‘Gut Feeling’ by Police Nets Mother Lode of Fentanyl

'Routine' traffic stop potentially saved millions of lives — here's what happened when Nebraska troopers looked at a rig on a busy interstate

The rhetoric in police work is that there are tons of “routine this” and “routine that.” Sometimes, the routine” course in being a cop can morph in a millisecond. Enormous events evolve from those mundane routines in police work.

It certainly was a history-making moment for Nebraska State Patrol troopers, who on April 26, 2018, stopped a semitruck after it was observed driving on the shoulder of Interstate 80.

The traffic stop-initiating trooper went through the “routine” of “May I see your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, please?”

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But something wasn’t right, and his cop instincts were flaring.

Like any law enforcement officer in America, Nebraska troopers paid attention to “suspicious behavior.” Nervousness, stammering, inconsistent details, inability to form cogent thoughts? Whatever it was that sparked acute attention by troopers, an expedition was underway.

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With backup on the scene, Nebraska troopers spoke with the truck’s two occupants. Something more gave rise to exploring the truck. If it were a significant load of cannabis, the distinct smell of marijuana lends to establishing probable cause to search the vehicle under the “plain odor” doctrine. Absent that yet still skeptical of these two truckers, troopers presumably exercised a common practice of asking for and being granted consent to search the rig.

Often, there is ample psychology at play with these roadside cases, sort of a game of cat and mouse. Declining consent brings further suspicion, and bad guys know this. By granting consent to search, the suspects cross fingers and hope police personnel miss the mark.

Likely, the two trucker suspects were confident their stashed load would not be found. They were wrong … approximately $20 million wrong, as per Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) tabulations.

Whatever led Nebraska troopers to go long and dig deep, and however they set out to follow gut instincts supplemented by whatever cues the suspects provided, a handful of Nebraska cops literally peeled back thin diamond-cut metal layers and … eureka!

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A whopping 118 pounds of fentanyl in foil-wrapped bricks stuffed in a tractor-trailer’s framework was discovered by Nebraska state traffic enforcers.

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The truck’s driver was 46-year-old Felipe Genao-Minaya, and his passenger was identified as Nelson Nunez, 52. Both suspects are reportedly residents of New Jersey but are presently enduring an unplanned stopover in a Nebraska jail, charged with “suspicion of a controlled substance with intent to deliver.” For whichever drug cartel it was that produced the narcotics, delivery is not in the cards any longer. As for both arrestees’ “intent,” well, that will be the play during a trial … should it ever get that far.

For whichever drug cartel it was that produced the narcotics, delivery is not in the cards any longer.

Peril to the population. Once the hidden compartment was found and the truck’s thin-metal skin was peeled, Nebraska troopers thought they had a load of bricked cocaine in their hands. Although troopers didn’t know it yet, the wrapped bricks’ contents were far more deadly, containing a substance whose quantity the DEA claimed is tantamount to killing the entire population in Texas: approximately 28 million folks.

Bear in mind: A few Nebraska troopers had custody of this powder keg, the surgical handling of which is absolutely crucial to properly safeguard themselves and the public … right there on the roadside of a super-busy interstate thoroughfare.

It is a customary practice to field-test suspected contraband with tiny presumptive drug-test kits ordinarily kept in cops’ cruisers. According to Nebraska State Patrol Col. John A. Bolduc, superintendent of law enforcement and public safety for the state of Nebraska, troopers involved in this traffic stop had a false positive test for cocaine, then, hypothesizing other drug possibilities, received a positive test for opiates.”

Albeit rare with cocaine, false positive indicates not enough trace elements to render a conclusive finding regarding a particularly suspected drug. As director of the Addiction Institute of New York at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, Petros Levounis, M.D., said, “Cocaine is cocaine — you don’t get many false positives or false negatives.” Well, Nebraska troopers did in this case, so they set out to test for opiates, which equated to a B-I-N-G-O windfall. A presumptive test kit came back positive for opiates. Fentanyl was the suspected killer drug.

This exemplifies one of those split-second decisions cops often confront and hope to handle without any slippage. Given the record-breaking load, it was now time to consider safe transport to Nebraska’s state drug lab, where chemists would carefully analyze and weigh the entire batch of cartel poison.

Once at the drug lab, precautionary measures are germane. Per Director Pam Jilley, the chemists at the Nebraska State Crime Lab meticulously handled, tested, weighed, and chronicled the load of fentanyl for prosecution purposes. Narloxone (aka Narcan), the same drug cops use to save addicts from overdosing, was on hand for state troopers and lab personnel in the event of direct contact with the drug.

