The driver was a 73-year-old from Provo, Utah, with a handicapped license plate and an oxygen tank in his pickup.

In the bed, under a tarp, Illinois State Police found 750 pounds of marijuana.

For most drivers on Interstate 80, it’s hard to spot a vehicle hauling large quantities of illegal drugs, but Illinois State Police troopers have a knack for catching smugglers.

In recent years, more illegal drugs have been seized on Interstate 80 in Henry County, Ill., than anywhere else on the

461-mile stretch from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Chicago. The interstate is a major thoroughfare for narcotics being shipped east from the West Coast.

Troopers have pulled bags of cocaine, marijuana, heroin, Ecstasy, methamphetamine and other drugs out of cars, semis and motor homes. They find it hidden in gas tanks,

air filters, tires and various compartments.

In the past four years, troopers with Illinois State Police District 7 based in East Moline have made 167 arrests on the 30 miles of I-80 in Henry County. They also patrol the five miles of I-80 in Rock Island County.

With the exception of Pottawattamie County in western Iowa, which had a large number of arrests and seizures last year, no other stretch of I-80 in Iowa or Illinois has seen nearly as many drug seizures.

District 7 Commander Jeffrey Patterson said it is not unusual for police patrolling major entry points to a state to specialize in interdiction. District 11 near St. Louis, which patrols Interstate 70, also makes a lot of drug seizures.

Most of the interstate in Henry County also lies east of its interchange with Interstates 74 and 280, making it a good location to catch the occasional smuggler who takes a different route, police said.

Veterans teach rookies

Patterson said the district has developed a reputation for catching drug traffickers by having experienced troopers who help teach their new colleagues how to find narcotics.

“Years ago, they were trained to look beyond the initial stop,” he said of the veterans. “Over the years, they just got better and better at it.”

Troopers wanting to learn about drug seizures regularly quiz their peers, the commander said.

“I think it’s like being around a 20-year homicide agent,” Patterson said. “It’s like with DUIs, certain guys are very good. They’ll ask how are you getting so many DUIs.”

Patterson has extensive experience with narcotics interdiction, including several years as a local agent with the Quad-City Metropolitan Enforcement Group, or MEG, which investigates drug cases on both sides of the river. His background was a factor when he was appointed commander of District 7 last fall.

“People in the (Illinois) state police know this is probably the leading district in interdiction,” he said.

The state police aren’t the only ones who notice.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Lang, whose office prosecutes many of the cases, described the troopers’ work as exceptional and credited them with a strong knowledge of the law, which makes the cases easier to prosecute and the rulings difficult to appeal.

“These troopers are good at taking routine stops and investigating further,” he said, adding the courts rarely throw out evidence found by the troopers.

Chris Endress, director of MEG, said the average officer on a routine traffic stop isn’t always going to find the drugs.

“You put the guys out there that have an interest in looking for narcotics,” he said. “You have to have the want to take a traffic stop to the next step. A lot of it is reading a person’s body language, a feel of this isn’t normal.”

MEG investigates many local drug cases and conducts some of its own interdiction operations on the interstate. The group consists of local police officers who are assigned to MEG by their home departments. Endress is with the Illinois State Police.

Endress said state troopers — like most officers — have specialities and for some that is narcotics work. Experienced troopers know how the cars are built and how to find natural spaces where drugs are stashed. They usually do so without the help of a drug dog, but in some cases, a dog is used to give them probable cause to search a vehicle.

“We teach our guys to search for the trap, don’t search for the drugs,” said Bettendorf Police Sgt. Kent Keeshan, deputy director of MEG.

MEG conducts its own operations, usually in Scott County. Agents have “consensual encounters” with drivers along I-80 in which they approach drivers who are already stopped at a gas station or other location and ask them questions. In some cases, those encounters will lead to a consensual search and drug seizure.

“People act a certain way when they’ve got 5,000 pounds of dope in their trunk,” Endress said. “They don’t act like you and me do. That’s just human nature.”

District 7, which has 41 troopers, doesn’t have anyone strictly dedicated to seizing drugs, Patterson said. The same troopers who catch the cocaine smugglers are responsible for general traffic safety as well. Most troopers are motivated by the thrill and pride that comes with discovering a large narcotics shipment.

