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Drug runners have troopers on their tails
By ERICA JAHN
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 arent really traffic cops, per se. They dont get called out to respond to incidents unless theyre very serious, and they dont work a beat.
They work on the State Patrols Serious Crime Highway Apprehension Team. Theyre looking for people with outstanding warrants, dangerous weapons or stolen cars. But mostly theyre 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, Coopers partner, has been with the patrol 18 years.
Since May 2002, when the team really got rolling, theyve 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 theyre talking with the driver, theyre 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.
Thats the hot commodity out here for marijuana users, he said.
While Cooper cant 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 didnt have a front plate. The young driver caught Coopers attention because he was so uncomfortable, but Cooper let him go with a warning.
Some people are just really nervous. Most of the time, were not the bearers of good news, he said. My gut feeling is just that hes a nervous kid, and I can appreciate that.
If his instincts lead him to believe someone might have drugs in the car, hell ask the person to step out to talk more closely. If he still thinks the person might have something illegal in the car, hell have Yogi conduct a sniff search.
He said hes always polite and courteous, and most people are cooperative. If hes 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 well treat you with respect.
Its a game. If you play the game and you get caught, well, its like the two dudes from Chicago.
Those two men were the subjects of one of Coopers 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 wasnt 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 hed 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 wed smoked some of it first, Cooper said, laughing.
But Cooper isnt so amused by rolling methamphetamine labs drivers who carry the chemicals to cook meth in their cars.
Ill tell you, that right there will kill my dog, he said.
The statewide apprehension team was created last April. The program doesnt receive grants, but its 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 dont 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 theres so much traffic in the area, Cooper said. For the most part, more drugs are run during the day than at night, when its easier to blend in with the river of cars.
If youve 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 youll 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, theres so much traffic. We stop a lot of cars.
Staff writer Erica Jahn: 925-5565, firstname.lastname@example.org