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Friday, February 6, 1998

248 pounds of marijuana seized on I-20

By BOB BRUCE / Abilene Reporter-News

Traffic violations led to two major drug busts Thursday on Interstate 20 west of Sweetwater with DPS officers seizing nearly 250 pounds of marijuana.

The largest haul occurred near Roscoe about 2:50 p.m. when Trooper R.J. Nunez halted an eastbound 1986 Ford and found 133 pounds in a false compartment in the trunk.

A Lawton, Okla., man, Jorge Lois Mirlas Jr., 20, was arrested by Nunez.

About three hours earlier, Trooper Mark Negri confiscated 115 pounds of marijuana when he stopped a 1985 Pontiac station wagon on the Nolan-Mitchell County line.

Two El Paso men were arrested by Negri, who found the drugs in a false compartment in the rear of their vehicle.

Negri stopped the eastbound vehicle about 11:55 a.m. because of a seat belt violation, said Sparky Dean, safety education officer for DPS in Abilene.

It marked the second straight day for large marijuana interdictions on I-20 in the Abilene area.

Unofficially since Jan. 27, DPS troopers and other lawmen have seized 1,745 pounds of marijuana in six busts along I-20. They also seized $2,000 cash found hidden in a van. No drugs were found, but a DPS drug dog detected the smell of marijuana on the money.

The westbound van's two occupants denied ownership of the money so it was seized by the state as the fruits of a crime, and the men were allowed to go on their way without being charged with a crime.

Finding drug money, but no drugs, in a westbound vehicle bolstered one agent's comment: "The drugs go east; the money goes west."

On Wednesday, 85 pounds of marijuana was seized near Baird by an agent of the West Central Texas Interlocal Crime Task Force.

A Fort Worth man, Ubaldo Carrillo, 31, was booked for felony possession of marijuana in the Callahan County Jail at Baird.

Dean identified the pair arrested by Negri as Leonardo Castro Jr., 21, and Christopher Paul Tena, 20, who were taken to the Nolan County Jail in Sweetwater.

Assisting Thursday along I-20 were Troopers Scott Stevenson, Todd Snyder and Mike Thompson, DPS Narcotics and the Nolan County Sheriff's Office.

The drug seizures prompted Sweetwater Police Chief Jim Kelley to identify I-20 as "the aorta from El Paso east."

Kelley labeled the highway as a main supply route for drugs.

A week ago, a DPS trooper and Nolan County sheriff's officers seized 1,052 pounds of marijuana on I-20 in Sweetwater with a street value of more than $1.5 million. DPS officials called the haul the largest seizure by DPS troopers in the Abilene area in at least 10 years.

A day earlier, DPS officers seized 60 pounds of marijuana from a vehicle on I-20 in Sweetwater.

And on Jan. 27, a DPS trooper seized 300 pounds of marijuana from a van traveling on I-20 near Ranger.

Kelley noted, too, that Sweetwater is "at a crossroads" with State Highway 70 intersecting I-20. Highway 70 leads south to U.S. 277 and on to San Angelo and Del Rio on the Mexican border.

Earlier Thursday in Abilene, veteran narcotics officer Billy Schat observed that the marijuana seized at Baird was encased in what he called "border wrap."

The one-pound blocks were enveloped in wrapping tape and plastic bags, common packaging in Mexico, Schat said.

Schat commands the Crime Task Force, a regional law enforcement unit that covers 15 counties in the Abilene area.

Since its inception 10 years ago, the task force has participated in the seizure of drugs valued at nearly $23 million, Schat said.

"We're mainly a support agency," he said.

Schat says law enforcement in this area faces four main drug groups: marijuana, various forms of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

The last two drugs have regained some of their past popularity, he said.

Schat was cautious in identifying drug trends or methods of operations -- either by narcotics agents or dope dealers.

"They watch our trends and methods as close as we try to watch them," Schat said.

Schat ventured the opinion that lawmen may be "getting better at finding these folks."

Kelley agreed.

"I've said it before and will say it again: part of it is luck -- but also good police tactics. We're getting better."

Kelley also said his department is paying for information, a policy that is reaping dividends.

"We will continue making drug busts as long as drugs are in the community," Kelley said.

Recently a sniffer dog for the Nolan County Sheriff's Department found 17 pounds of marijuana beneath a mobile home.

And early Wednesday, police and sheriff's officers were fired on by a drug suspect, shooting through a wall as they sought to serve a warrant.

Other communities have reported recent drug problems.

In Brownwood, lawmen reported several arrests in January for crack violations. On one occasion, $13,500 in crack was confiscated, while other street values have ranged from $2,000 to $5,000.

On Monday, Erath County Sheriff Tommy Bryant of Stephenville said $10,000 in marijuana and methamphetamine were seized at a home between Lingleville and Huckabay, and a woman was arrested.

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