The man from Ghana refused to reveal the contents of his stomach until he reached the hospital. There, faced with the prospect of an X-ray, he started to tell Maryland immigration authorities his death-defying tale.
An emigre in the United States recruited Hopkins Appau back in Africa to swallow dozens of pellets filled with heroin. He boarded a plane, arrived in Baltimore and greeted his American bosses from his motherland -- a longtime Washington municipal employee and his immigrant wife living in a suburban townhouse.
A U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore sentenced the couple, Godfrey Bonsu, 44, and his wife, Victoria Boateng, 42, both of Bowie, to lengthy prison terms yesterday for running a drug courier business out of a Takoma Park Quality Inn.
They were found guilty in February by a federal jury of conspiracy to import and distribute heroin. Yesterday, Bonsu received a 14-year prison term while Boateng was ordered to prison for slightly more than 11 years.
"I'm really sorry. ... I let my children down," Bonsu told the judge. "I had a good job."
U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake increased both of their prison terms after finding that they were supervisors or managers of the drug conspiracy.
"The couriers testified to being given various instructions by the defendants, such as drinking milk, waiting at the hotel and calling the defendants when the pellets were ready," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Hanlon wrote in court papers.
In the Maryland case investigated by U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, prosecutors argued that in 2003 and 2004, Bonsu and Boateng recruited couriers from Ghana to smuggle heroin from Ghana, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Appau, who was arrested in December 2004, carried almost 600 grams of heroin, or about 60 internal pellets.
His fellow courier, James Manu, arrested in September of that year, filled his stomach with 69 pellets and lined his clothing with an additional 3 kilograms of heroin. Yesterday, the judge also determined that Bonsu had obstructed justice by testifying falsely at a pretrial suppression hearing, leading to another enhancement of his sentence.
Bonsu "was employed, he contributed to society," Blake said at the hearing. But despite some undisclosed information the couple provided to authorities about the drug trade, she could not excuse their role as leaders.
Law enforcement agents use a variety of techniques to catch such drug couriers.
"Sometimes we have intelligence provided by an informant or you see that something is wrong with a person," Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Steve Robertson said in an interview shortly after the Bonsu-Boateng convictions in February.
Agents usually try to wait the courier out, taking suspects into a bathroom with a screen to catch excrement. The pellets don't throw up very well, according to Robertson.
"But it's incredibly dangerous. Stomach acids can burn a hole in them. But sometimes people will swallow them and tie them to a back molar and then they pull it back up through their throat," said the agent, who spent 17 years in drug interdiction work on the Southwest border.