Omaha, Nebraska, DEA Special Agent Matthew Barney described the potential life-ending effects of fentanyl in stark detail. Roughly 275-300 pounds of fentanyl can kill 100 million people—almost one-third of the current U.S. population—stemming from each person’s having a mere 0.2 milligrams of the deadly substance. Per the DEA, a scant dose of fentanyl is enough to kill a human, whether by ingestion or mere touch. Some debate that last part regarding transdermal contact, but better safe than sorry.

Speaking of the lethal nature of fentanyl, agent Barney said, “This is pretty bad stuff,” and went on to convey accolades to the Nebraska troopers who “take the fight to the streets” at severe risk to themselves.

Col. Bolduc said, it is “a very dangerous endeavor for officers to test these drugs, even handle these drugs on the streets.”

Midway through the Nebraska State Patrol May 24 press conference, the crime lab director explained protocols engendering at least two lab analysts working in tandem: one to suit up and do all the handling, testing and weighing (without cessation), and the other to record all data, details and scope of the undertaking. That becomes paramount in a court of law — collection, custody, and chain-of-evidence principles.

Interdiction. Col. Bolduc, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, DEA officials, and others at the post-bust press conference acknowledged the scourge involving opioids and the drug’s reaching epidemic proportions. Col. Bolduc admitted the transport methodologies of drug cartels, time and again using and hoping their poisons reach drug-addicted consumers while reaping billions of dollars. Cartels traffic in not only drugs but also guns and humans “to our state and through our state,” he added.

The DEA’s Omaha field office website cited the following: “The intersection of Interstates 80 and 29 in the city provides easy access to national drug markets in the southwestern states and California, along with the major consumer market of Kansas City.” If it is on wheels roaming within U.S. borders, there really are no boundaries. That is why traffic enforcement is so increasingly critical.

That lends credence to not only specially formulated interdiction units but also frontline police officials piqued by highway travel and, as Col. Bolduc called it, “oddities” such as a tractor-trailer driving on the shoulder. Consider that last factor: Had it not been for that questionable driving behavior, would Nebraska troopers have had any other probable cause to effect a traffic stop? If not, where does that poisonous load wind up, and how many more toes belonging to opioid overdoses will county coroners tag?

Had it not been for that questionable driving behavior, would Nebraska troopers have had any other probable cause to effect a traffic stop?

Putting a mind-numbing number to the subject matter, DEA agent Barney stressed with conviction: This is going to be a “banner year, a record year in a bad way, for overdose deaths in the United States. They’re talking about 70,000-plus overdoses this year. Seventy thousand! That’s like … 191 people a day.” He continued and talked about parking planes and school busses when we have problems with them. He is neither exaggerating nor melodramatic. Epidemic needs no definition and it has been time to park the problem and gut it until we hit bone. I know: easier said than done.

Col. Bolduc also stressed a valid point when he expounded on interdiction dynamics: “Emphasis and focus” of his troopers denotes the “nexus between drug trafficking and other crimes.” The pissy marriage between hard-core narcotics and myriad other arterial criminal activities is a sordid one that remains a fluid affair, and cops do their darndest to preclude breakdown and/or pick up the pieces when some sift through the cracks of a vastly free society.

In just one instance, a massive load almost resulting in unspeakable ruin and deaths was plucked from Interstate 80 by a few traffic cops. This compels me to reconsider an insightful perspective taken by OpsLens contributor Steve Pomper who, in his article “It’s Hard to Count What Didn’t Happen in Police Work,” discussed the relative difficulty in quantifying police activities. Cops are largely unheralded for the seeming innocuous duties they perform while, unknowingly, crime may be quelled by simplistic means.

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Circling back to our first point, routinization of stopping cars for ostensibly trivial traffic matters can sometimes lead to gargantuan salvation, which most don’t see as anything other than a pain-in-the-ass police officer causing motorists to move over. In this Nebraska stop, the cop had no idea, either. Cops and robbers is rather tangible; cops and phantoms … not so much.

On April 26, 2018, motorists passing the Nebraska state troopers on the I-80 shoulder neither would see the embedded poisons in their rearview mirrors, nor would they be positioned to readily comprehend how a few uniformed traffic gurus were saving millions of Americans in the time it took to notice a mundane vehicular matter.

Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and field training officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens article is used with permission.

Read more at OpsLens:
Nanny State Laws Enacted by Politicians Tarnish Public Perception of Police
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meet the author

Stephen Owsinski is a LifeZette contributing editor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is also a columnist for the National Police Association.

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