Giving customs seizures added spice


April 02, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

The headline on Wednesday referring to a drug bust at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport grabbed my attention: "Dutch Goose Laying Heroin Pellets."

On Tuesday, we had this: "Bird Soap Doesn't Fly with Baltimore." Earlier last month from an airport in Wilmington: "Delaware CBP Outruns Invasive Mile-a-Minute Weed."

So nice to see tabloid journalism back.

The author of these gems is Steve Sapp. I chatted with him briefly by phone, and he seems to be a mild-mannered, 43-year-old wordsmith in Philadelphia. Only he doesn't work for a newspaper or even a Web site.

Rather, he toils away at a government job for one of those agencies that loves to use acronyms and needlessly repetitive titles - U.S. Customs and Border Protection for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security - whose workers generally prefer dry, stuffy, police-report-style just-the-facts-ma'am prose that can dull the most exciting story to the point that it is ignored.

What Sapp does is take what is routine for his agency and spice it up a bit, though he acknowledges that he needs to be careful - he is, after all, writing about people being charged with crimes, and smuggling drugs or anything else into airports is a serious matter. Try yelling "Bird soap doesn't fly" the next time you're in a check-in line at the airport and see what happens.

"My job is to make the things we do have value," Sapp told me. "Reporters ask me if I'm a frustrated writer, and the answer is probably yes."

He's a career public affairs guy, having spent 25 years with the U.S. Coast Guard parachuting into disasters such as hurricanes and plane crashes. He started his job with the customs agency 13 months ago.

Sapp acknowledges that some of his writing could be construed as "cartoonish," but it gets attention. Here is his opening from the goose story:

"A Dutch traveler who arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Friday from Europe wasn't the golden goose and he wasn't laying golden eggs, but what he did pass got him into serious trouble - about 1.2 kilograms of heroin worth of trouble."

A man who had been born in Ghana and is now a citizen of the Netherlands was arrested at BWI after getting off a British Airways flight from London on Friday. A tip led authorities to question him, and federal prosecutors say he admitted having swallowed 100 pellets of heroin, which he passed and which were seized by authorities. He is now facing federal drug charges in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Sapp's funny headlines are based in truth. Mile-a-Minute weed is really that, this particular specimen of Mikania micrantha having come from Costa Rica. Sapp wrote, "Competitive runners boast four-minute miles, but they can't keep pace with an invasive weed species that Customs and Border Protection agricultural specialists intercepted. ..." And the bird? Someone tried to smuggle into BWI 3.6 pounds of beef and 3 pounds of bullion inside a dead bird encased in black, homemade soap.

First question from a properly trained reporter: What kind of bird? The news release doesn't say. Mr. Sapp, that's why we're the professionals.

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