June 21, 2003, started like any other day for OOIDA member Tony M. His dispatcher called, offering him a load paying $1.60 per mile from San Antonio to Henderson, NC.
Everything seemed normal, like any other load, so Tony — whose name is being withheld at his request — had no idea this load would take him for the ride of his life.
From the Petro in San Antonio, Tony called the shipper and spoke with a man named Jerry, who told him the load wouldn’t be ready until a little after 1 p.m. Jerry insisted on sending someone to get Tony at the truck stop when the load was ready because “it’s too hard to tell you how to get there.”
After hours of waiting and getting the runaround, Jerry’s workers came for Tony and helped him load the big green container onto his flatbed trailer.
“The container looked like a butane tank,” Tony said. “It had Bondo on the outside, I found out later. It looked like fiberglass with a small piece behind it. It was tied down with straps. It was painted green, so it looked like a big pickle.”
With the load in place, Tony headed down Interstate 10, but he didn’t get far. Just east of Seguin, TX, two uniformed police officers stopped him. While one officer checked Tony’s logbook, the other officer stepped up and shined a light into the cab to watch Tony.
“He asked me about the load, how I found out about it, and who dispatched it,” Tony said. “Then he went back to his car, where he was talking on his telephone. When he came back, he said I answered all questions correctly.”
Unbeknownst to Tony, the Texas Department of Public Safety had monitored everything that took place at the truck stop and the loading site.
“We watched all this take place,” an undercover DPS lieutenant told Land Line. “We saw [Tony] arrive at the yard. It was a commercial type location, nothing out of the ordinary there. We followed him 40 miles out of town, had a marked unit make the traffic stop and conducted an interdiction interview.
“Tony was right down the line about what happened. Once he passed all those interdiction questions, we knew he was legit,” the lieutenant said. “We finally told him what he was hauling. He just kept saying, ‘You’re kidding me, you’re kidding me.’”
Tony recalls, “When they said, ‘you’ve got a load of narcotics back there,’ I nearly fell out. A narcotics agent drove up, and they wanted to take me down to the DPS office, where they could get the truck off the highway. He rode with me down there and parked at the DPS office. When they confiscated my cell phone, I was wondering if I’m cleared from this or not.”
Another officer took Tony’s statement and had him listen to a recorded conversation between another driver and one of the suspects. Then, another officer asked Tony to sign a form giving them the authority to break into the container.
“They drilled holes in it and stuck a probe camera up in there,” Tony said. “There were pipes running all kinds of ways. By this time, it was nearly midnight. They called the fire department to cut a hole in the top of it. Again, there were pipes running this way and that a way. They used a torch to cut the pipes in two, cut through different layers of metal until they got to a lead shield covering the inner part. They drilled another hole and tried the probe again, but had problems. They could shine a light and see it was marijuana.
“By then, it was 3 a.m. Saturday morning,” Tony said. “The lieutenant tells me, ‘we need to take your truck back to San Antonio, repair this and put it in a secure area, locked up all night, and we’ll take you to a motel.’ They wanted to know my empty weight, and I told him. We stopped at Flying J to weigh it; we had about 9,700 pounds. We went on to secure the truck at DPS and then to the motel.
“I tried to sleep, but didn’t sleep much — too hepped up,” Tony said. “I told them the next day that I need to call my wife; they said go ahead.
“About 11:45 a.m. they called and came to pick me up about noon. We went to DPS, where they were trying to repair ‘the pickle’ to make it look like it used to, but the paint didn’t really match.
“With two cars in front of me, the CDL-licensed officer driving my truck asked, ‘How fast will your truck run?’ 85-90 mph. If we were going to make our delivery time, we had to make up for the time we lost repairing ‘the pickle.’
“The other states were notified and followed us,” Tony said. “I asked about notifying my company, and he said OK. I got a hold of a company man who talked to one of the officers.
“We got headed east; we didn’t stop till we got plum over to Lake Charles, LA,” Tony added. “The first stop we made was to eat some supper.”
At the end of the trip, the load was delivered and its receivers arrested. Authorities seized marijuana with a street value of $4.2 million.
—by René Tankersley, feature editor
René Tankersley can be reached at rene_tankersley@ landlinemag.com.