Liberty County Sheriff's Office deputies conducted a routine traffic stop Wednesday on Interstate 95 and ended up uncovering 17.9 pounds of crystal meth with estimated street value of $5 million.
Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes chalked the drug bust up to the specialized training his traffic division officers receive, saying they followed training methods by the book, which aided them in discovering the drugs after the driver they stopped consented to a vehicle search.
The incident took place on southbound side of I-95 near exit 69, where, according to Capt. David Edwards, a deputy pulled over a 2004 gray Honda for speeding.
The driver, Francisco Nery, 27, who stopped his car at mile-marker 68, was accompanied by a female passenger, Maria Diego, 30. According to the incident report Nery is from Festus, Mo., and Diego is from Plano, Ill.
"Our men were doing routine patrol on I-95 ... this guy was speeding and he was pulled over ... our guys asked the right questions and got permission to do a search," Sikes said. "Our officers discovered the drugs and they did an exceptional job."
Sikes said that when the deputy found the meth in the car, officers from the Multi Agency Crack Enforcement Drug Task Force and the Drug Enforcement Agency were called to the scene.
"Our guys spotted certain things in the car, asked the driver to step out and asked him a few questions," Edwards said. "Certain things didn't add up and they wound up getting consent to search the vehicle and found a big quantity of drugs. It was located throughout the car ... backseats and the majority of it was in the trunk."
LCSO Chief Deputy Keith Moran said the deputies detained the suspects after they came across the first bag of meth and then continued their search, which turned up several additional packages.
Sikes and Moran both said that, as far as they know, in terms of monetary value, the bust is the largest ever made in Liberty County.
"The DEA was notified by Capt. Edwards' team as was the MACE team and they responded and took control of the investigation," Moran said. "You hear about arrests involving crystal meth, which is probably the worst drug that is out on the streets today, and you hear about different quality levels, differing from the stuff made in bathtubs versus others that have a higher quality. But the indication from (the DEA) was that the bust was high-quality stuff."
The chief deputy said the DEA requested that the LCSO file charges of trafficking a controlled substance, methamphetamine.
Sikes said warrants immediately were taken out against both suspects. The two already have appeared in magistrate court and both were denied bond.
"The DEA is the lead agency now due to the quantities of the drug and seriousness of the offense," Moran said. "They are in Liberty County Jail now but next week the DEA will go before the federal grand jury to obtain indictments against them on federal charges and then they will be transferred to federal custody."
Sikes said Nery and Diego could face 25-year mandatory minimum prison terms just on state charges. They also would face federal time if indicted.
"That quantity of drugs was going somewhere," Sikes said. "We feel like we've helped our citizens and we've helped keep those drugs from reaching their final destination, whether it was here or elsewhere. This is just another feather in our hat and it's all due to continuous training. Obviously, the amount of training these officers got prepared them to ask the right questions and do the right things."
The sheriff said the traffic division is comprised of three deputies, who recently attended an advanced DEA traffic school training session in Atlanta. The course, which taught the officers to look for certain behaviors, equipped the officers with the skills that help them identify problems and make arrests, Sikes said.
He said he would like to see all his deputies receive more training to keep up with changes in the law and technological advancements in crime fighting, which are become more sophisticated.
"It's not free training, but it's good quality training that we constantly need to help our deputies to do the best they can for the citizens of Liberty County," Sikes said.