GALESBURG — While drug busts have occurred for about a decade now at the local Amtrak stop, a sentence more than a probation for the offender remains unlikely. Still, police are happy to keep those drugs off the streets.
The initiative, known in law enforcement as drug interdiction, began in 2008 by the Galesburg Police Department. Since then, the GPD and the Knox County Sheriff's Department have both worked interdiction at the depot, depending on which entity has an available police dog at the time.
In the last two years or so, the push mostly has been taken on by the KCSD, specifically after Galesburg police K-9 officer Lane Mings was moved to detective about two years ago.
"We still go down there, but we’re trying to concentrate our efforts in the city," said Galesburg police Capt. Rod Riggs.
That has been evidenced by eight individuals who were charged with being suspected of being ice meth, or crystal meth, dealers, in August alone in Knox County Circuit Court. All eight involved Galesburg police as part of the investigation.
Data on busts
According to a Freedom of Information Act records request, at least 51 individuals were arrested in possession of cannabis by Galesburg police and Knox County deputies between 2011 and 2017 that resulted in the seizure of 191.93 pounds of cannabis.
Several other cases in recent years not covered under the FOIA included about 10 more individuals and an additional 70 pounds of cannabis, bringing a possible total seized to about 260 pounds of cannabis, if not more, since drug interdiction at Amtrak began in 2008.
Knox County deputies seized about 20 pounds of cannabis in three separate cases so far in 2018, including 5.5 pounds of cannabis that was concealed in a 4-foot-tall teddy bear.
Other drugs, according to a FOIA that did not include all cases, seized included 517 grams of heroin in a 2012 case that went federal; 24 grams of hashish; 5.8 grams of MDMA, or Ecstasy; 59 grams of psilocybin mushrooms; and 1.2 pounds of cocaine.
Here are some noteworthy cases that were not included in the FOIA that did not involve cannabis:
• Mariealert Smith, New York, received a 10-year federal sentence last summer for a November 2016 arrest that netted 4.5 pounds of crystal meth, also known locally as ice meth.
• James Fortune, Oregon, received jail time and probation for having more than 100 grams of Ketamine, a tranquilizer, in a January 2017 arrest.
Whenever an Amtrak drug bust occurs at the local stop, 225 S. Seminary St., attention to the case usually triggers a complaint, most often lodged using key strokes in the comments section on social media, about the practice.
"I can’t control people’s opinions," said Riggs. "We just strive to do what we can to stop that act. If people want to criticize that, I can’t control that."
Galesburg police Sgt. Paul Vannaken, who oversees GPD’s investigations unit, said, "Interdiction is a different animal than fighting other crimes. We do what we can everywhere. You have to balance your law enforcement. ... Interdiction is there to benefit our community and other communities."
While the cases frequently end in probation plea deals, Riggs said that’s also something police can’t control.
That happened earlier this month. Jeremiah J. Bastin, 41, Bloomington, Ind., pleaded guilty to an amended charge of misdemeanor possession of cannabis between 30 and 100 grams after previously being charged with felony possession between 500 grams and 2,000 grams related to a November 2017 arrest.
He received credit for 19 days already served in the Knox County jail, was ordered to pay $1,347 in court costs and fines and will be on non-reporting probation for one year.
The seized drugs, however, are "off the streets," Riggs said.
Knox County Sheriff Dave Clague said individuals seeking to pass drugs through Knox County can use three separate mailing options and the railroad.
"All are very cooperative in the event that they receive a package and they notify either Galesburg or us and then a determination is made on how is it going to be handled. Are we going to seize it? Are we going to deliver it? And it goes, granted we could safely say about 80 percent of those arrested on Amtrak are just passing through," Clague said.
"But those drugs are going to be delivered to potentially someone whether it be Chicago or New York or wherever it may be. In the event of Chicago, there’s a great probability that we would see that same drug back in Knox County."
Knox County Detective Greg Jennings, who has investigated Amtrak drug cases, said officers have a few minutes to operate while passenger trains are stopped in Galesburg. Sometimes information from police agencies west of Galesburg on the line give local authorities a heads up on someone they did not have time to check on.
Sometimes that works the other way where Galesburg or Knox County personnel alert a police agency east of Galesburg about someone or something.
"Normally we’ll go down and try doing some surveillance down there, but normally when Amtrak pulls in we only have several minutes to board the train, try to locate whoever we’re looking for and then within a matter of minutes the train is gone out of Galesburg. I would say less than five minutes," Jennings said.
Echoing Riggs and Vannaken, Clague and Jennings said case dispositions are out of their hands.
"All we can do is make the case and present it to the state’s attorney’s office. I guess as a sheriff or chief I would be discouraged with" how some cases end, Clague said.
"They’re violating the law. That could be someone’s child or parent that that drug is awaiting to go to. Ten years ago, drug trafficking was a hefty sentence and not only in state court, but in federal court.
"And now the sign of the times is pretty much a slap on the hand. Don’t do it again. The money’s too lucrative; they’re going to do it again."
There have also been instances where authorities seize cash, but no drugs are recovered, and those cases go through drug forfeiture proceedings. Those cases are harder to track as they are often filed as miscellaneous remedies, a civil case filing, and are normally prosecutors against the amount of money listed.
Local authorities successfully argued earlier this year that $128,000 taken from a passenger was tied to drugs. That money was subsequently divided among several agencies, including GPD and the KCSD.
Some recent cases have ended in deals for a guilty plea to misdemeanor possession of cannabis while some offenders have had more serious dispositions. A New York woman received federal prison time for transporting ice meth on a passenger train.
An Oregon man received jail time and probation for transporting Ketamine on the train. A New York man recently received prison time for a jail fight and a cannabis case where he also damaged an Amtrak train window.
A count of the defendants listed in the FOIA and cases covered by The Register-Mail showed that of the 67 charged defendants since 2011, 10 have received prison sentences, including three federal sentences.
"Every case is different and every case has its own set of facts so when we’re dealing with the individual cases we have to look at the facts as they’re presented to us by the police and how best to proceed in court," said Knox County Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Kerr.
But most often, those charged in Amtrak cases are drug mules, a law enforcement term for those who transport drugs from place to place but are not at the highest levels of a drug operation.
A defendant’s role within their organization is something that is factored into the case, Kerr said.
"I used to tell officers even if the case gets thrown out for some reason, those drugs aren’t hitting the streets," Kerr said.
Meanwhile, one of the largest drug interdiction efforts at the Galesburg Amtrak stop led to the seizure of 64.7 pounds of cannabis, or more than 25 percent of all cannabis seized since 2011 by local law enforcement, on Thanksgiving Day 2017.
Both of those out-of-state defendants received similar misdemeanor plea deals after similar motions to exclude evidence from further hearings were filed in the respective cases, but not heard in court.
Clague said at the end of the day, officers "made an arrest, completed their reports and know that they have taken drugs off of the street and that is the biggest portion of law enforcement. That you know you’ve done society good."