Kentucky Vehicle Enforcement
Canine Cop - Ben Sniffs out Drug Traffickers
A trucker can make several months' salary hauling a single load of illegal drugs cross-country. And, in Mexico, authorities say whole towns are paid to concoct new ways to conceal these illicit shipments in a semi's load.
Drug-running is a dangerous, but thriving, business that attracts some truckers to the wrong side of the law. But waiting to catch them when they cross through the commonwealth are the wet noses of Kentucky Vehicle Enforcement Department canines, like 7-year-old black Labrador retriever Ben.
With his long, slobbery pink tongue and big, brown eyes, the 72-pound dog hardly appears menacing enough to man the front lines of the drug war. But as one of the five dogs the department uses to sniff out street drugs on semis statewide, Ben is a crime-fighting machine. Only to Ben, it's nothing but play.
"Everybody should love their jobs as much as my dog does. He loves it," says Ben's handler, Kentucky Vehicle Enforcement Officer Sgt. Tony Wilson.
"It's all he wants to do. It's just a game to him."
To drug traffickers and cops, however, it's a deadly serious and lucrative business. Wilson said cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana suppliers will pay about $10,000 to a trucker willing to haul some of their illicit cargo across the country. It's good money, and it may be one reason why the amount of drugs being trucked continues to increase, Wilson said.
But it's also why Kentucky Vehicle Enforcement began using canines on the road 17 years ago. Today, five canine handlers patrol state highways, accompanied by three Labrador retrievers and two Belgian malinois. Although data is still being compiled on the number of drug seizures this year, Wilson said in the first six months of 2007, the five dogs have been dispatched to sniff for drugs on trucks about 650 times.
Wilson attended the U.S. Customs Service Canine Training Center in Virginia and trains all the department's canines according to federal standards. Typically, a canine is called to a truck after the officer who works with the dog stops a semi and detects certain indicators that suggest drugs might be on board. Once a search of the vehicle is authorized, canines like Ben are let loose to perform their scent-seeking services.
In less than three minutes on a recent morning, the energetic hound had run two drug-sniffing laps around a 65-foot semi stopped at the Kenton County weigh station on southbound Interstate 75 near Crittenden. Often, Wilson said the dogs catch a scent on their first rapid run around the vehicle, without ever touching the truck. But if drugs are anywhere on board, Wilson assures that they will be found when the dog takes a second, more thorough go-round.
On that repeat trip, Ben made repeated six-foot leaps into the air to get his sensitive nose closer to the freight compartment, cab and tires. Though that truck was clean, if Ben had detected even a small quantity of cocaine, marijuana, heroin or methamphetamine, he would have announced it to all the world by scratching and biting at the spot where the drug's pungency was seeping through.
And, regardless of how well it's hidden or masked, the drug's odor does seep through, Wilson says.
"Drug couriers have become much more advanced in their attempts to mask odors and in their concealment methods," he said.
"We don't disclose their specific methods, but there are entire communities and places in parts of Mexico where they look for nothing but ways to hide something in trucks. But dogs have scent discrimination, and that's how they are able to find 500 pounds of marijuana in a 50,000-pound load. One of ours found 900 pounds (of drugs) co-mingled in a load of 40,000 pounds of onions."
Because KVE's business is big rigs, its canines have helped haul in some big drug shipments. Last May, one of the canines picked up the scent of what ended up being the single-largest drug seizure in the department's history, when 1,400 pounds of marijuana worth more than $2.8 million was recovered from a truck on Interstate 65. A few months earlier on the same highway in Simpson County, a department canine detected narcotics on board a truck. It ended up being the department's largest cocaine seizure, worth more than $1.5 million on the street.
"It was about (112 pounds) of cocaine," Wilson said.
Those behind the wheels of drug-running trucks hail from all places and backgrounds, too, Wilson said. But, the one thing they all have in common is their motivation.
"Our officers got a U-Haul with 558 pounds of marijuana in it and the two people in the vehicle said they were paid an extra $10,000 for being white males ... by the particular organization they were working for. ... And females are popular ... and you're seeing a lot of older people, too," Wilson said.
"But it's all about the money, and no particular race or sex cares more about money than any other."
Wilson said officers hear a lot of excuses from those caught hauling drugs, who invariably argue they were in dire straits and simply had to have the money. But in Wilson's mind there is no excuse for all the turmoil they're unleashing with their shipments, which not only alter minds, but shatter lives.
In that sense, what Ben does in diverting drugs from the street really does make him man's best friend.
"I believe in this," Wilson said.
"Even with (less lethal drugs like) marijuana you get crimes like robbery, domestic violence and driving under the influence. It's just something that is so dangerous."