In the hardscrabble burb of Schiller Park near O'Hare Airport, you'll find a street with a few two-flats and isolated houses, plenty of space between them. The kind of quiet block where everyone minds their business.
And last week — hard gray sky and snow falling — it looked like a set from a David Lynch movie.
One end of the street runs up hard against a wall framing the Tri-State Tollway. The other leads to a stretch of tall railroad grass and freight tracks. You step out on that block, alone, afraid, there's nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.
And no one who knew much about the brown two-flat in the middle of the block until several police agencies came storming in after an eight-month investigation.
It was a house of prostitutes, authorities said, with at least six young women kept in the basement hooked on heroin and crack cocaine. They were imprisoned and beaten and broken by their dungeon master.
The alleged dungeon master's street name? Shampoo.
"I did see some girls that would come out and they were really cute," said Michael Contreras, a student at East Leyden High School and an aspiring chef.
The women had their work clothes on, boots and shorts. High school boys notice such things.
"But about a week later I'd see them again and I'd be like 'Whoa! What happened to them?' I heard on the news that all they would feed them was heroin and stuff," he said.
The old guy across the street didn't hear anything. And the truck driver, Manny Colon, 40, who lived above it all with his wife and two kids, didn't hear anything either.
It seems no one wanted to provoke Shampoo. That's not his real name. It's Keith Williams. He's 52.
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez on Feb. 1 hit him with two charges carrying serious prison time: Trafficking of persons and involuntary servitude.
Charged along with Williams, the alleged ring-leader, was Roman Kurek, 49, and Sylvia Topolewski, 37. All three lived there together, in that two-flat on the 9800 block of Linn Avenue.
Involuntary servitude is a Class X felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Trafficking in persons brings between four and 15 years in prison.
Topolewski, neighbors said, stayed inside with the girls and allegedly gave them the drugs, prosecutors said, literally on a silver platter. Kurek allegedly was the driver. According to Alvarez, he'd load up a van, drive the women away, and return early in the morning back to the two-flat.
"Roman comes out here in the summertime and barbecues and stuff," said Colon, the tenant and truck driver. "He's always been cool. He cleans up around here and stuff like that. I don't really know him too well. Just hi and bye."
We were out in snow on the backyard deck, his Volvo truck parked on a slab behind us. He showed me the barbecue equipment Shampoo and Roman would use, a smoker and a gas grill.
"Honestly, this is pretty messed up. If all of this is true, it just goes to show you that you really don't know somebody. He (Shampoo) never showed us that side. Me or my wife," Colon said.
Anita Alvarez spent years prosecuting such cases as an assistant. Now, as chief Cook County prosecutor, even when she thinks she can't be surprised, it turns out she's wrong.
"It seems like with every one of these operations we've been looking at, there's something that comes out and you're like 'Oh dear God!'" Alvarez told us last week.
"He would lock these girls in a room, where he would beat them and urinate on them," Alvarez said. "That, I think, shocked everyone. He would urinate on them, leave them for days in a locked room and then they would become dope sick from the drug withdrawal. So we're talking about some really serious physical abuse of these women, and this was done to maintain control over them."
The women didn't turn tricks at the two-flat. That was just the place they were kept. Roman drove them everywhere, Alvarez said. He didn't take his eyes off them.
But how did no one hear a thing?
"I've seen some girls coming in and out, but I thought they were for him," Colon said. "We don't ask questions. We pay our rent every month."
Colon grew up on the Northwest Side and told me he ran with gangs as a young man. He straightened out his life, obtained a truck driver's license and became an owner-operator. He's determined to raise his children in the suburbs. He says he won't ever go back.
"We moved out here about seven years ago for my son," Colon said. "To get away from the gangs and stuff. I don't want him exposed to drugs or any of that nonsense."
So he didn't hear anything, or ask about anything, and neither did the others. You can moralize on it and say what you would do, that you'd be the one to stand and shine a light on things, but their block isn't a street of lawyers and doctors and business owners and columnists.
They're working people holding on. They don't have much influence. And a key survival skill for people of no influence is keeping your mouth shut.
Colon's priority is his wife and children. The Contrerases' priority is their children. The old guy across the street has a family too.
And nobody wanted any trouble. Nobody.