One cop's 'big hit': When glory comes, it ain't all roses
A young deputy made a stop that ignited a high-profile case and got him awards, but the acclaim had a dark side
In his two years of making vehicle stops on the rural roads of Berkeley County (S.C.) Sheriff’s Corporal Lamar Blakely felt he’d gotten the tactics of criminal interdiction down pat. He’d made hundreds of felony arrests, and his skills were such, he told a friend, that “it’s gotten almost like I could walk up to a driver and say, ‘Just give me your dope’.”
Yet the most he’d discovered on any given stop was nine ounces of cocaine. “I wish I could make a really big hit that would get my name out there,” the 29-year-old confided, mirroring a common cop aspiration.
One month later, a stop the young deputy made on a Toyota Camry for speeding 15 mph over the limit ignited a case that eventually was briefed on a regular basis for the president of the United States. Blakely was praised by the FBI for thwarting a potential terrorist plot. His actions made headlines as far away as the Middle East. He became a popular speaker at law enforcement conferences and was showered with awards.
A Trial By Fire
Yet there was a dark side to the acclaim. He alluded to it at this year’s ILEETA training conference when he dissected his case in detail as the keynote speaker. He later elaborated on what he has gone through during an exclusive interview with PoliceOne.
At one despairing point, his tribulations forced him to seriously question his career in law enforcement. But in the end, he has come to embrace his ordeal as a trial by fire that seared into him an unshakable commitment that, he hopes, will prove motivating to other officers.
Blakely was gung-ho about policing from the outset. He started in law enforcement as a dispatcher in 2001 and after a year became a jailer with the Berkeley County SO in Moncks Corner (S.C.). He spent many of his off-duty hours—thousands, by his estimate—on ridealongs with working road deputies.
When he himself graduated to the road in 2005, he says, “I already had more time in a patrol car than my FTO.”
He was drawn to criminal interdiction work like steel to a magnet.
Stories Didn’t Make Sense
At about 1730 hours on a sweltering Saturday in August, 2007, he was watching traffic along US 176 outside the town of Goose Creek, on the lookout for a car that had been reported stolen, when a silver Camry bearing a Florida tag and carrying two males flashed past him, doing 60 in a 45 zone.
The driver continued on for nearly a mile, with Blakely’s overheads flashing behind him, before finally pulling over. During that time the men appeared to rummage in a console and toss something into the backseat. When Blakely approached the driver’s side on foot, the passenger slammed shut the screen of a laptop computer. Each man, he noted, had a copy of the Koran on his lap.
The two identified themselves as Egyptian nationals who were engineering students at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Quickly they spiked Blakely’s interdiction instincts to full alert. Their stories, when the deputy chatted them up independently, were “conflicted and didn’t make sense,” he recalls.
They said they were on a weekend pleasure trip to North Carolina, visiting beaches along the way—but they were headed away from the shoreline. They disagreed on when they’d left Tampa. They claimed to have driven at least 14 hours straight, yet had covered only five hours’ worth of distance. They said they had pulled off the Interstate to get gas, but then had bypassed numerous filling stations before finally stopping some 50 miles later...and so on.
“I’m thinking, ‘They’re hauling drugs,’ ” Blakely says.
An Unusual Haul, Indeed
He got the driver’s permission to search the vehicle and—with a backup deputy present—started in. Under the front seat he found a box of .22-cal. ammunition. Then when he dug into the trunk, the stop took a radical turn.
Inside were 20 feet of safety fuse, a nearly full five-gallon can of gasoline, and a plastic bag with four sections of PVC pipe, packed with what federal agents later identified as bomb-making materials: potassium nitrate (fertilizer), corn syrup, and cat litter.
The suspects said the materials were merely harmless fireworks, “homemade sugar rockets.”
On the laptop recovered from the car, authorities found a file labeled “Bomb Shock,” with information on homemade explosives, plus a 12-minute video of the driver demonstrating how to use a remote-controlled toy to detonate an IED, which had been posted on the Internet.
Recent Internet searches on the computer had included the words “martyrdom,” “Hamas,” and “Qassam rockets.”
“We never learned where these guys were headed or what they were really up to,” Blakely says. But instead of beaches along the Carolinas’ coast, everyone immediately thought of a more likely destination: the Naval Weapons Station and nuclear power training facility at the largest port in the US defense transportation system, in Charleston not far from the location of Blakely’s traffic stop.
“Within hours of the arrest, the story was on the national media—radio, print, TV, the Internet, you name it,” Blakely recalls. Even military friends stationed in Baghdad heard about it. In his fantasies, the young deputy had imagined his “really big hit” would be discovering a semitrailer loaded with drugs, but now his bust was being hailed as an American landmark, “the only terrorist attack prevented by a patrol officer on a traffic stop.”
Down Falls the Brown Rain
In the days that followed, the director of the FBI lauded Blakely and his agency for “excellent activity” in detaining the suspects and “understanding the significance of what is found.”
A high-ranking official in the Attorney General’s office told him that then-President Bush was being kept updated on developments. “I felt like a national hero,” Blakely says.
But the glory was short-lived — soon the shitstorm struck.
• First was a campaign of character assassination to make Blakely the bad guy. Video from the deputy’s dash-cam recorded him explaining the status of the stop to his newly arrived backup before the car search began. Referencing the Korans he’d seen on the occupants’ laps, he jokingly said he’d probably stopped “part of the Taliban” with a “bomb strapped to ’em.” He said he assumed they were “Islamic.”
