- Associated Press - Sunday, February 8, 2015

SUMTER, S.C. (AP) - The bellow of big rigs roaring across the pebble-strewn asphalt provides the backdrop for Bryan Rulong’s office each day.

The 9-year Sumter County Sheriff’s Office veteran sits in his squad car parked in the grassy median separating the northbound and southbound lanes of Interstate 95. For the past five years, Rulong has served on the sheriff’s office’s I-95 Interdiction Team, and the thruway’s 13-mile portion of Sumter County has served as his work station.

The officers in his unit attentively watch cars and trucks whiz by with the understanding that the 18-wheelers aren’t the only vehicles hauling big shipments on these roads.

Every day an army of smugglers traffic illegal narcotics and large amounts of cash, using the 1,900-mile artery to ferry their stashed loads through the county, state and region. Drug experts say the I-95 pipeline is notorious for the role it plays in the American drug trade and has been so for decades.

“Even with the Mexican cartel, the 95 corridor is crucial,” said Robert Murphy, assistant special agent in charge for the South Carolina Drug Enforcement Agency. “It’s a lifeline to the East Coast, and you, as a drug trafficker and cartel member, have got to have people in those markets. So we’re going to always see traffic there because if you’re not in those markets, you’re just not making money.”

I-95 is the longest north-south-running interstate in the United States, serving as the main expressway for the eastern portion of the nation. The route squirms through Washington, D.C., and 15 other states, running parallel to the Atlantic seaboard from its southern endpoint in downtown Miami all the way up to the Canadian border in Maine.

I-95 has a long history in the drug trade, earning its reputation the 1980s and ‘90s as one of the major channels smugglers used to ship cocaine from the ports of the Florida Keys up to New York City and other northeast metropolises. The infamous route became known in the drug world as “Cocaine Alley” because it provided a straight corridor for the runs. During that time, South Carolina’s portion of the interstate was termed “Cocaine Lane.”

Activity along I-95 drastically went down at the turn of the century as kingpins in the Caribbean islands reduced the number of shipments they sent into the U.S., federal authorities said. That opened the door for Mexican drug cartels, which began flooding the States through entry points in California and along the Texas border.

Murphy said activity along I-95 has picked up again in the past two years because cartels started diverting their infiltration efforts away from the heavily guarded Texas borders back over to the Miami ports. Added onto that, he said, is that some of the corridors in the Caribbean drug trade are reviving and sending their drugs in through Puerto Rico and Miami.

Authorities note marijuana and cocaine are mainstays on the thoroughfare. But federal drug officers said heroin is the most-wanted drug in the Northeast right now, and all agreed they’ve seen a recent influx of the drug on their roads.

“Heroin’s a huge market,” Rulong said. “As a matter of fact, some of it is making its rounds in Sumter. We’re starting to see a whole lot more of it.”

Sumter County’s drug interdiction unit is one of hundreds of local law enforcement teams that patrol I-95 for drug activity. Authorities say they can only stop cars that are violating traffic laws but indicated they are more on the lookout for suspicious behavior.

The unit nabbed a 29-year-old Florida man driving through the county with 508 grams of marijuana and an apparent pot plant growing in his trunk recently. The man was speeding slightly. But officers took notice of him because his windows were rolled down and it was 30 degrees outside.

Rulong said he and his fellow officers are on the lookout for small indicators like that, which are red flags for who the smugglers might be. Among other signs are extreme shifts in driving behavior once motorists notice the presence of law enforcement, having four or five cellphones in a car or excessive air fresheners present, a tactic drug mules use to cover the scent of drugs. Rulong said officers also use simple tactics to determine who might be lying to them by just reading the people they encounter. Signs such as heavy breathing, twitching in stomach muscles, sweating, evading questions and refusal to make eye contact with the officer also provide clues and serve as indicators.

“It is unreal the body language people are throwing out there because they don’t realize they’re doing it,” he said.

Those honed instincts often pay off, as Sumter County’s interdiction team has seen its share of heavyweight busts. Last March, the unit stopped a Florida man transporting more than $100,000 from New York. In August, unit commander Jason Tassone, the last remaining member of the founding interdiction team, was recognized as the officer who seized the largest amount of Ecstasy in 2013, a year that saw him intercede in more than 7,200 units of the drug being shipped.

Rulong remembers stopping three men heading to Florida in March 2013 and finding six weapons, including an assault rifle, in their vehicle. It turned out the men had planned to rob dealers for a large amount of cocaine and kill them. On another occasion, he and his team seized a bag with 2,500 bundles of heroin. The heroin proved to be so potent that anybody who would’ve injected it would have died.

“That’s very satisfying, especially when we’re able to get it prior to it getting into the streets,” he said. “You don’t know how many lives we can save with it. It can be many lives. … It’s never ending. Supply and demand. There will always be a demand for it, so they will never stop doing this. But it’s satisfying, it really is.”

While I-95 may be one of the most popular interstates in the nation, drug officers say thruways stemming out of Atlanta are some of the busiest. According to Murphy, Atlanta has become a main hub in the nationwide network of drug trafficking because it is centrally located and so many interstates emerge from the city.

Lee County sits about 260 miles east of Atlanta and is a four-hour drive along Interstate 20 away. The county comprises 26 of the 1,500 miles that make up I-20, a thoroughfare that runs through six states below the Mason-Dixon line, extending from west Texas through Atlanta and ending in Florence.

Lee County Sheriff Daniel Simon said his unit has seen heroin, cocaine, marijuana and other drugs on I-20. He noted many drug smugglers use the secondary routes, such as U.S. 15 and 401, which run near I-20, to cut across the county and catch I-95 undetected on their way to Miami. According to Lee County authorities, Columbia is becoming a major staging area for the drug trade here in South Carolina because it leads directly to Charlotte from Atlanta.

“Atlanta is the hub of the Southeast. But Columbia, now, is going to be the next new hot spot,” Simon said. “A lot of it’s commuted from Atlanta to Columbia. So once again, you’ve got the I-20 connection.”

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Information from: The Sumter Item, https://www.theitem.com


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