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Local officers set up a DRUG DRAGNET along I-29

Aiming to bust drug traffickers rolling through Grand Forks County, officers from local agencies started working together this week to aggressively patrol Interstate 29 -- making routine traffic stops, grilling suspicious motorists and using dogs...


Aiming to bust drug traffickers rolling through Grand Forks County, officers from local agencies started working together this week to aggressively patrol Interstate 29 -- making routine traffic stops, grilling suspicious motorists and using dogs to sniff out narcotics.

"With 99 percent of the people that we do stop, there's no need to be asking probing questions. But then there's other folks you'll stop, and immediately you know right off the bat that something's not right here," said Capt. Kevin Robson, who heads the North Dakota Highway Patrol office in Grand Forks.

Shaky hands, throbbing neck veins, evasive answers and stories that don't add up -- these are some indicators that can suggest criminal activity is afoot, officers say.

Sometimes the signs are more obvious. "You may see something in the car right away such as, you know, drug paraphernalia," Robson said.

Being on the lookout for illegal drugs is not new for the Highway Patrol, but the twist here is that troopers, along with sheriff's deputies and agents from the local narcotics task force, are specifically dedicating time to angling for drug runners. The interagency team plans to patrol the stretch of Interstate 29 near Grand Forks 12 days a month.


Wads of cash

Inspiring local officials are reports from other Midwestern states describing seizures of hundreds of pounds of narcotics and thousands of dollars in drug money.

"There's no reason for us to believe that doesn't happen from time to time in North Dakota, too," Robson said.

The various drugs being shipped on North Dakota's highways -- including marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine -- come from all over, but especially the West Coast, Canada, Mexico, Minneapolis and Chicago. Most shipments are just passing through, but some are destined for North Dakota.

In the case of meth, Maj. Bob Rost of the Sheriff's Department said, officers have seen more of the stimulant coming from outside the state since the Legislature made it tougher to obtain meth ingredients, which led to a drop in area production.

Aside from nabbing drug runners, another impetus for law enforcement agencies is the prospect of seizing stacks of drug money. With seizures handled by the Grand Forks County state's attorney's office, 80 percent of the money goes to the agency that made the bust and 20 percent is put in the county's general fund, State's Attorney Peter Welte said.

Rost made clear that officers targeting drug traffickers still need a legitimate reason to stop drivers, such as speeding, tinted glass or out-of-date registration. Robson said officers are looking for not just drug smuggling, but any sort of crime, ranging from drunken driving to terrorist activity.

In the lead-up to the June primary in the sheriff's race, several candidates, including Rost, discussed cracking down on drug traffickers moving through the area. Rost, who recently approached Robson about starting this effort, said his motivation for doing so is not political as he heads into the Nov. 2 general election.


"It's something that needed to be done a long time ago and hasn't been done," Rost said.


Trooper Anthony DeJean of the Grand Forks district said that when he makes a traffic stop, whether he suspects drug smuggling or not, he asks drivers and passengers questions about their trip, starting with basics like, "Where you coming from? Where you going to?"

When warranted, DeJean separates the occupants of a vehicle and questions them one-on-one. "Obviously if two individuals are traveling together, they should have the same story," he said.

Some traffickers rehearse stories, but if they're being deceitful, DeJean says, "eventually, you're going to find a loophole in that story."

DeJean, who's on the new anti-drug trafficking team, stopped a nondescript sedan last summer on I-29 south of Grand Forks. The three men in the car said they were headed for Devils Lake.

While having individual chats with them, DeJean became suspicious when the driver said he'd known one of the passengers for years, while that passenger said he'd just met the driver.

Ultimately, DeJean seized 4½ pounds of marijuana from the car, finding a brick of the leafy drug wrapped in women's and children's clothing inside a bag.


Rost said drug runners typically have out-of-state license plates and often drive rental vehicles, knowing that if caught, the vehicles could be seized.

While those can be telltales, Robson said, there is no clear-cut profile. "Once you start thinking there's a profile of a drug smuggler, you're missing 90 percent of it," he said.

Ingersoll reports on crime and courts. Reach him at (701) 780-1269; (800) 477-6572, ext. 269; or send e-mail to aingersoll@gfherald.com .

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