By Sharon Cohen, Associated Press National Writer
CHICAGO (AP) -- He knocked on the door of the squalid basement
apartment, looking for a young couple. Their baby girl had been
stopped at an airport thousands of miles (kilometers) away, and it
wasn't her first suspicious trip.
The 8-month-old had already traveled to Panama and London five times,
usually in the arms of strangers and often exposed to danger. The
latest trip had ended abruptly with an arrest -- at Heathrow Airport.
"Your baby was with a woman who was caught with drugs," U.S. Customs
agent Pete Darling told the parents coolly. "Can you folks tell me
what's going on?"
Calmly -- too calmly, he thought -- the couple claimed their child
had been taken from a babysitter's house and they had filed a
Darling noticed the parents were sickly looking and the apartment was
a mess: dirty dishes in the sink, cardboard boxes on the floor, the
smell of marijuana in the air.
He knew something was terribly wrong.
What Darling didn't know was he had begun to unravel an international
drug smuggling ring -- a multimillion dollar business that stretched
from flea-bag hotels in Panama to the gritty streets of the Bronx
borough of New York City to the industrial heart of England.
And it ran through the drug-ridden, decaying South Side neighborhood
where Darling now stood -- the place the smugglers turned to for a
As he prowled the terminal at Atlanta's Hartsfield International
Airport, Mike McDaniel was already suspicious.
For weeks, the Customs inspector had been encountering women, some
with babies, passing through en route to Chicago, who claimed they
had visited husbands or boyfriends in the military in Panama.
But their stories were fishy.
The hotels they claimed they stayed at were nowhere near military
bases. McDaniel happened to know that because he had served in the
U.S. Army in Panama. And in another coincidence, he had grown up near
Chicago, so he realized the women lived in the same neighborhood.
McDaniel had done some luggage searches, but nothing turned up.
Then, McDaniel stopped Donna Washington, who said she had taken her
grandson to see his father, stationed in Panama for the Army. But she
wasn't able to tell him her son's address or rank.
When McDaniel looked inside her luggage, he found six large baby
formula cans and a seventh small one. He shook them and one rattled.
Something solid was inside.
He tested liquid from one can. The result: cocaine.
He tested a piece of pellet from the solid-sounding can. The result: Heroin.
Washington feigned surprise.
But her attitude turned indignant as McDaniel picked up the baby's
bottle, twisted off the cap and sniffed it.
"What kind of person do you think I am?" she asked.
He didn't answer.
Customs agents now had two arrests -- London and Atlanta -- with the
Both women carried other people's babies, lived in Englewood and were
accused of smuggling drugs in the same ingenious way: infant formula
cans -- using toddlers as decoys.
Darling, a newcomer to Chicago and the Customs Service, started
piecing together the puzzle. It was 1999, and this was his first big
case. "I was looking to make my mark," he says.
Accompanied by a Chicago police officer, Darling returned to the
couple whose baby had been stopped in London. "You guys have got to
tell me the truth," he told them.
The parents, drug-addicted and HIV positive, confessed and told
Darling that a neighborhood woman, Selina Johnson, had asked to be
their baby's godmother, promising free milk and clothes for the child.
Johnson was more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall and charismatic: As
the so-called first lady of the Sisters of the Struggle -- a female
auxiliary of the Gangster Disciples street gang -- she could deal
drugs in her neighborhood with impunity.
The couple told Darling that when their baby was 3 weeks old, they
allowed Johnson to take her for a few days -- not even asking where
they were going.
They eventually admitted they had "rented" their baby to be used as a
decoy for drug smugglers. The going rate: about $200-$400 a trip or a
small amount of marijuana.
Other women, too, had taken their baby, they said.
They rattled off names but didn't always know precisely where the women lived.
Darling took notes, his mind racing with a new reality: This drug
ring was much bigger than he thought.
A paper trail would provide many clues.
Darling and federal prosecutor Scott Levine spent months poring over
customs records and airline tickets, tracking the couriers' travels.