“It’s the adrenaline that really goes up,” Patterson said. “You’re excited. They feel like they’re making a difference. I tell them every time they write somebody a ticket or have a conversation with someone about the dangers of their traffic habits, they make a difference.”

George Taseff, a public defender in U.S. District Court, Central District of Illinois, represents many of the drug traffickers. He credits law enforcement with doing a good job of finding smugglers but notes that he has heard that for every arrest they make, 10 to 20 times more get through.

“I leave it to the criminal justice people as to whether this is a good law enforcement policy for state police,” he said. “The results they’re getting speak for themselves, whether they’re making a dent or not, I don’t know.”

County reputation

Those who are distributing the drugs don’t seem to make efforts to dodge Henry County, Taseff said, adding the drivers usually don’t know about the county’s reputation.

“You would think with the billions of drivers being sent here, you would think the people responsible for this would be shrewd enough to know,” he said.

Eugene Stockton, a public defender in Henry County, agreed that most traffickers don’t know about the county’s reputation.

Stockton wasn’t surprised to learn more arrests occur there than in any other county along I-80 from Chicago to the Nebraska border. He’s represented drug traffickers in circuit court but doesn’t know why more arrests occur there.

Lang said he often consults with Henry County State’s Attorney Terry Patton on cases to decide where they’ll be prosecuted. If the investigation may cover more than one state, the federal authorities are more likely to get involved. Both offices prosecute several I-80 drug seizure cases each year.

Lang thinks drug seizures here and elsewhere around the country do have positive results. Authorities note that many drugs shipped to Chicago are redistributed to the Quad-Cities.

“It has a significant impact on the availability of drugs to our kids and others that are vulnerable,” he said.

Dustin Lemmon can be contacted at (563) 383-2493 or dlemmon@qctimes.com.

Interstate drug smugglers from all walks of lifeFor many drug smugglers traveling Interstate 80, the promise of easy money is worth the risk of going to prison for a decade or more.

Law enforcement personnel and defense attorneys disagree on how innocent the drivers’ intentions are but agree they represent many different levels of society and aren’t restricted to a specific age, race or gender.

George Taseff, a public defender in U.S. District Court, Central District of Illinois, has been defending drivers in drug seizure cases on Interstate 80 since the 1980s when he was in private practice. While some are just out for quick cash, the majority are poor and desperate, he said.

“It’s sad that somebody would be inclined to do something so high risk for a mere $2,500 round-trip,” he said. “My experience is there is no typical drug trafficker. I’ve had old and young alike from every walk of life.”

Although not all of the cases he describes stem from drug seizures on Interstate 80, Taseff said he’s defended several interstate smugglers with hard-luck stories, including a Hurricane Katrina victim who acted out of desperation and a teenager getting ready to start college who needed the extra money.

Taseff said some drivers don’t know the drugs are in the vehicle, others are doing it for the first time, and the dealers themselves never deliver the drugs.

Local authorities dispute that, however. Sometimes the smugglers, often referred to as mules, own the drugs and many make multiple trips before they’re caught.

Kent Keeshan, deputy director of the Quad-City Metropolitan Enforcement Group, or MEG, agreed with Taseff that many drivers are willing to take the risk for the lure of easy money. On average, carriers are paid $100 per gram of marijuana and $1,000 per gram of cocaine.

“It all depends on what somebody is willing to do,” he said.

The drug cartels realize a certain amount of drugs will be seized by police en route and factor it in to their losses, Keeshan noted.

Jeffrey Patterson, District 7 commander for the Illinois State Police in East Moline, said the drivers are after what they see as a quick payday.

“Everyone wants to risk it,” he said. “It’s like going to Las Vegas. The problem is, you face a bigger risk.”

MEG Director Chris Endress said Quad-City law enforcement personnel see a lot of drugs coming from the Southwest, from Texas to California. The traffickers often come up through northbound routes and hit I-80 to drive east.

Many drugs are going to Chicago, but police also have stopped traffickers heading to the East Coast and other cities such as Rockford, Ill., Detroit and Milwaukee.

