Crime Scenes: Authorities try to intercept drugs sent by mail

The apartments called Tubman House on Towson Way are part of a new dorm complex for freshmen and sophomores at Towson University, and someone recently sent an occupant there 65 grams of marijuana.

A townhouse on Randallstown's Kenny Green Court is a suburban cookie-cutter home on a cul-de-sac, and someone from West Hollywood, Calif., recently mailed 1,450 grams of marijuana to that address.

Federal agents with the U.S. postal inspector's office intercepted both packages, according to search warrant applications — and subsequent lists of what the searches revealed — unsealed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore this week. These are just two of hundreds, if not thousands, of mailings containing illegal drugs being sent around the country by unsuspecting postal carriers.

Using express or priority mail — a service that is quicker than regular mail but slower than overnight mail — to deliver illegal drugs is not new, but authorities say they are trying to stem the tide against what they concede are overwhelming odds. It's easier and safer to package drugs and put them in a mailbox than to stand on a street corner.

"They're working on statistics," said Special Agent Edward Marcinko, a spokesman for the Baltimore office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "How many millions of packages are being shipped? Millions of packages, and maybe a few get intercepted. It's a good gamble."

Postal inspectors all over the country are reporting a surge in investigations and arrests, and a quick scan of files in federal courts around the country show hundreds of recent cases involving packages plucked by authorities from the mail.

Federal authorities say that in 2009, postal inspectors in the U.S. arrested 1,227 suspects on charges of trafficking drugs through the mail and seized $4.9 million in cash and 45,964 pounds of illegal narcotics.

A mail processing plant in Linthicum seems to be a hub for activity in Maryland, with packages passing through en route to the far reaches of Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore and Washington.

Search warrant applications have become boilerplate, and note that drug dealer's use of the mail "is favored because of the reliability, speed and low cost, as well as the perceived minimal chance of detection."

Packages with return addresses in cities and states from which drugs tend to originate — such as Florida, Georgia, California, Arizona, New York and Texas — get extra attention. Some are pulled from circulation and set aside to await a police dog to come along and sniff.

In the latest batch to be made public in Baltimore, Postal Inspector Dennis G. Hall wrote in his search warrant application that on Sept. 10, an Anne Arundel County police dog named Cyrus detected a drug odor from three suspicious packages — one headed to the Towson dorm, another to Randallstown and the third to Washington.

It's unclear what if anything authorities did once they seized the drugs. The names of the recipients are typically false, though the addresses are real. Sometimes, the DEA's Marcinko said police will pretend to be postal carriers, deliver the packages and arrest the person who accepts delivery.

Court records do not indicate any arrests in the three most recent cases in Baltimore. Hall wrote in his search warrant application that all three names on the packages were false. Attempts to reach the owner of the Randallstown home were unsuccessful; his name does not show up in state or federal court records as having been charged with a crime.

The senders are equally hard to track down. The package sent to Towson had a return address. in Santa Cruz, Calif. The package sent to Randallstown purportedly came from an address in West Hollywood. Authorities say neither of the addresses exists.

"These individuals can distance themselves from the contraband should it be intercepted by law enforcement," Hall wrote in his search warrants.

Sometimes, police say, dealers send packages to unsuspecting homeowners, hoping the postal carriers will leave them on front porches for couriers to pick up before the residents return. So it's unclear whether the people at addresses mentioned in court papers at Towson University and in Randallstown were expecting shipments of the illegal herb.

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