Agents Crack International Drug Ring That Used Infants, Baby Formula as Cover
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 kidnapping report.
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 precious commodity:
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 same pattern.
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 he visited.
"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 native Massachusetts.
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 found work.
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.
Afterward, Darling, the dogged investigator, embraced her family members.