Taseff said it’s rare the investigations lead to the actual source of the drugs or the destination, although one recent case in which he’s involved did. A 19-year-old was stopped in Henry County and agreed to continue his cocaine delivery to Chicago under surveillance. Four people were arrested there and large quantities of cocaine and cash were seized, Taseff said.

“Unfortunately, that rarely happens that they’re able to make a controlled delivery and nab people on the distribution end,” he said. “If you do the crime, you do the time, but the clients I represent are not the ‘Miami Vice’ big-time drug dealers.”

Prosecutors and police disagree.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Lang said his office has seen recent local I-80 drug seizures lead to further arrests in Michigan and Ohio.

“They may be prosecuted elsewhere, but it starts here,” he said.

Whenever there is a drug seizure on the interstate, MEG and other local investigators try to connect the case to its destination and origin. Some will cooperate while others refuse. MEG officials said some drivers stay quiet out of fear drug dealers will harm their families back home.

Patterson said in the past troopers didn’t try to find out where the drugs originated or where they were headed. In recent years, that has changed. The Illinois State Police now have agents flying around the country, following up on cases, he said.

The drugs state police see most often on the interstate are cocaine from Mexico and South America, marijuana from the West Coast, Mexico and Canada, and Ecstasy, Patterson said. They also have seen more methamphetamine from Mexico now that stricter state laws make it more difficult for local meth producers to get the ingredients they need. Once the case is prosecuted, the drugs are destroyed in a controlled setting.

Patterson said Chicago may be the most common destination for drugs, but from there, they can be distributed to the Quad-Cities.

Henry County Public Defender Eugene Stockton doesn’t think police use racial profiling but said someone who is Hispanic and has license plates from a Southwestern state stands a better chance of getting stopped.

“That’s been my experience,” he said. “I don’t think that is predominately the case. I think those people get looked at closer.”

Stockton said the majority have no prior criminal record and are surprised by the lengthy sentences they face, some of which exceed 10 years.

Taseff said even if police use racial profiling, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed it. He said the court has found that as long as the officer has an objective basis for the stop within the motor vehicle code, his motive is immaterial.

Taseff said courts have ruled the charges can stand even when police stop drivers for minor traffic offenses. He’s had clients stopped for having a taillight out, driving 5 mph over the limit and crossing the center line without signaling when there is no traffic around.

In many cases, the driver will agree to a search, even signing the consent form. In cases where the driver argues he didn’t know the drugs were there, Taseff will use that consent as evidence of their innocence.

“A lot of these guys will say they didn’t even know it was in the vehicle,” Keeshan said.

In 2007, MEG had 139 “consensual encounters” on the interstate, in which they meet people at various stopping points, such as gas stations, and made 29 arrests. The individuals they arrested were a diverse group with four white males, three black males, seven Hispanic males, three white females, 10 Hispanic females and two juveniles.

In the early 1990s, most suspects were male Hispanics, Patterson noted, but over time the drug dealers changed their approach, hoping to get more shipments through. Although the question of profiling often comes up, troopers rarely can afford to follow stereotypes when looking for drug traffickers, he said.

“The people I see arrested are a wide range,” he said. “They’re across the board.”

Patterson pointed to three arrests in 2006 to prove his point. One involved a 73-year-old with handicapped license plates who was caught with 750 pounds of marijuana in the bed of his pickup. Another involved two white men and a white female, all in their 50s, who were caught with 700 pounds of marijuana in a GMC Yukon. The last involved a man in his early 40s with two children at home and a military background, who was hauling 20 pounds of marijuana and a large amount of cash.

Many police agencies, including the Illinois State Police, also have checks in place to ensure they’re not profiling. When a trooper makes a stop, they must identify the race of each occupant and their reason for a search, Patterson said, adding those statistics are then reviewed. If a particular race and gender keeps showing up in a trooper’s stops, it will raise questions.

 “The troopers are very good at what they do and abide by the rules,” Lang said.

Traffickers also try to travel when they think police are least likely to look for them. They travel all year and at any time of day. One recent bust occurred the day of the Super Bowl.

“They’re trying to do it when they think we’re not paying attention,” Patterson said, “like Super Bowl Sunday or Thanksgiving Day when they think we won’t be out there.”

— Dustin Lemmon