Postal investigators target drug trade through U.S. mail

The packages were vaguely addressed to a Mr. Kinchen of Denham Springs, but it was the protruding bulge in one of the overnight parcels that raised suspicions.

After obtaining a search warrant, postal inspectors opened the packages to find vacuum-sealed packs of marijuana and an assortment of narcotics-laced confectionery, shipped cross country by the United States Postal Service.

The packages reached their destination the following day in a “controlled delivery” by law enforcement, and Livingston Parish detectives took Willie Rudd Jr. into custody after he allegedly claimed ownership of the contraband.

Authorities in Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes are increasingly contending with drug dealers using the U.S. mail and private delivery services to send and receive illicit shipments. The drugs, the bulk of which bear a California return address, have been found secreted in plastic wrapping, cereal boxes, cans and even dirty laundry.

“It has increased over the past several months,” said Walt Green, the acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana. “Though, I don’t know what that’s attributable to.”

While mailing narcotics is a federal offense, many local cases are prosecuted in state court because of the relatively small amount of drugs involved. Nationwide, there were 1,760 arrests related to narcotics shipments in fiscal year 2012 — a 33 percent jump from the previous year and more than twice the number reported six years ago, according to U.S. Postal Inspection Service figures.

Drawn by the anonymity and affordability of the mail, dealers calculate that a high percentage of their crop will proceed unmolested among the more than 500 million pieces of mail processed every day. Many of the packages are addressed to fictitious names or businesses and include disconnected phone numbers, which can complicate criminal investigations.

“The trick is figuring out who’s supposed to receive it,” said Chief Deputy Tony Bacala of the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, whose deputies arrested a St. Amant man in June after he accepted a package containing marijuana.

Chuck Wagner, a local postal inspector, wrote in a recent court filing that Express Mail, in particular, has been used to ship narcotics. “The use of Express Mail is favored because of the reliability, speed and relatively low cost of this service,” Wagner wrote, “as well as the perceived minimal chance of detection of narcotics when shipped in this manner.”

The practice is not limited to the U.S. mail. Just last week, East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies intercepted a UPS parcel from Los Angeles holding more than 4 pounds of marijuana and arrested its recipient, Michael Septs, of Baker, after he signed for the package.

“They think people are going to confuse it for an Amazon box or whatever not knowing that there are drug-detecting dogs and other (safeguards) in the mailing facility,” Baker Police Chief Mike Knaps said.

Stephanie K. Harden, of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Houston, the office that covers Baton Rouge, noted that “prohibited mail narcotics teams” are strategically placed across the country.

Postal inspectors and other law enforcement officials also have developed a drug profile they use to flag packages. Some signs of suspicion include heavy taping, bulging and unusual odors.

One Priority Mail package that raised eyebrows in Baton Rouge this summer was described in court records as reeking of marijuana and having “some green/brown substance” that “could been seen coming from inside the parcel.”

But detection efforts extend beyond the appearance of a particular parcel. Otherwise inconspicuous packages have drawn attention due merely to their city of origin, as postal inspectors consider some states, especially California, to be a hotbed for drug trafficking.

Wagner, the local mail sleuth, was profiling parcels at the mail processing facility on Bluebonnet Boulevard in May when he singled out an express package sent from San Leandro, Calif., that he deemed suspicious because it originated in “a known source city for narcotics.” It was later found to contain T-shirts, a bottle of Oxycodone tablets and a bottle of suspected liquid codeine, according to federal court records.

In other cases, law enforcement officials notify postal inspectors to expect an illegal shipment. The arrest in June of Gabriel Allen, of St. Amant, for instance, stemmed from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s surveillance of a dealer in California who was suspected of shipping drugs to the East Coast.

An agent had followed the woman to a post office in San Diego the day she shipped a heavily taped package of marijuana to Louisiana and another parcel to Kings Mountain, N.C., according to court filings.

When the suspicious package reached Baton Rouge, postal inspectors summoned a narcotics canine from the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office to sniff the mail for drugs and establish probable cause for a search warrant, which is required to open the parcels.

“Both narcotics and money associated with drug dealing have odors which are detectable by trained and certified narcotics canines,” Wagner wrote.

From there, law enforcement officials arranged for a “controlled delivery” of the package to Allen and later found marijuana, equipment used to cultivate marijuana and steroids during a search of his residence, authorities said.

Harden said arrests have steadily risen due to a greater emphasis on investigations of narcotics shipments. But a review of several local cases made clear that many recipients of illegal drugs rely on the postal service for months — if not years — before they are finally detected.

One suspect awaiting trial, William T. Dunbar, 52, was allegedly getting high-grade marijuana and Roxycotin pills from California in packages addressed to “Mr. T.

Between October and January, when postal inspectors intercepted one package that smelled like marijuana, Dunbar had received similar parcels “on at least 16 to 17 previous dates,” according to court records.

In another case, Spencer Morgan had been receiving packages of marijuana addressed to the alias Matt Ortega. The shipments caught Wagner’s eye because, on at least six different occasions, they were sent to “unidentifiable persons” from various families, such as “the Ortega Family,” according to Sheriff’s Office records.

Morgan, who recently pleaded guilty, had been just 18 in April 2012 when the agents arrived at his door. After initially disavowing the contraband, he admitted to investigators he had been selling the marijuana for $300 an ounce. “You can search it,” he told investigators when they arrived at his bedroom door, “or I can show you what you are looking for.”