Grasswasn’t the only dope they found

Published on Thu, May 12, 2005 by ack Kintner

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Grass wasn’t the only dope they found

By Jack Kintner

In a story worthy of a TV cop show, a Canadian Border Services agent in effect arrested himself for smuggling last week when his van was randomly selected for secondary inspection at the Pacific Highway Crossing.

Altaf Merali, 37, of Surrey, B.C., is free on a $50,000 personal appearance bond posted by his mother the day after Mother’s Day following his arraignment in U.S. District Court in Seattle for conspiracy to import marijuana.

His American contact, Jason Dean Smith, was also arrested and remains in custody. According to the complaint filed last Thursday before Judge Monica Benton, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer Michael Donley pulled Merali’s van out of line for secondary inspection because of a computer-generated random selection. Merali parked in the secondary inspection area and went inside, where he told CBP Officer Roman Morin that he was coming to see CBP area port director Peg Fearon and then asked how long the inspection would take.

Morin reassured Merali that the inspection would be done as quickly as possible and gave him a baggage declaration form to fill out. Merali began to fill in the blanks and then asked to speak to Morin in private, where he allegedly said he had over 200 pounds of marijuana in his van. Morin immediately put him into a detention cell and called in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers Jacob Black and Andrew Porter from Bellingham, who arrived a half hour later.
Black began to read Merali his rights under Miranda but he waived them, saying he wanted to cooperate. Merali, an Indo-Canadian, said he’d been approached by a neighbor and his friend, known only as “Sam,” to smuggle B.C. bud south and cocaine north across the border.

Merali initially agreed but got cold feet twice when contacted by another operative named “Skully” on a cell phone “Sam” had provided him.

Eventually “Sam” leaned on Merali to begin cooperating according to officer Black, who wrote out the federal complaint. He alleged that “Sam” threatened Merali by saying that if he kept backing out of these deals the “people in the organization” would go after Merali’s family.
Merali then agreed to make a trip and claimed to the ICE officers that this was his first attempt. He further said he’d been instructed to look for a white male wearing a red baseball cap at the Bellis Fair McDonald’s outside Bellingham.

At this point Black and Porter began using Merali’s information to go after Merali’s Bellingham contact. They had Merali call “Sam” and explain the delay the arrest had caused at the border as being due to his visiting with acquaintances, and then Merali, escorted by the two ICE officers, left for Bellingham.

After a short wait at the Bellis Fair McDonald’s, Jason Smith drove into the parking lot in a white Cadillac Escalade, wearing a red baseball cap. He entered the restaurant and met Merali in the men’s restroom, where Merali gave him one of his car keys.

Smith unlocked the van but when he found that the key wouldn’t fit the ignition he came back into the restaurant and, as the complaint says in the understated language of court documents, “…recontacted Merali. [He] then noticed the agents in the area and asked Merali who the two men were. [He] then left the restaurant and attempted to get back into the white Cadillac Escalade [but] agents arrested the man as he approached the Escalade.”

Smith told the officers that he was willing to answer questions. The complaint quotes him as saying he “just meets a guy at a prearranged location and picks up the marijuana and then takes it and drops it off to another guy in Marysville.” Smith said he did not know Merali, just that he was supposed to wear a red hat and then take the van south to his next contact, where he’d be paid $1,000. He said this was his fourth trip.

Faith St. John, communications supervisor for Canadian Border Services in Vancouver, said that they were conducting their own internal investigation of the incident. She said that it’s very rare for a customs officer to be caught smuggling, “and this should not reflect on the dedication and integrity of the rest of our customs people,” said St. John.