Sniffing out the 18-wheel drug mules

by Harry Rudolfs

MILTON, Ont. – On Sunday Feb. 4, 2007, Ned Kelly (not his real name) was working as chief of security for Truck Town Terminals on the industrial fringes of Milton, Ont. He’d just pulled into the yard when his curiosity was piqued by a strange car and a tractor-trailer parked in a restricted area.

He confronted two men and asked them what they were doing. They told him they had stopped for lunch.

“I smelled a rat,” said Kelly in a recent telephone interview. “For one thing it was 9 o’clock in the morning and too early for lunch. Something about these guys just didn’t feel right.” Kelly noticed footprints in the snow leading to the back of the trailer and could see the trailer had probably been entered.

The truck and car sped off after Kelly told the truck driver he wanted his dispatcher’s number. Kelly gave chase and stopped the tractor on Steeles Ave., not far from Truck Town.

“You’re really pissing me off. Now I want your dispatcher’s number and I want to see your driver’s licence – because I don’t think you’re qualified to drive that thing,” he told the driver.

The truck roared off again and Kelly brought him to a halt a little further down the road. The scenario was repeated a third time when the driver bolted once again. Kelly finally managed to blockade him on the westbound 401 ramp at the James Snow Parkway. By then, an MTO officer, who noticed the disturbance had arrived on the scene followed soon after by a Halton Police cruiser (the man in the other car had long-since disappeared).

Initially, the officers thought this was a dispute between a motorist and a trucker. Neither Kelly nor the officials had any idea that the trailer contained a mother lode of cocaine: 205 kgs packed in bundles and nestled amongst a load of baby carrots.   
Kelly was anxious to get back to work and left the scene before the contraband was discovered. He only found out about the arrest after an officer arrived at the terminal that afternoon to take his statement.

Irony runs thick throughout this story.

“If I had known there was cocaine in the truck I probably wouldn’t have chased it,” Kelly told me (he no longer works at Truck Town). And alleged cocaine transporter Avtar Singh Sandhu clearly picked the wrong time and place to rendezvous with his buddy. It was as though Kelly had stuck a dip net into a big lake and pulled out a huge fish.

The Sandhu bust begs the question of just how much other illicit material is moving around by commercial truck. If a random incident like this uncovers $8 million of coke, how much more is getting through?

“Tonnes,” speculates Sgt. Rob Ruiters, national coordinator of the RCMP’s Project Pipeline/Convoy program. “We’re not even scratching the surface. For every one that we intercept, 50 to 100 get by us.”

Most of the illegal activity in commercial vehicles is centered in heavily trafficked areas. Southern Ontario, particularly Peel Region, is an area of heightened criminal occurrences, as is British Columbia’s lower mainland. But drugs and contraband goods are constantly moving across the country.

Canadian-grown marijuana is travelling from north to south, while cocaine and guns are usually going the other way. Liquor, cigarettes, stolen goods and human cargo are moving both ways across the border as well as east and west. Really there is no limit to the variety of contraband being transported commercially, usually disguised or hidden among other legit cargo. You name an illicit activity and trucks have probably been used to accomplish it.

In some ways trucks are nearly invisible as they travel around the continent. Furthermore, according to Ruiters, most police officers are not always comfortable dealing with them. “There are about a million police officers in the US and Canada. Of that only about 2% are certified to do CVSA inspections, and only about a third of those do so on a regular basis,” Ruiters contends.

This arrangement suits organized crime, as the odds of getting stopped or pulled into an inspection station are exceedingly small.

So what kind of person engages in this kind of trucking? There’s probably no one profile or set of characteristics that would define such a driver. Anyone could be a smuggler or trafficker.

Trucking is a low margin enterprise and these loads pay well. The driver might be motivated by opportunism, financial hardship, coercion or greed, but the stakes are exceedingly high: penalties for getting caught are stiff when they’re delivered by the courts, and probably even stiffer (pun intended) when administered by the mob.

Trucking companies themselves can do much to mitigate this type of behaviour by thoroughly screening new hires.

“The best companies have the best drivers, and those companies are usually the best at proactive diligence,” says Ruiters. “Overall, truck drivers are hard working and honest, but there’s always a small percentage. Anybody can buy a truck and somebody will hire them. Drugs are often transported just like any other legal commodity, and they’ll always find someone to move them.”