A Muslim advocacy group vehemently condemned these as ethnically biased remarks. Defense attorneys accused him of “unlawful racial profiling” and argued that all the evidence should be tossed because his personal prejudice rather than probable cause motivated the stop. Because he’d asked the driver, ‘What are you doing up here?’ as part of his interdiction routine, one lawyer insisted that reflected “a mind-set that certain people don’t belong in certain areas.” Headlines blared that Blakely was “unreliable” because of his “tainted words.”
“I take my job personally, so that became very personal to me,” he says. In story after story, “I was painted as an overzealous racist, but nothing I said went anywhere. I felt like I didn’t have a voice.”
• Blakely had been involved in run-of-the-mill drug cases in the past, but “they were nothing like being grilled for hours” in the depositions and suppression hearing that followed the suspects being indicted for “terrorism-related” federal offenses. “I just wasn’t prepared for it,” he says.
The defense subpoenaed video of every stop he’d ever made, hundreds. “I was expected to justify everything,” he says. “If I gave one person a citation and another a warning—why? Nationality and ethnicity were always the focus. They tried to put different spins on different stops. If I couldn’t remember some detail, they seized on that. They had me so confused by the way they asked questions, it seemed like I didn’t know anything.”
One point of contention concerned department policy: on the alleged terrorist stop, Blakely had not given back the suspects’ licenses precisely when policy said he should have, relative to asking for consent to search. “Our policy hadn’t been updated in 10 years,” he says. “I followed current case law instead. I explained this a hundred times over, but they always came back to the policy violation, trying to make me look like a rogue cop out there doing whatever I wanted to do.”
He remembers feeling “overwhelmed, beaten down” after confrontations with the lawyers and struggling to evade protesters and the media around the courthouse. “My head hurt so bad I just cut off the lights in my room and lay there in the dark.”
• “I worried constantly that the case would get thrown out because of me,” Blakely recalls. “I had no training on how to deal with all the stress, and when you’re under pressure like that you take it out on the people closest to you.”
When the case broke, he was intending to marry the woman he lived with; “we had a great relationship.” But as the stress deepened, their personal lives suffered critically from a common cop malady, communication starvation. “I went from not wanting to talk about the case to not wanting to talk about law enforcement in general to just shutting her out, period,” he says.
In the spring of 2008, while he was nearly 500 miles away at a hearing about the case in Tampa, she moved out. “I came home to an empty apartment,” he says. “We were never able to patch things up.”
He found himself withdrawing from fellow deputies, too. “I just wanted to work by myself and be by myself,” he says. “I realize now I was hiding. I didn’t want other officers to see the toll that things were taking on me.”
• In our interview, Blakely spoke of the compounding effect of a myriad stressors as the case dragged on: factual errors that littered news stories…reporters hounding him and even his parents at home…a department functionary unnecessarily turning over private information, including his address, to the defense team…an ongoing fear that he might be fired as a political sacrifice…a warning by one administrator that “we won’t back you up if it turns out you did anything other than what you say you did.”
“It seemed like there was no end to the negativity,” Blakely says. “I could do a thousand positive things in a day, but a single negative thing would stand out. I started to second-guess myself. I was walking on eggshells with every stop I made, especially with minorities. I wondered if I even wanted to be part of the criminal justice system anymore. I just wanted to go back to being a nobody.”
At his lowest point, he says without elaboration, he “contemplated suicide.”
In the End, Beginning Again
It was 2010, three years after the stop, before the case was finally put to bed from a legal standpoint. The passenger suspect stood trial and, to Blakely’s amazement, was acquitted. He is currently suing the federal government in an effort to gain U.S. citizenship. The driver copped a plea to one of multiple charges against him—providing material support to terrorists via his IED video—and is now serving a 15-year sentence in a federal penitentiary.
And Blakely, he enthusiastically reports, has got his mojo back. Among those he credits with helping him regain self-assurance and a positive perspective on law enforcement is Bobby Smith, the celebrated ex-Louisiana state trooper and motivational speaker who was blinded by a shotgun blast to the face more than a quarter-century ago.
Blakely attended one of Smith’s presentations “at a point when I didn’t know which way to turn. He described the signs of being overloaded with stress and how to cope with it. It felt like he’d been living with me for six months the way he tapped into my state of mind.”
Blakely connected with others in and outside of law enforcement — a former DEA agent he met at an awards ceremony, a nurse friend he hadn’t talked to in years — who were willing to listen and offer guidance, even during lengthy middle-of-the-night phone calls. It took time, he says, but gradually his enthusiasm for road work rekindled.
“In the future,” he says, “I see myself still out there chasing the criminal element until I can’t do it any more. I truly believe being an officer is the greatest job in the world.” Shortly before we talked, he’d scored another impressive arrest: stopping a driver who turned out to be on an FBI watch list, wanted in five states for multiple crimes.
Various awards that have honored him attest to his having proactively done the right thing on his “big hit.” Yet he acknowledges that the aftermath of that fateful vehicle stop changed his life in some ways he never imagined. Was it worth it?
“I’ve asked myself that question many times,” he says. “I lost a lot, but I’ve decided yes, it was worth it. What if I’d let those suspects go and they’d killed a bunch of people? What if they’d attacked a school and my daughter was involved?
“My job is to put innocent people before my own wants and needs. That’s what I swore to do. That’s what I’m here for.”