Coast Guard Academy professors help in battle against drugs

New London — Two professors at the Coast Guard Academy played a pivotal role in a federal drug trafficking case out of Florida in which three defendants were convicted for their roles in an international drug smuggling operation involving at least 500 kilograms of cocaine, worth about $18 million.

This past week, Judge Susan C. Bucklew, a senior United States judge for the Middle District of Florida, sentenced the defendants in the case — Rudolph Randolph Meighan, 28, of Belize, Jorge Ramon Newball-May, 49, of Colombia, and Calbot Reid-Dilbert, 59, of Colombia — each to 19 years and 7 months in federal prison for their roles in the operation.

A federal jury found each of the men guilty in May of one count of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with the intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine and one count of possession with the intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine. A fourth defendant, Emiro Hinestroza-Newboll, was awaiting trial, as of a May 14, 2019, news release from the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

On Dec. 1, 2018, the defendants were transporting between 30 to 40 bales of cocaine onboard a "go-fast boat" from Colombia to Belize, following a cocaine smuggling route known as the Honduras Rise, the government said, when they were spotted by the crew of a Coast Guard HC-130 aircraft, which began recording the vessel.

The defendants, in an attempt to destroy evidence, tied the bales to the outboard engines, their only means of propulsion, and threw the engines overboard, the government said. The air crew observed and recorded most of the jettison using video surveillance on board. Those bales were never recovered.

The men later were interdicted by Coast Guard law enforcement officers who boarded the vessel. During the boarding, they found trace amounts of cocaine both on the vessel and on the defendants.

In these kinds of situations, the Coast Guard officers swab, using fire-resistant material that is like a piece of paper, surfaces and different parts of the body for trace contaminants. They then bring those swabs back aboard a Coast Guard cutter to analyze them via an ion scanner, an instrument used to detect drugs and explosives.

Cmdr. Joe Brown and Glenn Frysinger, chemistry professors at the academy, are experts in the science behind these scanners, which are onboard Coast Guard cutters that perform counter-narcotics missions and also are used by the Transportation Safety Administration and by prisons to screen visitors, for example.

Given their expertise, they were asked by the government to help with witness prep, explaining how these instruments work and the science behind them.

"The beginning of each testimony requires a description of the instrument, its strengths and how it works, so we were consulting on the layman's description of the scientific technology," Frysinger said.

These instruments can detect trace amounts of drugs — down to 1 nanogram, or one billionth of a gram of cocaine, for example  — and explosives. They have about a 1 percent false positive rate, Frysinger said.

The swabs used to transfer any drugs or explosives are heated in the ion scan, vaporizing them. The molecules then pass into a region where they turn into ions. The ions are pulled by an electric field through a tube to a detector at the other end. Ions fly at different speeds, and the time it takes them to arrive at the detector is characteristic of a particular chemical. Every time you get a positive hit, you get a printout of all the parameters, and an indication of what drug, Frysinger said.

The samples collected by the Coast Guard law enforcement officers produced "really solid" hits, Brown said. Positive hits give law enforcement officers probable cause to further search a vessel or link someone to drugs, he said. If there's hidden drugs, the strength of a hit can help pinpoint where they might be, he said.

In the past several years, Brown and Frysinger have been working to cultivate the next generation of drug trace experts for the Coast Guard, per a 2017 memorandum of understanding between the academy and the Coast Guard's assistant commandant for response policy.

Over the past decade, cadets who are interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement have gotten introductions to ion scan technology, but now "they're working with this instrument day in and day out," Brown said, and getting "hundreds of runs" on it before they graduate.

"Part of it is to training them for what's the next generation of (the technology) going to look like," he said. "... Maybe this isn't the instrument that in 20 years we're using anymore, hopefully it's not, but have our students prepared to make those decisions for the Coast Guard."

Now, Coast Guard law enforcement officers board a vessel, take the samples, return to the main ship, where the ion scan is set up and operating.

"In the future they'd like to have a system that they can take with them to the vessel, which cuts down on the time and allows a more immediate search," Frysinger said.

j.bergman@theday.com

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