Whether ordinary people recognize it or not, the stretch of interstate across Bryan County is one of the most utilized paths for drug trafficking in the United States.
One group that is very much aware of this fact is the traffic unit of the Bryan County Sheriff’s Department.
Although many of their days are filled with simply issuing traffic citations for speeding and unsafe driving, many of those stops turn into seizures of often large amounts of narcotics, drug money or both.
"We could write a book on all the stories we could tell in this unit," said unit member Cpl. John Meacham.
Unit member Deputy Mark Crowe estimates that, in the last decade, the unit has seized approximately $10 million in drug money and about that same street dollar value in narcotics.
Bryan County Sheriff Clyde Smith pointed out the money seized by the unit directly affects the tax-paying citizens of Bryan County. He said the department gets to keep a percentage of the money, which in turn goes toward purchasing vehicles and a variety of other necessary equipment. Without the confiscated funds, these purchases would have to come out of the pockets of tax payers, Smith said.
As unit leader Lt David Blige, who has been with the unit since 1997, drove northbound on I-95, he pointed out the locations of numerous past busts.
"We cleaned up when I first started in this unit," Blige said. "We couldn’t believe the amount of arrests and seizures that we were pulling in."
The volume of busts has decreased some through the years, which can be attributed both to a change of routing in the major drug business and the fact that traffickers have become more sophisticated in concealing their contraband.
"Trafficking hasn’t slowed down, criminals have just gotten smarter," Meacham said. "We’re stilling busting them, but we have to work a little harder."
Deputy Crowe said the majority of the cocaine seized is from Columbian drug cartels. He said the Columbians used to bring their product in through Miami, and this was apparent from the amount of northbound drug seizures and southbound drug money seizures.
"That process got hammered so much that the Columbians contracted out to the Mexicans," Crowe said. "Mexico was already heavy into marijuana trafficking, and is now the middle man for Columbia. It’s brought into the U.S. now through the bordering states such as Texas and California, so the seizures aren’t as plentiful here as they once were. We still get our fair share though."
Crowe said that, once they enter the U.S., the drugs are taken to the Atlanta area and distributed from there as Atlanta is "the main hub for the entire US."
"The Mexicans are in charge of getting it here, and the Columbians are in charge of distributing it," he said.
The Columbians in turn pay large sums of money to locals to transport the money and/or drugs to and from their bases, he said. This is where the BCSD traffic unit comes in – catching as many of these runners as they are able to.
Lt. Blige said there are tell-tale signs during a traffic stop that initiate a search and potential seizure. They range from conflicting stories between driver and passenger during individual questioning, nervousness, and breach of rental agreements for leaving a designated state. More often than not, Blige said vehicles with large trunk space such as Intrepids, Malibus or Impalas are a contributing factor.
So what happens to the drugs after a seizure?
After it is no longer needed for evidence purposes, the DEA seizes all cocaine and large amounts of marijuana. For the remainder of the marijuana, a court order must be attained to destroy it. It is then burned, according to authorities.
During an interview with the three-man unit, Blige, Crowe and Meacham (Cpl. John Peny left the unit last week when he was promoted to Sergeant) recalled some of their busts on I-95 and I-16:
• In a 2005 traffic stop, Blige seized $1.1 mill in cash from a single vehicle. The money was found in two large bags and a suitcase. Blige noted that, although no drugs were found, the driver had a criminal record for trafficking.
• In 1999, former unit member Cpl. Eddie Bashlor, after initiating a traffic stop on a Ford F150, noticed that the bed of the truck looked suspicious. He and his fellow deputies jump-started the vehicle, which triggered the whole bed of the truck to rise and revealed 47 pounds of marijuana.
• In 1998, Lt. Blige pulled over two men who claimed to be a pastor and a deacon. When he approached the passenger side, the "deacon" hollered "Praise the Lord!" to Blige. "I did just that when I uncovered half a million dollars of drug money in their vehicle," he said. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away."
• In 2003, Crowe initiated a traffic stop and radioed Blige when a vehicle search came up empty. Crowe said he sensed that something wasn’t quite right. Blige, who works on vehicles, slid underneath it and noticed some mechanical alterations. They dropped the gas tank to find that half of the tank was gas while the other half was occupied by 37 bags of marijuana.
• During a traffic stop in 2004, Blige suspected foul play when he popped the trunk of a brand new BMW to find that there was no carpet and no area for a spare tire. He felt around the trunk and noticed that it was still wet from where it was recently painted. He jump started the vehicle and then stood back and watched as a false compartment in the trunk came up. Although there was no contraband in the vehicle, it was seized for being altered.
• Another vehicle alteration seizure occurred in 1997 when Crowe used the same technique to trigger hydraulic pistons installed into the rear bumper that slide out to reveal a 3X4 hidden compartment.
• In the past several years, Deputies Tom Meet and Tony Philip have each made busts where a large amount of cocaine was concealed inside the door panels of vehicles.
• Two months ago, Cpl. John Peny seized 10 kilos of cocaine from the trunk of a Dodge Intrepid.
• Just this past couple of weeks, Blige seized 30 pounds of marijuana, and Crowe seized 6 pounds of marijuana.
"There’s no telling just how many drug runs actually go through here," Blige said. "We just hope that the work we do will play some part in the big picture to eradicating the drug problem in America. I think the message we’re sending is clear. If you mess with drugs, you’re going to jail."