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Searching for Contraband Keeps Authorities on Toes

Crime: At the intersection of two interstate highways, Arkansas patrolmen engage in a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek.

July 15, 2001|BRIAN SKOLOFF | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. — On his hands and knees, Sgt. Scott Fraley crawls over boxes of cherries stacked eight high in a refrigerated trailer.

His partner, Sammy Brown, a private first-class, talks to the driver of the truck.

"You hauling anything illegal? Marijuana . . . cocaine?" Brown asks.

"No, sir!" comes a nervous reply.

Brown looks the man up and down, watching body language, then directs his eyes toward Fraley, who is holding up a ripe, red cherry in his black-gloved hand.

Without a word between them, Fraley and Brown allow the rig to move on.

"You can close it up now," Fraley tells the driver as the officer jumps down out of the trailer. "Drive carefully."

On any given day, 3,000 trucks roll through this Interstate 40 eastbound weigh station, hauling tons of produce, chickens, clothing, and at times, illegal immigrants, drugs, guns and dirty money.

More drugs are seized at this weigh station than any other highway stop in Arkansas. Fraley and Brown, considered among the best of the Arkansas Highway Police, work together to stem the drug flow, one rig at a time.

"These two guys are top-notch," Lt. Joe Upton says. "If I were in a gunfight, I'd want them with me. When we're dealing with the quantity of drugs we find, we're making a lot of enemies. These people will kill you for a joint. That's the kind of people we're dealing with."

America's highways are the veins for the flow of drugs nationwide. Interstate 40, stretching from California to North Carolina, and Interstate 55, which runs from Chicago to New Orleans, cross at West Memphis.

The Drug Interdiction Assistance Program of the U.S. Department of Transportation recorded 113,535 pounds of marijuana, 18,675 pounds of cocaine and $18.5 million in cash seized from commercial vehicles on the nation's highways between September 1998 and August 1999.

Though commercial vehicles were involved in only 6% of highway drug seizures nationally, they carried 60% of the cocaine seized and 39% of the marijuana seized.

In Arkansas, highway police netted the state's largest cocaine seizure on Sept. 18, 2000, at an I-30 weigh station near Hope. Police found 2,500 pounds of cocaine worth an estimated $125 million buried in boxes amid a load of melons. Since 1998, the state's highway police have seized 23,000 pounds of marijuana and 3,100 pounds of cocaine.

In his 9 1/2 years on the job, Fraley has seized 15,000 pounds of marijuana and more than 400 pounds of cocaine. The guns, money and illegal immigrants are too numerous to keep track of.

For the most part, say Fraley and Brown, it's a thankless job. Eight-hour days or nights on the roadside breathing exhaust, climbing in and out and under trucks, reviewing log books, checking tires and brakes, scrutinizing loads and drivers with the skeptical eye of a keen detective.

Much of the work is done without help from a K-9 unit. "They're reliable, but they're not foolproof," Brown says.

"Another potential customer," Upton says as he directs a big rig out of the rolling line of trucks and into a marked slot. "You never know what you're going to find."

Brown and Fraley approach the truck from opposite sides and ask the driver and passenger to step out, questioning each separately about the load they are carrying and where they are coming from.

The key, they say, is to listen for discrepancies and notice any odd behavior.

"The first thing I look for is personal [drug] use," says Fraley. "I look for dilated pupils, fingernails bitten to the quick. We look at the driver's license picture to see if they've lost a lot of weight or [have] a filthy appearance. Maybe they can't stand still. Sometimes you can see that look in their eyes. They've got that 'I'm caught' look."

Most times, they find a legal load and count another monotonous day on the busy highway.

On this day, Fraley, Brown and Upton swap stories from their collective 47 years on the job. They recall each big bust and crazy story like a fond childhood memory, crisp and detailed, each bringing relief or laughter.

Fraley remembers a call he got from the Kentucky State Police, who were doing surveillance on a drug ring in Kentucky. A wiretap picked up talk of Fraley and 2,500 pounds of marijuana he had seized from the gang on I-40 in Arkansas a year before.

Chilling, he says.

Interstate 40 is a major cross-country drug trafficking route. The big drug-runners are smart, Upton says. A lot of times they know who works what station and when. It's a numbers game--everyone gambling with their lives and their freedom for the possible payoff of big money.

"I've got two little girls who wait up for daddy to come home, and they're very aware of the dangers involved," Fraley says.

He could have had his pick of law enforcement jobs, but he chose the highway police for one reason.

"Big trucks, big dope," he says. "That's where all the action is."

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