Giving The Smugglers Blues

March 26, 1995|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Sun Staff Writer

With waves of cars and trucks rushing past him on Interstate 95, Tfc. Steven Hohner eyes the traffic from behind the wheel of his unmarked patrol car and declares, "I guarantee you a car with dope or dope money just passed us in the last 30 minutes."

It's not an idle claim.

Trooper Hohner, 26, is part of a six-man team that roams I-95 between Baltimore and the Delaware line looking for drug smugglers among the 100,000 vehicles that whiz by each day.

The team has found quite a few.

Last year, Trooper Hohner's drug interdiction team seized 96 pounds of cocaine, 173 pounds of marijuana and $617,740 in alleged drug money, while making 233 drug arrests -- tops in the state.

How did they do it?

Certainly not by stopping every car on I-95 and conducting a search, and not by targeting certain makes of cars, or certain types of drivers.

Drugs have been found in everything from expensive sports cars to old pickup trucks. "The cocaine trade knows no boundaries," said Trooper Hohner.

"It's not like you can say, 'You were doing 65 mph. Get out of the car. I'm going to search it,' " he said. "You wouldn't be around for long if you were doing that. . . . We don't want any cowboys on our team."

What works best is not the macho, intimidating approach but rather the friendly, harmless, nice-guy approach. The same approach typified by the fictional homicide detective Lieutenant Columbo: listening more than talking, asking seemingly innocent questions, maybe even letting the bad guys think the officer isn't all that bright.

"I'm not a dumb person," said Trooper Hohner, a 6-foot-1 Harford resident who grew up in Abingdon. "But I'm not a genius by any stretch of the imagination. Most of it's just common sense."

The six troopers in the Special Traffic Interdiction Force (STIF) have been trained in how to casually question drug suspects, and how to carefully search vehicles. While there are other drug interdiction units in the state police, the STIF troopers have been operating longest -- since 1990.

The son of a construction worker and housewife, Trooper Hohner graduated from Edgewood High in 1987 and attended Arizona State University for one semester. Although no one in his family ++ was in law enforcement, a neighbor was in the state police and Trooper Hohner knew from an early age that he wanted to be an officer.

When he returned from Arizona, he applied to be a state police cadet, got the job, and entered the police academy when he turned 21, graduating in August 1990. He earns about $30,000 annually.

At a little past 11 a.m. on a busy Friday, Trooper Hohner has cruised up and down I-95 several times from Abingdon to Perryville and back. From his seat in the maroon 1994 Chevy Caprice, Trooper Hohner is within arm's reach of two police radios, siren and lights switches, a speed detector, a screwdriver -- he might need it to search a vehicle for drugs -- and a 12-gauge shotgun.

In a steel cage behind him rests Spider, a German shorthaired pointer trained to detect illegal drugs such as cocaine, marijuana and heroin. It's a typical morning and Trooper Hohner stops four cars before 11 a.m.: a soldier on his way to New Jersey to visit his parents; brothers on their way to Baltimore-Washington International Airport to catch a plane to California; a Maryland couple and a College Park resident.

While obviously nervous, each of the drivers answers the trooper's questions confidently and without hesitation. Trooper Hohner asks the brothers to open their trunk so he can see their luggage. He's suspicious because they had switched lanes and picked up speed instead of immediately pulling over when he flicked on his siren.

He finds nothing in his search and sends them on their way. All four drivers get speeding tickets or warnings.

At 11:26 a.m., his police radio crackles.

Cpl. John Wilhelm, 26, a drug interdiction team member, has someone stopped on southbound I-95 at "88," which means the 88th mile marker near Havre de Grace. He needs backup.

Trooper Hohner drives a few miles north until he can turn south, and then cruises south for a few more miles. He glides to a stop behind Corporal Wilhelm's unmarked car and a green Pontiac Grand Am at 11:30 a.m.

When Trooper Hohner arrives on the scene, the young man is standing outside on the shoulder of the highway, while the young woman is seated in Corporal Wilhelm's car.

The young woman, who was driving the Grand Am, had weaved out of her lane of traffic and nearly hit another car. So Corporal Wilhelm pulled her over.

At first, her explanation is fine.

A 19-year-old college student from North Carolina, she says she was weaving in traffic because she was eating a piece of chicken.

Then things get sticky.

She tells Corporal Wilhelm that she is returning home after dropping her female cousin off at college in Wilmington, Del.

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