 14534 S. Halsted St. They seized evidence of counterfeiting, including copy paper with $100 bills taped to it and other copy paper with holes cut in the size of U.S. currency, records show.
A cooperating witness told authorities that counterfeit money was made at the studio and that Harper sometimes mixed the fake cash with real money when doing drug deals, once paying a California source $200,000 — half of which was fake, records show.
By Steve Schmadeke
August 22, 2010
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