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K-9s sniff out drugs in alarmingly productive postal pipeline

Target 12

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) —  Seizures of opioids and other illegal drugs mailed to Rhode Island and the rest of the country are up sharply, but a recent congressional investigation indicates a postal pipeline is still delivering substances with a street value worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

One foreign website that sells fentanyl brazenly suggested using only the U.S. Postal Service for deliveries.

A Target 12 review of federal court records discovered a number of local cases involving illegal drugs and alleged drug money plucked out of the mail by investigators. 

One example is a March civil complaint to seize just over $55,000 from two packages that were stopped in Providence last year.

Cranston Police Officer Gregg Bruno and department K-9 Zeus assisted in that case, with the German Shepherd sniffing out two Priority Mail parcels destined for Puerto Rico near “other packages [that] were also placed in this area as a control.” 

Zeus and Bruno are among a number of K-9 teams working with postal inspectors to detect drugs in the mail stream.

“The odor of the narcotic eventually permeates that money,” Bruno said. “The dogs can smell even trace amounts.”

In the March complaint, Postal Inspector Richard Atwood said based on his experience, Puerto Rico is often a source location for shipments “of illicit substances including heroin and cocaine” into Rhode Island.

China and Mexico are other key suppliers for drugs mailed to the U.S., according to other federal documents.

Zeus is trained to detect five different drugs and has learned the odor of fentanyl on his own since it is often mixed with other substances. 

Bruno and Zeus have helped with “numerous narcotic and currency seizures,” according to the court filing. 

“The money from the seizures that makes it back to our community helps pay for what we do,” Bruno explained. “It also goes toward local drug treatment programs.”

A U.S. Postal Service spokesperson said there are no statistics for how many drug seizures have happened in Rhode Island or Massachusets in recent years, but according to a U.S. Senate investigation, confiscations here and elsewhere may not be slowing the influx.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations spent three months scouring six foreign websites and discovered 300 transactions from residents in 43 states, including three sales in Rhode Island and eight in Massachusetts.

When an investigator emailed one particular foreign dealer to ask about the best shipping method, the answer was, “We suggest the US Postal Service ONLY.”

Committee Chairman Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, called the potential profits from $230,000 in fentanyl purchases from only three months and six websites “staggering.”

“[That] translates to about $760 million in fentanyl pills to sell on the streets of our communities,” Portman said.

U.S. Postal Service spokesman Dave Partenheimer said the agency “is deeply concerned about America’s opioid crisis and is working aggressively to stem the flow of illegal drugs entering the United States.” 

He said one part of that strategy involves increasing advance electronic data (AED) attached to foreign packages. The information would help the postal service scrutinize parcels from certain parts of the world known as origins for mailed illegal drugs. 

“In the last three years, we have gone from receiving almost no AED on inbound shipments to achieving current levels at approximately 40 percent,” Partenheimer said. 

He also pointed out that from 2016 to 2017, Postal Inspection Service seizures were up 375 percent, and said there was an 880 percent increase in “seizures related to opioids” during that time. 

Portman has co-sponsored the STOP Act, which aims to halt drugs “from being shipped through our borders to drug traffickers.”   

The bill would require foreign postal systems to send AED before any packages reach the U.S.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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