Small roads, big-time smuggling
By Don Lehman
Published: Sunday, May 04, 2008
The stretch of Route 28 between Johnsburg and Indian Lake is among the most desolate pieces of highway in the region.
It's a strange stretch of road to be a favorite among big-time drug traffickers.
But in recent years, as federal authorities have focused on the Northway as a conduit for illegal aliens who recently entered the country, marijuana dealers who move tons of pot into the U.S. through the Canadian border have turned to the smaller state and county highways that cross the Adirondacks.
Among them is Route 28, which runs east-west across much of the Adirondack Park, intersecting with Route 9 in Warrensburg and a number of other north-south routes to the north.
"We've known for a while that Route 28 has been a pipeline from the north, coming down from the (Indian) reservation," said Warren County Undersheriff Robert Swan.
Route 28 was the highway four Massachusetts men took to arrive in Warrensburg early the morning of Feb. 25. Erratic driving drew the attention of Warren County Sheriff's Officer Jeremy Coon, who stopped their car on Route 9 and found it to contain a duffel bag with just under 10 pounds of high quality marijuana inside.
The same night, the Sheriff's Office seized 126 pounds of marijuana three Canadian women were allegedly transporting south on the Northway. That was the biggest seizure in Warren County history, and the women's explanations to police of how "dummy cars" were used to test police resources opened some eyes.
In both cases, the people transporting the drugs brought them into the U.S. through the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation, which sits in the Franklin County town of Akwesasne.
The recent arrests have prompted some new initiatives by local police and prosecutors as they work to cut the flow of drugs, particularly large quantities of marijuana destined for other areas, through the region.
Police and prosecutors hope the use of technology, and the combining of resources, will allow authorities in Warren County pluck more pot as it is transported south.
"We know there is a lot of (drug) traffic going through our area from the north," said Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan. "There are some things we're looking into to interrupt that traffic."
The Glens Falls region has long found itself at a literal and figurative crossroads in the marijuana trafficking networks of the Northeast, thanks in part to the 8-plus-mile hole in the border where the Akewsasne reservation sits.
The reservation straddles the U.S.-Canada boundary, making it an attractive spot for those who want to smuggle drugs or illegal immigrants into the U.S. Tribe members have the right to move unchecked across the border on the reservation, and only a small force of tribal police patrols on the U.S. side.
Those who want to head to the New York City, Boston or Hartford, Conn., areas generally have to go south, and the shortest routes take them through Essex, Warren and sometimes Saratoga counties.
"The majority of it is going to the New York City area, but we're seeing a lot going to Boston," said Timothy Harvey, a sergeant with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne, in whose county the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation sits, said a billion dollars a year worth of marijuana is estimated to come across the international border at the reservation.
"You've got seven unmanned roads that come across (the border) through the reservation," Champagne said.
Champagne's office is part of a federal drug task force that in part targets smuggling through the St. Regis Mohawk reservation, and said.
And while some debate whether marijuana should be illegal, he said police area aware of at least three recent homicides (two in Canada, one in the U.S.) that were tied to marijuana smuggling efforts originating at Akwesasne.
In a series of raids last month, police on both sides of the border seized more than 700 pounds of marijuana and $2 million from one ring, and Champagne said police are aware of groups that move as much as 1,200 pounds of pot a year through the reservation.
St. Regis Mohawk tribal leaders have downplayed the drug smuggling issue, with a tribal police officer telling The Associated Press last year that other parts of the boundary are just as troublesome as those on the Mohawk reservation.
Police on both sides of the border, though, disagree.
"It's been an ongoing problem of drugs going into the U.S. from Canada and (illegal) cigarettes coming into Canada from the U.S." through the reservation, Harvey said.
New York City is the main destination, but Champagne and Harvey said there are connections to other cities across the country as well.
Champagne said police have tracked marijuana shipments that came across the border in Franklin County to not only big cities in the Northeast but as far away as Florida and Texas.
The shortest, and quickest, route to New York City and points south and east from the Canadian border generally brings motorists to the Northway, but the 1999 creation of a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on the highway in North Hudson (which has since been closed) forced many to try to find ways to bypass that stretch of the highway.
That put them onto roads like Route 30, Route 9 and Route 28, and often takes them through the heart of Warren County as they try to connect with other interstate highways like 90 and 95.
"Warren County is in the conduit," Champagne said.
The recent arrests in Warren County prompted Champagne to sit down with Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan to try to figure out ways for authorities in Warren County to work with their counterparts to the north to target the drug traffic filtering south.
One way is to have police allow those they catch with large quantities of marijuana to make controlled deliveries of the drug to the intended recipient, which allows authorities to nab one more person in the conspiracy and increase the chances of working their way into the distribution ring.
State Police Capt. Robert LaFountain, who supervises troopers in Troop B which includes Essex, Franklin and Clinton counties, said traffic enforcement is one of the ways to counter large-scale marijuana networks.
"You need a combination of good intelligence and good police work," he said.
Swan said Warren County sheriff's officers will be receiving more training in tactics like highway drug interdiction, an issue that was among those touted by Sheriff Bud York when he ran for office last year.
Hogan said technology, like police cars equipped with license plate readers that can be tailored to watch for a "hot list" of suspicious vehicles, can be used as well.
"The more sophisticated these groups become, the more sophisticated we have to be," she said.
Now, one may ask... What do these last two entries have to do with the price of bananas, and why are they posted on a Gordon Setter site??
Well, in the hermit post, the property my camp sits on in the Adirondacks backs up very near the northwest corner of Warren County, so the hermit wasn't too far off..
And, Route 28 is one of the two main drags in or out of Indian Lake, and I use the road all the time....