Carriers also need to look to their own internal security when it comes to satellite tracking and in-house software. If information is readily available online to a number of company and client representatives, your supply chain is vulnerable to being compromised by anyone from a forklift driver to a schoolyard hacker. This kind of data, which includes detailed load movements, schedules, the type of equipment being used and routing instructions, is fascinating to criminal elements.

Drivers themselves can be unwitting accomplices. Rick Geller of Markel Insurance cites cases where a package has been fastened to the underside of a trailer while the driver stopped for a coffee. The truck is then followed after it leaves Customs and the package is retrieved later.

“Drivers stopping for coffee before they go across the border should do one final inspection, and that includes looking under the trailer,” says Geller.

For the most part, authorities have to rely on tips or random stops to detect criminal transport networks. Ruiters conducts seminars across Canada teaching police officers how to spot “anomalies” when they stop a driver. He won’t disclose specific techniques or strategies, but some clues are obvious.

“Perhaps there’s something that shouldn’t be on the truck, or someone’s working in a way that doesn’t make economic sense, like hauling an empty trailer across the country,” he says.

In Ontario, MTO and police officers can stop a commercial vehicle at any time and conduct a regulatory inspection of the truck and its contents to ascertain compliance with the Highway Traffic Act. The driver must also assist in the examination.
But MTO officers are not charged with dealing with criminal matters. According to Bob Nichols, senior media liaison officer for the Ministry of Transport: “(They) have been trained to contact police for assistance before they continue an inspection.”

This seems to be what happened about 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 4, 2007. But the legal situation grows murky after Halton Region Police officers arrived and entered Sandhu’s trailer. To quote from a TorStar satellite online publication, Inside Halton: “One constable said he decided to go into the vehicle after Sandhu said he’d been ordered at gunpoint to load the trailer. Another officer, a 21-month rookie, said it never occurred to him to get a search warrant before climbing on-board and slicing open bales of cocaine with his knife.”

Anyone following this case would have most likely been appalled when Sandhu walked away from the charges in 2009. In the original judgment, Justice Michael Quigley found that since the stop was regulatory in nature, the evidence was gathered improperly (without a search warrant) and violated Sandhu’s right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

But that decision was recently overruled by Justice Janet Simmons of the Ontario Appeals Court, who overturne
d Sandhu’s acquittal on Feb. 11, 2011. Justice Simmons found that Quigley had not established a “meaningful balancing” of other considerations and “The further fact that exclusion of the evidence would put an end to the prosecution of a very serious charge.”

Canada’s Supreme Court has already ruled in two cases that may set a precedent. Regent Nolet and John Vatsis were stopped by an RCMP officer in Saskatchewan who noticed an expired fuel sticker and found a bag of $115,00 in small bills while looking for logbook sheets.

The suspects were placed under arrest for possessing the proceeds of a crime, and a further search revealed 392 lbs of marijuana hidden in a secret compartment in the cab. In this instance, the search was deemed Charter-compliant because it began as a regulatory matter.

But the Supreme Court found that police stumbled in the case of Bradley Harrison who, along with another man, was pulled over in northern Ontario after an OPP officer noticed that their SUV had no front licence plate. The rental vehicle was registered in Alberta and did not require a front plate, but further investigation revealed that one of the men’s drivers licences had expired, which led to the officer conducting a warrantless search and the discovery of 35 kgs of cocaine in the trunk. The decision delivered by the Supreme Court (with one dissenting judge) deemed that the officer had made “an error in judgment” and allowed Harrison’s Appeal Court acquittal to stand.

The final verdict in the Sandhu matter may end up in the Supreme Court and it’s probably still years down the road. But it will be eagerly awaited by the trucking and law enforcement communities. In 2007 this event ranked among the biggest cocaine seizures in Canada, let alone Halton.

The decision rests upon an interpretation of the Charter of Rights and may perplex the Chief Justices for some time.

If nothing else, it will address the relationship between personal freedoms and overall harm to society, and serve to illustrate the hoops and protocol front line officers face when finding contraband after a traffic stop.

“No two stops are the same,” adds Ruiters. “There’s no way I can tell you when I have the grounds to search someone’s vehicle until it happens. Our biggest problem is that we have to convince the judge and courts of what was our rationale and mindsets when we made the stop? It’s a complex world out there.”

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