Seven years ago, in June 2003, agents with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency scooped up a small-time dealer in northern Aroostook County who had been unwittingly selling pot to undercover agents.

As a result, the Department of Public Safety and legislators are trying to decide how to spend $1.1 million in drug forfeiture money, an unprecedented windfall for the state’s multijurisdictional drug-fighting organization.

The forfeiture was a portion of the more than $4 million seized from those who oversaw an organization that smuggled thousands of pounds of high-quality, hydroponically grown marijuana from Canada into Maine and then to other cities in the Northeast.

The multiyear investigation, directed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, involved hundreds of hours of stakeouts and undercover work.

It drew on local, county and state police as well as U.S. Border Patrol and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

And, above all, it required persistence and patience, like landing a large fish with a lightweight line.

“We didn’t want to focus on the low-level members, or so-called ‘mules,’ paid relatively small amounts of money to take the risk and cross the border,” said Commander Darrell Crandall, head of the state’s northern MDEA division.

“Our interest collectively was to get to the source of the drugs. Who was responsible for directing and smuggling on the Canadian side, and on the U.S. side, who were the large consumers making the money over here?”

The multistate investigation started humbly in Grand Isle, a town near Van Buren and Madawaska that is wedged between Route 1 and the St. John River, which marks the border with Canada.

The first arrest brought to light a smuggling operation that involved carrying duffel bags full of pot over the St. John River from New Brunswick into Maine.

The information led Canadian authorities to seize marijuana and Ecstasy pills bound for the border. That same month, Border Patrol agents intercepted two people smuggling 30 pounds of pot across the river.

The drugs would be dropped from a truck on the Canadian side and whisked across the river in a boat, snowmobiles, ATVs or in one case, in the fake gas tank of a pickup.

Other investigations were also taking place, including one that broke up a group using wetsuits and fins to swim the drugs across the river.

The big investigation had its next break in March 2004, when Border Patrol agents seized 130 pounds of marijuana in Van Buren and then had it delivered under controlled circumstances to a buyer in Portland, said MDEA Director Roy McKinney.

One by one, sellers and buyers were picked up along the route used to transport the drugs from Canada to southern New England and New York, McKinney said.

In 2004, state and federal agents also seized 85 pounds in May in Bennington, Vt., 156 pounds in July in Houlton and, at the end of the year, 148 pounds and $238,000 in Portsmouth, N.H.

“These organizations do what they can to compartmentalize their operations, so if one piece goes down and a person is apprehended, they don’t know about another part of the organization,” said McKinney. “That’s true whether the smuggling is occurring on the northern border or the southern border. It takes good police work, patience and cooperation.”

Ultimately, authorities charged and convicted 16 people in the United States and 11 people on the Canadian side of the border.

The ringleader who coordinated the smuggling operation was Daniel LaPierre, now 60, who was from Montreal. He was the one who had to surrender more than $4 million in cash as part of his plea agreement.

The ICE special agent in charge of the Boston office at the time, Bruce Foucart, said after the final conviction that the operation disrupted a major conduit of marijuana into the United States.

In addition to marijuana, Canadian Mounties seized 112,000 pills of Ecstasy worth about $450,000.

MDEA estimates it put 550 hours into the investigation, part of the calculation used by federal officials to distribute the proceeds of the forfeiture case.

The total forfeiture was more than $4 million, with Maine drug agents getting 40 percent based on the hours they put in on the case.

Federal rules stipulate that the money must be used for law enforcement purposes, but the regulations allow some flexibility when an agency receives an unusually large award.

In this case, the Department of Public Safety has proposed using $160,000 to support efforts through the Office of Substance Abuse aimed at stopping prescription drug diversion and abuse.

The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has asked McKinney and Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan to prioritize their list of requests.

McKinney said the agency has suggested using the money to buy digital encryption for its clandestine audio and video recording equipment; buying software for crime analysts, and leasing more functional office space for agents. It also would like a second drug surveillance van and cell phones for all of its agents.

McKinney said the agency is trying to avoid purchases with ongoing costs because the $1.1 million is one-time money.

Upgrading the agency’s equipment is important, but the goal of the operation is to stem drug smuggling, and that seems to have worked.

“We have noticed a significant drop in cross-border seizures,” Crandall said. “Either they have highly adapted to our countermeasures and are getting by us, or we had some impact on smuggling on this route.”

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com