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Nose

Package Deal

Hunter and Ace are dogs, and, like the Nose, their job is to sniff.

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A


Hunter and Ace are dogs, and, like the Nose, their job is to sniff. Hunter sniffs out drugs for the Baltimore City Police, Ace does the same for the Maryland State Police, and both sometimes lend their noses to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), which counts among its duties impeding narcotics trafficking by seizing packages of illegal drugs and bulk cash shipped through the U.S. mail.

Hunter and Ace have good records working for the USPIS. Of the 301 packages Hunter alerted to between April and June, 286 of them contained drugs and five contained bulk cash, while Ace alerted to 235 packages between November and June, with 172 containing drugs and 41 containing cash, according to court records. Between the two of them, they were right 94 percent of the time—much better than the 80-percent accuracy of a postal-service drug-sniffing dog cited in a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case.

The two dogs’ work on the local front is a small fraction of USPIS’ efforts at drug-package seizures nationwide, which, according the agency’s annual reports, has been growing increasingly fruitful. Between 2009 and 2012, this work led to an 80 percent increase in arrests—to 2,299 last year—and a more than 300 percent rise in the amount of money seized, to $20.2 million.

But what Hunter and Ace and their ilk do locally has real-life consequences: Drug dealers don’t get their drugs, or their sources don’t get the cash they’re owed. The amounts add up.

To get a sampling of this, the Nose checked out the U.S. District Court docket in Maryland for recent activity involving package seizures and took a peek at 115 of them. The results: From the 115 packages, the USPIS seized 207 pounds of pot, nearly 1.5 kilograms of cocaine, 602 grams of hash, nearly 180 units of prescription drugs (painkiller tablets or strips and anti-anxiety pills), and $137,520 in cash.

The biggest pot packages were two totaling more than 30 pounds sent from San Francisco and Surprise, Ariz., to an address on Cedar Garden Road in Baltimore’s Irvington Park neighborhood. The USPIS opened them in early March, and, as its agents point out in warrants, the intended recipient probably wasn’t the man whose name was on the packages—in this case, “Mark Raymond.” The same goes for the senders listed—“Pamela Ellis” in Surprise and “Treadway Design Inc.” in San Francisco probably weren’t the actual pot suppliers who sent it.

Whoever was actually behind these prospective transactions, though, is likely wondering what became of their drugs, which came in “15 vacuum sealed bags” and “one plastic wrapped bundle,” according to court records.

Probably not missed, though, is the measly five grams of weed in a “plastic baggie” purportedly sent from “Sam Ross” of Lubbock, Texas, to someone at the Microtel Inn in Linthicum Heights using the name “Ryan Fitzpatrick”—indubitably not the Tennessee Titans’ Harvard-educated quarterback of the same name.

The prize for the most elaborate cash-shipping tactics goes to a person listed as “Valerie Williams” in Owings Mills, whose $30,500, bound for “Le Bel Age Women Clothing & Accessories” in San Diego (again, likely not the real names of the parties involved), was concealed in “tissue wrapped masses containing various denominations of US currency” among “various Easter egg items.” Second place goes to the $2,700 hidden between the pages of a book entitled Power Faces of Evil and sent to a purported company called “Christian LLC.”

Two packages sent from a P.O. box in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium to Amy Ravenscroft in Lavale, a town near Cumberland in Western Maryland, hint at the possibility that intelligence USPIS gains from seized packages may be shared with local law enforcers.

Ravenscroft, it turns out, is a real 31-year-old person with prior drug-related Maryland convictions in Baltimore City and Howard County, though the Nose’s attempts to reach her were unsuccessful. On the morning of June 10, court documents show, USPIS agents opened the two packages and seized the contents—synthetic opiates and an anti-anxiety medication. Six days later, in the early afternoon of June 16, a Maryland state trooper pulled Ravenscroft over in the parking lot of the Sheetz convenience store in Cresaptown, also near Cumberland, and charged her with traffic violations and narcotics and paraphernalia possession.

Given Ravenscroft’s criminal history, her next go-round with the authorities may have been simply a matter of time, but the fact that it occurred so shortly after the packages were seized suggests USPIS may have put her on the trooper’s radar.

Out of the 115 seized packages the Nose analyzed, 17 of them—almost 15 percent—were found by the USPIS not to contain any contraband. Presumably, they were all sent on their way to their intended recipients. The Nose caught up with one of them, an Owings Mills jewelry dealer who asked not to be named to protect his personal safety. He said it was the first he’d heard that a package he received had been opened and searched by the USPIS.

“I’ve been in the jewelry business for 40 years, and I’ve been robbed,” the man said, “but this is the first that I’ve heard of someone going through something being sent to me without a reason. If it was opened,” he continued, the package “showed no sign of being opened.”

After talking to the Nose, the man contacted the Los Angeles jeweler that had sent him the package, which he said contained model jewelry, not the real stuff. “He didn’t know anything about it either,” the man said in a follow-up phone message, but the Los Angeles jeweler added that “if the government wants to look for drugs or anything else to help the country out, it’s fine with him.”

That’s a mighty fine attitude—but the Nose thinks it plays right into the law enforcers’ inexorable march toward ever-greater intrusion of privacy. If 15 percent of suspicious packages turn out to contain nothing illegal, or if 6 percent of packages Hunter and Ace alert to turn out to be false positives, well, that’s a lot of mail getting rifled through needlessly.

At the very least, it seems to the Nose that the USPIS should notify innocent senders and recipients that they’ve opened their packages—a step that might set off some complaints here and there, but at least it would be honest and transparent. Then again, if the National Security Agency has been secretly opening Americans’ emails, monitoring our web browsers, and logging our phone activity for years, honesty and transparency are not really hallmarks of law enforcement these days.

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