Nearly $1 Million Seized
Criminal Interdiction Unit making record seizures and drug arrests.
Two weeks ago a man claiming to be a used car dealer out of South Carolina insisted he was on his way to buy some cars when he was pulled over, said Sgt. Blake Swicord of the Georgia State Patrol. At least that's how the man explained the $45,000 in cash that he had in his vehicle.
After further investigation, Swicord said, the story just didn't add up. The real story turned out to be, he said, that the man was on his way to buy cocaine.
That same week, another $15,000 was seized from an 18-year-old man who said he earned the cash he had on him in his vehicle while cleaning up restaurant tables. That explanation, said Swicord, didn't add up either.
The $60,000 in seized cash during that week in January from those two incidents was not even close to an anomaly. It was just business as usual for the State Patrol's two-man task force run out of the State Patrol's local office off of Monticello Highway, a two-man team that has been focusing their patrolling efforts on the I-20 area in Morgan County, including the area between the two Madison exits, sometimes seizing large amounts of cash and, other times, large quantities of narcotics.
Swicord and Trooper First Class Ray Malone are part of the Georgia State Patrol's Criminal Interdiction Unit. A unit that represents an active statewide commitment to reduce drug trafficking throughout the state by networking with existing state, federal and local law enforcement agencies and drug enforcement programs.
The seizures of two weeks ago were just one small chapter in a history of their efforts in the county since they set up shop here in 2002, a history that Swicord said is now marked usually by 20 to 30 significant seizures per year, with significant oftentimes meaning much more than just $15,000-$45,000 a pop.
With increases over the years in the amounts of drug trafficking they've seen, now the fruits of their labors are being realized in dollar signs.
For 2007 the numbers were staggering. Just in the Madison area along Interstate 20 alone the pair seized a total of $958,485.74 in monetary impact, which includes street value of narcotics, cash and seized vehicles in related incidents.
Where does the money that these state troopers take in go? Not to the state, but straight to Morgan County.
Under law, drug seizures must stay in law enforcement. They can't go to provide salary increases for officers, but they can pay for technology improvements, policing equipment and vehicles.
County governments can't deduct law enforcement budgets with funds from drug seizures, explained Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley. But these seizures nevertheless pay for law enforcement improvements and, down the road, take some significant tax burden off the taxpayer.
"There is a definite reduction to the cost of the county," said Markley.
The Morgan County Sheriff is the person who gets to allocate the funds from drug seizures. Among those Markley said he's shared drug seizure funds with are the Madison Police Department, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and local branches of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Georgia State Patrol in an effort he said develops law enforcement partnerships.
Markley said he was particularly proud of his partnership with the local Criminal Interdiction Unit of the state patrol, whom he outfitted with two new vehicles and a canine officer about a year ago.
"It's a win-win situation," Markley said of the unit's presence in the county. "The taxpayers of Morgan County don't have to deal with the litigation."
"He doesn't have any civil liability," Swicord said of Markley's Office. "It's a joint effort where the taxpayers of Morgan County are winners."
"Without the backup of the county there's no way we could function," Swicord added.
That's why he said the unit made it a point to establish a relationship with the Sheriff's Office when they started back in 2002. Swicord said their use of the jail and an overall need for cooperation necessitated teamwork, and he said he felt like his team got just that.
"We're going to worry about the back roads of Morgan County and they'll worry about the interstate," said Markley of drug issues. But he emphasized, "Morgan County still does [work] the interstate."
Not only does the Criminal Interdiction Unit deal with drug trafficking, but Swicord said they've dealt with kidnapping, false identification on someone wanted for murder and bank robbers, among other criminal activity. He said that he and his partner have seen high speed pursuits, suicides and resisting arrests.
"We deal with the most volatile criminals on a daily basis," Swicord said. "It's very dangerous, but since we do it all the time we're ready for it."
Drug trafficking has been a different ball game for law enforcement groups charged with policing it since September 11, 2001, explained Swicord. Since federal agencies have been more active with international security, he said, boats and planes are no longer practical modes of transportation for trafficking drugs into the United States. Now, according to Swicord, virtually all the drugs coming into the country are driven into the country from Mexico where there are three major cartels, two of which he said are linked to the majority of the drug trade in the Southeastern United States.
The issue, he said, is a serious one.
"Eighty percent of the world's cocaine is sold in the U.S.," said Swicord. "Eight-five percent comes in from across the border."
Atlanta, he said, is one of the country's major hubs for narcotics.
"Any small town around the Southeast is coming to Atlanta to buy narcotics," he said.
The other frustrating thing for those in law enforcement is that once they figure out the secrets of the traffickers, the traffickers, called "mules" by law enforcement officials, adjust their game plans accordingly.
In recent years, Swicord said, many mules have been using electronic traps built into their vehicles to conceal their narcotics and/or money.
"We were probably the first ones on [Interstate] 20 to come across electronic arms rests," Swicord said. The pair teach other officers around the country how to deal with these types of traps and show them the tools necessary to handle the job.
Swicord and Malone said they came across 11 fabricated compartments just in 2006.
In these compartments, said Swicord, are usually cocaine, currency or meth-amphetamine.
Other drugs the pair confiscates include marijuana and ecstacy, Swicord said. He said that there has been a "huge" rise in the ecstacy market, a drug that is not only found in urban areas and party cultures, but also rural areas.
Mules, Swicord said, can be difficult to identify. Over the years he said he's seen them include whites, elderly drivers and asians, among others. Swicord said they can be anybody that a major dealer finds willing to move products and that the dealer has confidence in to do the job, often for thousands of dollars.
One way they are able to identify a suspicious person as a mule, he said, is to see if their story lines up.
Morgan County's two-man criminal interdiction team is part of a larger state-wide 11-man unit. Five different two-man teams are stationed to patrol interstate areas outside of Atlanta. The 11th person oversees the operations.
In 2007, the state-wide team seized $5,929,031 from traffickers, including 935 kilograms of cocaine and 1,743 kilograms of marijuana, said Swicord. That equals 2,057 pounds of cocaine and more than 3,834 pounds of marijuana.
A sense of the scope of the magnitude of those numbers could be gained by venturing down to the basement of the local state patrol barracks, not that they're in the business of giving tours.
There, there were sights that years of following the Grateful Dead wouldn't even prepare someone for.
In the basement's circa 1937 firing range, once used by target practicing officers, can be seen a collection of some of the Criminal Interdiction Unit's former seizures, carefully secured behind metal bars.
In a basement closet rests some recent seizures which still may be used as evidence.
Among other things, Swicord displayed 40 pounds of marijuana, compacted into large rectangular blocks. All of which, he said, was taken in a single seizure from a man traveling from Dallas to Pennsylvania hiding his valuable possession in a floor trap.
Now the strong-smelling objects are no longer in his possession and he's not the only one.