As opioid problem deepens, Chicago imports new top drug officer

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- With opioid deaths soaring in the Midwest and billion-dollar drug cartels staking claim on the city as a distribution hub, Brian McKnight has his work cut out for him.

McKnight, 55, has just been appointed special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration field office in Chicago, the I-Team has learned.

As the highest ranking federal drug officer in town, McKnight will oversee a small army of more than 800 field agents, specialists, technicians and support staff in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.

He takes over a storied agency office in Chicago, that is considered a major import point for heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana peddled by Mexican cartels.

The DEA Chicago office teams with Chicago police on the grim opioid epidemic, that in Cook County has seen a recent, nine-fold increase in overdose deaths.

Part of McKnight's purview is the DEA's North Central drug laboratory, operating from a top-secret downtown Chicago location. During an I-Team inspection of the lab, DEA scientists were analyzing recent street seizures of illicit opioids to trace where the drugs were manufactured and whether the contents could be deadly for users even in small amounts.

McKnight, whose official first day on the job is Monday, comes from DEA headquarters in Washington, D.C. where he was chief inspector in the Office of Professional Responsibility-and oversaw agency employee misconduct investigations.

Prior to that McKnight was assistant special agent in charge of the Miami Field Division-long considered the front line of America's infamous "War on Drugs."

A special focus of his long career at DEA has been transnational criminal groups and international financial crimes. He has previously supervised global anti-money laundering cases for the DEA and was responsible for the development of several international undercover money laundering investigations.

McKnight succeeds Dennis Wichern at DEA-Chicago. Wichern recently retired, after overseeing the office during the tumult of Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. As leader of the ruthless Sinaloa Cartel, El Chapo was responsible for 80% of the illegal drugs consumed in metro Chicago, according to federal agents. The kingpin was facing indictments in Chicago and several other U.S. cities when he was arrested at a seaside resort in Mexico during a military assault in January, 2016. To the dismay of federal drug enforcement officials in Chicago, the Justice Department decided to take El Chapo to New York and prosecute him on the charges he faced there.
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