CHICAGO — Shortly after the start of the new year, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office issued a grim declaration: 2022 saw more than 2,000 fatal opioid overdoses — more than any other year in the county’s history.

With opioid fatalities continuing to climb, a legal fight is playing out to decide who will own a single-room occupancy hotel on the West Side that was the site of more than two dozen overdose deaths in the last five years. 

And as the hotel’s current owner defends himself in that breach of contract lawsuit, he also faces a first-degree murder charge in the 2020 shooting death of a 72-year-old man who was granted early release from a federal prison over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic just a week before his death.

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J.R.’s Plaza Hotel, 4507 W. Washington Blvd., has been the site of 29 overdose deaths in the last five years — one of the highest concentrations of opioid-related fatalities at any single site in Cook County, according to data from the medical examiner’s office.

The building’s most recent opioid death was recorded on Nov. 7, 2022. Shortly before noon, a 55-year-old man was found in room 303, dead of an overdose of cocaine and fentanyl. Every fatal overdose at the hotel in the last five years was ruled an accident and traces of fentanyl were found in each of the deceased.

“If someone walked in with drugs, how would we know? I can’t say, ‘Are you high? Do you use drugs?’ That’s discrimination,” the hotel’s owner, Willie Dunmore, told the Chicago Tribune in 2019.

“There are drug addicts everywhere,” he continued. “So if they overdose, they die.”

The opioid crisis is especially severe on the Chicago’s West Side, where gang disputes over drug turf often result in deadly gunfire. Data from the medical examiner’s office show that, since 2017, 20% of all opioid-related deaths in Cook County have occurred in five ZIP codes that cover the West Side. The 60624 ZIP code, where J.R.’s Plaza Hotel is located, recorded nearly 600 opioid deaths in the last five years — the most of any ZIP code in the county.

Dunmore, now 82, bought the property in 1997, county records show. He also owns another SRO in East Garfield Park and a used car dealership in South Shore. 

Since late 2004, J.R.’s Plaza Hotel has been cited for nearly 100 violations of the city’s building code, according to city records.

In 1998, the city denied Dunmore’s application for a hotel business license because of his five felony convictions. That denial prompted LeRoy Martin, the former Chicago Police superintendent who was running for Cook County Sheriff at the time, to testify in support of Dunmore to the Mayor’s License Commission, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. 

A representative for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection told WGN Investigates that the hotel’s business license expired in November 2021. Two months earlier, after more than a quarter-century of ownership, Dunmore agreed to sell J.R.’s Plaza Hotel for $2.15 million to a Minnesota-based property management company, according to county court filings.

Willie Dunmore | Chicago police photo

That company, Washington Holdings LLC, alleged in a lawsuit filed last year that Dunmore failed to bring the property into compliance with the city’s SRO Preservation Ordinance after the contract was signed.

“Buyer performed its duties under the Contract and is ready, willing, and able to close but for Seller’s failure to perform,” the lawsuit alleges.

“Seller breached the Contract and failed to perform his duties thereunder by refusing to comply with the SRO Preservation Ordinance, by failing to maintain a valid SRO Business License, and by failing to cure other code and other governmental violations encumbering the property.”

Attorneys for Dunmore filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit last October. They argue that the contract between Dunmore and Washington Holdings “does not identify the Property as a Single-Room Occupancy property or make any reference to a Single-Room Occupancy Ordinance passed in Chicago in 2014.”

Further, Dunmore’s attorneys said, Washington Holdings waited too long before raising concerns over the building’s defects. A county judge will rule on the motion to dismiss during the case’s next hearing in March, according to county court records.

An attorney for Washington Holdings declined to comment on the lawsuit, and attorneys for Dunmore didn’t respond to an inquiry. It’s not clear what Washington Holding’s plans for the property would be, but the city’s SRO Preservation Ordinance states:

“If the owner accepts an offer … then the owner shall include in the purchase and sale agreement a clause whereby the purchaser agrees to maintain the property for a period of not less than 15 years.”

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The September 2021 agreement to sell the property was entered about 13 months after Dunmore was charged with murder in the death of 72-year-old James Kelley, who was fatally shot inside Dunmore’s car dealership just days after he was released from prison.

Kelley was sentenced to nearly 12 years in federal prison in June 2014 after he pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute more than 1,000 grams of heroin, court records show. Kelley said that he started trafficking heroin to Indianapolis to support his gambling addiction.

In June 2020, Kelley’s attorney filed a motion to reduce his sentence, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic was a direct threat to the septuagenarian’s life inside the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

“There is little to be gained by keeping him in custody, where he will not be able to take the simplest measures – such as social distancing – to protect himself from the virus,” Kelley’s attorney wrote. “A prison sentence should not be a possible death sentence, when there is little to no risk to anyone in releasing Mr. Kelley to his home, where he will be able to self-quarantine and have the assistance of family to help protect him from contracting the virus that continues to spread, causing illness and death across the country and throughout the world.”  

On July 29, 2020, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall granted Kelley’s motion and he was released from custody. He was shot and killed a week later.

Cook County prosecutors said Kelley — the half-brother of former Chicago gang enforcer Wallace “Gator” Bradley — had known Dunmore for four decades, and he went to Dunmore’s car dealership on Aug. 6 to “collect an old gambling debt.”

In court filings, Dunmore’s defense attorney, Steve Greenberg, said Kelley had shown up at the dealership and threatened Dunmore several times in the days before the shooting.

As the men argued inside Dunmore’s office, a gun was drawn and a struggle ensued, prosecutors said. Moments later, Kelley was shot in the back and Dunmore called 911. First responders soon arrived and Dunmore was taken into custody.

“While at the hospital, the victim identified the defendant as the person who shot him in a photo array and told detectives that the defendant had shot the victim while the victim was walking out of the office,” Assistant State’s Attorney James Konstantopoulos said during Dunmore’s initial court appearance.

Konstantopoulos also said Kelley identified Dunmore as the shooter before his death, and that Dunmore tested positive for gunshot residue shortly after the shooting. No gun was recovered at the scene, and prosecutors allege that a witness — a friend of Kelley’s who drove him to the dealership — saw Dunmore’s son run out of the dealership “holding his stomach as if holding a gun.”

However, Greenberg wrote, Dunmore’s son was undergoing a procedure at Rush University Medical Center at the time of the shooting.

“Plainly, and clearly, [Dunmore’s son] could not have been the individual who came out of the office with the gun,” Greenberg wrote. “[The witness] is lying.”

Dunmore later posted 10% of his $200,000 bond and was released from the Cook County Jail as the case progresses.