How drugs get into town: by land, sea and air

Posted: Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Coke has come to town on commercial airliners, heroin has come in the mail, and meth has been made right here in Juneau.

When it comes to drugs, Juneau is a pretty accessible town. Barge lines and transport companies bring tons of legitimate goods and supplies to town, the Postal Service and package services deliver millions of letters and parcels, and the airlines and ferries bring in thousands of people.

Add fishing boats, private boats and planes and an enormous visitor industry and it's obvious that a few ounces - or pounds - of illicit substances can slip in undetected.

Editor's note: This is the third in a three-day series that looks at drug trends in the capital city.

Sunday: IV drugs

Monday: The new problem drugs - Meth and OxyContin

Tuesday: Kids and drugs

In the summer of 2001, a suspicious package came to Juneau through the U.S. mail. An investigation led to the search of a Mendenhall Valley home that turned up about 20 grams of heroin, 45 grams of cocaine and about $3,500 in cash. Two people were charged with drug crimes.

The post office is in the business of moving mail, not busting smugglers who mail drugs, said Juneau Postmaster Kent Eriksen. That falls primarily to the Postal Inspection Service.

"We basically just deliver the mail as addressed," Eriksen said. "The post office stays out of the loop on that. The local postal workers do not get involved. They (the Postal Inspection Service) keep us out of it specifically. They track and handle those things themselves."

The Juneau post office handles mail from all over the country, and much of the mail destined for Southeast Alaska comes through Juneau.

The inspection service deals with smuggling, scams or fraud using the mail, mail theft, burglaries in post offices - any crime that relates to the U.S. mail. The inspection service also monitors postal workers, but doesn't have a branch in Juneau. The Anchorage office and occasionally the Seattle office deal with issues in Juneau.

Postal Inspector Adam Behnen of the Anchorage office said mail is constitutionally protected from search and seizure, just as a home is, and drug dogs legally cannot check mail unless there is probable cause. Often that comes because local authorities have received a tip through informants that drugs are being mailed, or because police or federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents have followed strong leads. The inspection service is alert for warning signs that may draw attention to a suspicious package.

"Any search of the mail is based on probable cause, and we need a search warrant from a federal judge," Behnen said. "Based upon criminal intelligence, a parcel may be suspicious, then it will be checked by dogs, but that's not legal on a routine basis."

With a search warrant, inspectors can open a package. A large quantity of drugs will lead to an arrest. The criminal justice system often chooses not to prosecute when a small amount is found, Behnen said, and the drugs simply are confiscated.

"We do make numerous arrests every year," he said. "Alcohol is a major component of the cases and we work with the troopers."

Some rural Alaska villages ban alcohol.

"So many of the crimes in the Bush - rapes, assaults - are related to alcohol. It's real important to us to keep it out of the dry villages. The cost of crime is so great that keeping it out saves the state money."

Behnen said his office periodically focuses on Juneau. Agents travel and work here and in surrounding area post offices.

"We have no jurisdiction over FedEx or UPS, and large amounts of drugs can come in that way," he said. "If they sense there's some drugs, like marijuana - a lot of times you can smell it - then they work with the local authorities."

Calls to Federal Express were not returned.

"Any route people travel is a route for contraband," said Tim Birt of the Alaska State Troopers.

Birt said the convenience and speed of air travel makes it a preferred mode.

"The majority (of cocaine) is coming in commercial airlines; however, there's certainly a portion that comes up on marine highway," Birt said.

Jack Walsh, a spokesman for Alaska Airlines, said the airline is in the business of moving people safely and efficiently. Policing laws is the responsibility of government agencies such as the Transportation Safety Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The airline does not use drug dogs or search luggage.

"Scanning luggage is in the hands of the TSA," Walsh said.

Kathy Mathews of the TSA in Juneau said she could not comment without approval from Washington, D.C., which did not come.

The DEA recently upgraded its Anchorage office and plans to open a Juneau branch with a couple of agents in the next four or five years.

Zoran Yankovich of the DEA in Anchorage said Seattle tends to serve as a hub for drugs smuggled into Juneau and Southeast Alaska, and Anchorage is the hub for the rest of the state.

"Juneau has its own pipeline, whether it's the ferry or couriers on commercial aircraft," he said. "Juneau can serve as a hub for the (Southeast) region."

Haines Police Chief Greg Goodman said drugs in Haines often come through Juneau. Two Juneau residents about to board a ferry were arrested in Haines in July 2000 for dealing marijuana and cocaine there. Goodman said they were part of a larger operation.

"Things tend to come out of Juneau. They come in there and are dispersed from there," he said. "That holds true for most of northern Southeast, and for southern Southeast it's Ketchikan."

Marijuana moves both ways. Goodman said pot often comes from Canada, sometimes in cars but often carried by hikers who simply walk through the wilderness.

"We have a fairly porous border," Goodman said.

Goodman said powder drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, tend to come into Haines through the U.S. mail in small, unobtrusive quantities.

Goodman added that the most problematic drug in Haines is widely accepted and legal.

"Alcohol is a participant in most assaults, sexual assaults and domestic violence incidents," he said. "It's frustrating to me that people can be slaughtered on our highways in alcohol-related accidents and there's no public outcry."

Well-organized drug-smuggling operations have been busted in Anchorage, and a multimillion-dollar operation that brought hundreds of pounds of cocaine into Alaska was shut down two weeks ago. Juneau does not see that kind of organized drug trade.

"There's not organized dealers here, it's very sporadic," said drug counselor Matt Felix. "We're lucky that way. It's not like Anchorage."

Felix has followed drug trends in Juneau and Alaska for 25 years. He's seen no evidence of an organized drug ring providing Juneau with a steady and abundant supply. Instead, there are a lot of people who sell and keep some for themselves.

Felix said he thinks one reason for this is that Juneau is a small, tightly knit community, and police are vigilant. People are talkative and it doesn't take long before a dealer moving drugs in quantity comes to the attention of the authorities.

That keeps the drug trade at a relatively low level.

"There's not a cartel in Juneau," said Steve Hernandez of the Juneau Police. Hernandez is part of SEANET, the Southeast Alaska Narcotics Enforcement Team. "There are opportunistic individuals who see an opening in the market and try to exploit it. Consumer demand for this stuff is high."

Police don't see evidence of drug money-laundering operations, but they do find dealers networking with middlemen and keeping track of who owes what. Hernandez said drugs often are fronted - given to the dealer, who then pays after he or she sells the drugs.

"The majority of dealers are users - I don't want to call them business people, but they are dealing into the thousands of dollars daily," Hernandez said. "Even pot dealers here are dealing in the thousands."

Community involvement plays a key role in keeping drugs out of Juneau, Hernandez said. Anonymous tips are helpful, but callers who identify themselves are worth 20 anonymous tips, he said. Any information is appreciated and can be reported to the police drug unit at 586-0641. Someone who will go on record as witnessing a drug deal or spotting a marijuana-growing operation is more likely to lead to a judge granting a search warrant.

A drug investigation is like putting together a puzzle, with pieces falling into place as a case is made. Police follow tips that individually may not mean a lot, but they add up.

"When you look at the big picture, a lot of folks who were dealing are not in town anymore," he said. "There's a slew of individuals currently in jail."

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.



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