By LEON FOOKSMAN
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Standing next to a turnpike guardrail on a blistering afternoon, sheriff's Cpl. Bruce Parent was conducting what sounded like a talk-show interview with a woman pulled over on a traffic stop.
"So, where are you from?" the amiable cop asked. "What do you do for a living?"
Suddenly, a fellow deputy yelled, "Get your hands up!"
The friendly chat ended.
Parent whipped out his gun, slapped on handcuffs and with other deputies rifled through what turned out to be $42,000 bundled inside a plastic bag in a hidden trunk compartment of the rented SUV.
"We're dead-on today," he said. "It's like a Jerry Springer Show out here."
Parent frequently finds himself at such scenes, the result of what his supervisors say is an uncanny ability to spot drug runners in the blur of cars and trucks speeding on the turnpike, Interstate 95 and local routes.
"If someone is carrying illegal drugs, he'll find it," sheriff's Capt. Pat Kenny said. "He has a sixth sense."
At 48, the paunchy Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office traffic veteran is a conversational chameleon, able to talk about anything with anyone. But he is quick to recognize a liar, sniff out marijuana hidden under front seats and take down smugglers trying to flee.
Like other officers trained in highway interdiction, Parent attempts to choke off the endless flow of drugs to South Florida from Mexico and Canada, usually in concealed compartments in vehicles zipping down the interstates.
He and his partner, Deputy Tim Tessitore, aim every day to add to an impressive collection of seized booty. They estimate they have confiscated more than 2,500 pounds of drugs and $2 million in the past eight years. Along the way, Parent said, he has nabbed murderers, child molesters, robbers and even a few suspected terrorists.
After 20 years on the road, Parent has a gut instinct for finding bad guys that makes him particularly useful in the battle against drug-dealing gangs. Nationally known for his knack, he often teaches gang and narcotics detectives on tapping into the drug pipeline.
"You have to look into the eyes. They are the windows to the soul," said Parent, who, along with a former partner, once had the nicknames "Junkyard Dogs" for not allowing criminals to get away.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies nationwide placed more emphasis on traffic enforcement, police experts said. With airports and ports under increasing scrutiny, interstates have become superhighways for drug traffickers.
Drug runners connected to Mexican cartels move marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crystal meth to South Florida slipped across the southern U.S. border inside cars and trucks, all-terrain vehicles and backpacks carried by human "mules," said Douglas Wright, executive director of National Criminal Enforcement Association, whose 3,000 law enforcement members track down criminals on the roadways. Other smugglers drive extra-potent marijuana to this area from mountainous regions of the Canadian border.
Two of the nation's eight primary drug routes run through Florida, and much of the drugs and cash reaching South Florida passes through drug-distribution centers in the Atlanta region, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Law enforcement, on a good year, seizes just 6 percent of the drugs hauled into the country, Wright said.
"We're not even touching a tip of the iceberg," Wright said. "These criminals have more money than our government has to fight them."
So it often falls on officers such as Parent -- whose primary job is to look for commercial truck violations -- to find contraband stored in secret compartments in dashboards, consoles and trunks. Those hidden spaces often open with hydraulic devices activated by remote controls or combinations of window and door locks and other buttons.
"What drug dealers have is plenty of time. We have five minutes on a stop to find the dope and money. They have five weeks to hide it," Parent said.
Looking for signals
For Parent, his technique is simple. With patience honed from years of fishing and hunting, he sits in his crammed SUV, sometimes up to an hour at a time, in plain view on the sides of highways. He carries a radar gun, but he doesn't need it to spot smugglers.
Instead, his eyes are trained on cars with broken taillights, expired license plates, dark-tinted windows and drivers who change lanes excessively and never look over at the sight of a passing officer.
Eighteen-wheelers without markings or with unusual company names draw his suspicion. Another red flag is two or more people jammed into the cab.
"Every time we stop a car, we're getting something out of it -- whether it's a traffic infraction or a load of dope," Tessitore said. "The drug trafficking is increasing. We're just a small dent.
"Every day we see it going into Palm Beach County and Broward and Miami-Dade," he said. "There's so much coming through. We can't catch it all."
Parent says he only stops cars and trucks based on traffic and vehicle violations.
"I don't profile. I look for actions and infractions of the motorists," he said. "It's a lot of stuff that I look for. One indicator is not enough."
His biggest busts have come during the most mundane traffic stops. Once he pulled over a truck on the turnpike in St. Lucie County for not displaying a tag, and found 1,270 pounds of marijuana under a load of 50-pound onion bags.
"The driver broke out in hives," he said.
In Tuesday's stop where the cash was found, Parent and other deputies ended up seizing the money from the Chrysler Pacifica, despite objections from the Lithonia, Ga., driver.
"I ain't done nothing wrong," he said. "We're going to buy two cars at an auto auction tomorrow near the [Seminole] Hard Rock [Hotel &] Casino."
Parent suspected the money is tried to drug trafficking and money laundering. The driver insisted he would get his money back, but Parent shook his head.
"That money is ours," Parent said.
Later, as he headed home on the turnpike, he came upon a truck on the side of the road. Several young men standing nearby turned away as Parent looked at them. The corporal was tempted to stop.
"I bet I would have found something," he said.
But after a 10-hour day, Parent decided to move on. He would be back out the next day.
"It's easy pickings out here," he said.
Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
Leon Fooksman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6647.
Copyright (c) 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Fla. deputy has a 'sixth sense' about what vehicles are carrying