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Drug runners have troopers on their tails

By ERICA JAHN

Staff writer

On a sunny Friday morning, two Washington State Patrol cruisers sat side by side near an overpass on Interstate 90.

The trooper in one car aimed a radar gun at drivers cresting a hill almost 2,000 meters away. The trooper in the other car tore out of the median after speeders or vehicles missing front plates.

But while they work traffic, these troopers aren’t really traffic cops, per se. They don’t get called out to respond to incidents unless they’re very serious, and they don’t work a beat.

They work on the State Patrol’s Serious Crime Highway Apprehension Team. They’re looking for people with outstanding warrants, dangerous weapons or stolen cars. But mostly they’re looking for people running drugs between Canada and Washington.

Trooper Dick Cooper, a 24-year State Patrol veteran, works with a drug-sniffing dog named Yogi, whom the patrol acquired from the pound.

Trooper Rick Thomas, Cooper’s partner, has been with the patrol 18 years.

Since May 2002, when the team really got rolling, they’ve made 250 drug arrests. Forty-five of those were felonies, State Patrol spokeswoman Monica Hunter said, and they seized four cars, five guns and $20,000 in cash.

They might pull someone over for speeding — all their stops are legitimate traffic infractions, Cooper said, and they never stop certain types of cars or drivers — but while they’re talking with the driver, they’re also looking around the interior of the car, smelling for suspicious odors and checking out the demeanor of the driver.

Just before 10 a.m. on April 4, Cooper pulled over a silver BMW with British Columbia plates for driving 75 miles per hour along the 60 mph stretch of highway. Cooper said B.C. plates are particularly interesting because “B.C. Bud” is a prevalent marijuana crop run from Canada to the United States.

“That’s the hot commodity out here for marijuana users,” he said.

While Cooper can’t tell who might have something illegal hidden in the car, he and his partner enforce all the traffic laws in an effort to come into contact with people who might be running drugs.

After the silver BMW, Cooper pulled over a black BMW with a firefighters association sticker on the back window because the car didn’t have a front plate. The young driver caught Cooper’s attention because he was so uncomfortable, but Cooper let him go with a warning.

“Some people are just really nervous. Most of the time, we’re not the bearers of good news,” he said. “My gut feeling is just that he’s a nervous kid, and I can appreciate that.”

If his instincts lead him to believe someone might have drugs in the car, he’ll ask the person to step out to talk more closely. If he still thinks the person might have something illegal in the car, he’ll have Yogi conduct a sniff search.

He said he’s always polite and courteous, and most people are cooperative. If he’s wrong, he apologizes and sends the driver on his or her way.

“I rarely have a problem with anyone I stop out here,” he said. “We rarely, rarely have any confrontations, because we treat people with respect. You might be going to jail, but we’ll treat you with respect.

“It’s a game. If you play the game and you get caught, well, it’s like the two dudes from Chicago.”

Those two men were the subjects of one of Cooper’s favorite arrests. He stopped the men, who were driving from Washington to Michigan and camping along the way, for speeding. When he got to the window, he had a strong suspicion there was marijuana somewhere in the car.

“We knew it was there because we could smell it,” he said. “It smelled like fresh marijuana. They swore there wasn’t a leaf in the car and asked us to search it. These two dudes were sitting on the guardrail smiling.”

Yogi sniffed around the car and alerted on the trunk. Cooper and Thomas unpacked a trunk load of camping gear and found about 200 grams of pot in two big bags in the speakers.

One of the men told Cooper he’d never seen a narcotics dog as good as Yogi and showed the officers where on the vehicle they normally hid their pot.

“They were two of the nicest guys. They wanted to pet the dog. They said, ‘This would be so much easier if we’d smoked some of it first,’” Cooper said, laughing.

But Cooper isn’t so amused by rolling methamphetamine labs — drivers who carry the chemicals to cook meth in their cars.

“I’ll tell you, that right there will kill my dog,” he said.

The statewide apprehension team was created last April. The program doesn’t receive grants, but it’s not terribly expensive because Cooper and Thomas are regular troopers who work traffic.

They spend most of their time patrolling Interstates 90 and 5, which serve as major corridors for goods and products, including illegal drugs.

The troopers don’t stop semis or tractor trailers, which sometimes are used for drug running, because the State Patrol has a commercial vehicle team versed in all the separate laws regulating semis and tractor trailers.

Busting drug runners is difficult because there’s so much traffic in the area, Cooper said. For the most part, more drugs are run during the day than at night, when it’s easier to blend in with the river of cars.

“If you’ve got 100 pounds of coke in the trunk, you just flow with the traffic,” he said. “At night, you might let it slip up to 70 and you’ll stick out a little more.”

On most days, he and Thomas pick a spot and look for speeders in the onslaught of traffic.

“Hitting the mother lode is like finding a needle in a haystack,” Cooper said, scanning the blur of cars speeding past the median. “This guy could have two pounds of heroin in his trunk. Living in King County, there’s so much traffic. We stop a lot of cars.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn: 925-5565, ejahn@fedwaymirror.com

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