The smugglers flew from Panama City and Montego Bay and Kingston,
Jamaica to Chicago, New York, London and Birmingham, England,
bringing in more than 100 kilos of cocaine and six kilos of heroin.
The couriers were paid up to $4,000 a trip; some also received drugs.
Much of the drugs were concealed in formula cans the smugglers
figured would escape detection by drug-sniffing dogs. Cocaine was
liquefied in Panama and injected into the can, which was then
soldered and the label reattached.
Small cans could bring big cash.
A kilo of cocaine (about three cans) that cost $5,000 in Panama could
reap $20,000 or more in the United States and double that in England.
Once it was cooked into crack and sold as dime bags, the profit
multiplied by several times.
Jamaicans, Colombians, Panamanians and Americans all participated in
the conspiracy. Fake passports and drivers licenses were obtained,
and the couriers, many of them addicts themselves, took their own
children or carried "rented" babies on dozens of trips -- a scam,
says Levine, that posed extraordinary dangers.
"Can you imagine," the prosecutor fumes, "a drug addict from Chicago
traveling in a foreign country where she does not even speak the
language, taking care of a baby she has never seen, attempting to
score some heroin ... while she waits for cocaine-filled baby formula
cans to arrive?"
That happened to the child identified in court records as "Baby 8."
Her travels began when she was deposited in an empty hotel bathtub in
Panama because she wouldn't stop crying.
She was sickly, abnormally small -- and just 3 weeks old.
As Pete Darling climbed up crumbling steps and entered roach-infested
apartments, he couldn't ignore the poverty that enveloped the women
"This wasn't just dealing with bad guys," he says. "This was dealing
with human beings struggling every day."
Darling and his frequent partner, Billy Warren, an agent for the Drug
Enforcement Administration, played it low-key.
"I don't like to browbeat people," Darling says.
And both were aware they were outsiders: Warren was a former Kansas
City cop; Darling had worked as a government investigator in his
Many couriers they interviewed were remorseful; others were hostile.
But both agents kept working to win the confidence of the women.
"I would go through a very long empathetic speech ... saying, 'We're
not after the little people,' " Darling says. "We're going after the
big people.' "
Taking down a drug ring is like dismantling a pyramid, stone by
stone, from the bottom up.
In this case, Levine and fellow prosecutor David Hoffman, both
veterans of the drug wars, "flipped" the baby-carrying couriers, then
worked their way up.
It wasn't long before several couriers had confessed and two leaders
-- Troy Henry and Orville Wilson, both Jamaicans -- were cooperating.
Wilson, in turn, told prosecutors the formula cans were the
brainchild of Clacy Watson Herrera, a Colombian charged with
supplying most of the drugs.
Levine couldn't help thinking it was sheer luck that none of the 22
babies was injured or mistakenly given cans filled with drugs.
It would take 2 1/2 years to make the arrests.
The last was Selina Johnson, the recruiter, who swallowed 20 to 30
dime bags of crack to hide evidence when she was apprehended.
Over the next two years, 48 defendants pleaded guilty, including
Johnson, who received a 10-year sentence. The couriers were sentenced
to five to 10 years in prison; the parents who rented their babies,
between 10 months and eight years. The only person who stood trial
received a life sentence.
One last defendant, a leader who obtained drugs and organized several
Jamaican trips, will be sentenced Wednesday.
Three men remain fugitives, and Herrera is serving a 72-month
sentence in Panama for drug trafficking on an unrelated case.
Prosecutors hope to extradite him to Chicago.
Pete Darling wanted to help at the end.
So he testified on behalf of three couriers at their sentencings.
One was Kim Washington, who had thrown Darling out of her apartment
when he first met her. In the years since, she had kicked drugs and
She gave much credit to one man.
"I thank Pete Darling for arresting me ... he saved my life because I
couldn't do it myself," she told the judge, who sentenced her to 44
months in prison.
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Afterward, Darling, the dogged investigator, embraced her family members.