I-81: Highway an artery for drug, sex trafficking

I-81: Highway an artery for drug, sex trafficking

On the outside, there was nothing suspicious looking about the 18-wheeler as it rolled north on Interstate 81 that frigid Sunday afternoon last February.

The Swift Transportation truck was one of thousands of rigs that transport goods every day along the 855-mile corridor that runs from Tennessee in the south to the Canadian border in New York.

Inside the cab sat 36-year-old Stanley Narcisse and 35-year-old Eric Emmanuel, two Florida men who decided to drive past the weigh station in Grantville, Dauphin County, to avoid the Pennsylvania State Police who patrol the highway and were conducting a commercial-vehicle enforcement detail.

While I-81 has been a boon to the economies of many Pennsylvania communities since being built between 1960 and 1976, it has come with a cost. Along with the legal commerce is the associated crime that saps police resources and affects the quality of life for those who live near the highway and use it.


High on the list of crimes associated with I-81 is smuggling drugs, like the kind police found in Narcisse's and Emmanuel's truck. As the pair continued driving north into Lebanon County, Trooper Brian Livingston of the Jonestown Barracks pursued their rig and pulled it over near Exit 85, Annville/Fort Indiantown Gap.

Suspecting the load contained more than the crates of Styrofoam cups that were visible when the back doors were opened, Livingston asked if he could search the truck. Narcisse and Emmanuel consented, and Livingston called in a drug-sniffing dog, which found six large wooden crates containing more than 6,500 pounds of marijuana with a street value of $25 million.

Narcisse and Emmanuel were arrested. They were recently convicted on drug-trafficking charges that could net them life sentences.

The bust - among the largest single seizures of marijuana in Pennsylvania's history - was one of many that occur each year on I-81 and is indicative of why the U.S. Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center identified it as one of the major drug-trafficking corridors in its "National Drug Threat Assessment 2010."

Major route

I-81 is part of a network of highways called Corridor A, on which tons of illegal drugs transported from southern California and Florida are moved into major northern cities, according to the report.

Narcisse and Emmanuel picked up their load of marijuana in Arizona, according to law-enforcement officials, and had driven across southern routes before connecting with I-81 on their way to Connecticut.

"Among the eight principal drug corridors, Corridor A is particularly vital to Drug Trafficking Organizations," the assessment states. "Corridor A is the primary route for DTOs (drug trafficking organizations) transporting multi-ton quantities of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine from the southwest border to eastern U.S. drug markets, many of the largest drug markets in the country."

The fact that Interstate 81 is a major drug pipeline is no secret to Sgt. Paul Gaspich, commander of the Jonestown Barracks, whose troopers patrol the highway in Lebanon County.

Because I-81 connects here with I-78 - which continues east toward north Jersey and New York City - drugs also are moving to and from that huge population center, he noted.

"We definitely enforce interstates 78 and 81 the same way," said Gaspich. "Interstate 78 connects to New Jersey and New York, where there is an awful lot of criminal activity."

Operation Shield

To combat smuggling, drunk driving and other illegal activity on the highways, about five years ago the state police instituted the Safe Highways Initiative through Effective Law Enforcement - more commonly called Operation Shield, said Gaspich.

Since then, more than 700 state troopers have taken a course that trains them how to conduct effective roadside stops and identify signs of criminal activity. The training covers proper interview techniques, how to detect hidden compartments, interdiction of commercial vehicles, knowledge of search-and-seizure laws, uses of K-9 units, indicators of domestic terrorism and explosive devices.

Operation Shield techniques were instrumental in February's large marijuana bust, Gaspich said. Through November 2010, troopers from the Jonestown Barracks made 90 Shield interdiction stops, including the arrest made by Livingston and the seizure of $85,000 in drug money from the driver of a vehicle stopped in October, he said.

"There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop, as every stop and interaction is inherently dangerous for the trooper or police officer conducting the stop," Gaspich said. "Our troopers are trained in the academy to look past the traffic stop on every stop they make. They are not just robots pulling people over and giving tickets. They are constantly on the lookout for cues and behavior that are indicators of crime. There are an awful lot of guns, money, and drugs on the highways."

Human trafficking

Drugs are not the only illegal items being trafficked along I-81. People are also "commodities" being moved into and out of central Pennsylvania along it and surrounding highways, according to a spokeswoman for an international organization working to stop human trafficking.

"Ohio is a huge sex-trafficking state, as are New York and New Jersey, and we lie in between," said Julie Janovsky, senior policy specialist and communications adviser for the Polaris Project Action Center, headquartered in Washington, D.C. "Given the nature of sex trafficking and what we know about surrounding states, there is no doubt it is going on here at truck stops and motels."

It was at the Gables truck stop northeast of Harrisburg that the FBI, working with state and local law enforcement authorities, conducted a prostitution investigation called Operation Precious Cargo between 2005-07.

When it was concluded, an interstate prostitution and money-laundering ring based in Toledo, Ohio, had been cracked. In the process, a total of 40 pimps were arrested for prostituting 152 victims, some of whom were as young as 12 years old, said Janovsky.

One particularly notorious area where women are being forced into prostitution, Janovsky said, is along a short stretch of Route 11 south of Carlisle in Middlesex Township, which connects Interstate 81 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Dubbed the "Miracle Mile," it is a crowded alley that contains 16 motels, three truck terminals and three truck stops.

New effort

The victims of sex trafficking lead miserable lives in which they are enslaved by pimps. Violence and threats are the way they control their victims, explained Janovsky.

"It is done through physical force, which is threatened and is commonly carried out," she said. "Some of the victims suffer terrible beatings and abuses. Sometimes it is also done through coercion. We've seen pimps take pictures of a victim being raped or in a precarious position and they will threaten that if they don't continue they will send the photo to a member of their family. Or they will also threaten to hurt someone the victim may care about."

Often the victim being prostituted is a juvenile, Janovsky said.

"It is estimated that 100,000 children are prostituted in the U.S. each year. And the average age of a female when she gets into sex trafficking is 12 years old - that's the average," she said.

To combat the problem in Pennsylvania, a Human Trafficking Advisory Committee was formed in October to study ways to prevent human trafficking. It includes representatives from law enforcement, prosecutors and social-service agencies, Janovsky said.

"The next two years, it will be looking at all forms of human trafficking in Pennsylvania - labor trafficking, sex trafficking and the commercial exploitation of children," she said. "It will really dig into Pennsylvania's law to see what needs to be done ... I'm certain that the I-81 corridor, as well as other corridors in the state, will be one of the big topics."

The Polaris Project is also advocating the passage of a state law that would require the posting of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline in truck stops, motels and other locations where victims are being forced into prostitution, said Janovsky.

Laws have been introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate and House and have bipartisan support, she said.

Crossroads of crime

Middlesex Township police Chief Barry Sherman is well aware of the prostitution along the Miracle Mile. During the two years of Operation Precious Cargo, his force made more than 200 prostitution-related arrests, he said.

But prostitution is just one part of a crime problem that is directly related to transit along I-81, according to Sherman. Although Middlesex Township's 11 police officers patrol 110 miles of roads, he estimated that 55 percent of the department's $1 million budget is spent in battling crime on the Miracle Mile.

"There is lots of drug dealing, quite a few thefts of truck cargo, and with the transients that are dropped off, we have a lot of retail theft at the truck stops and robberies in the parking lots," he said.

Another headache for the Middlesex police force is dealing with frequent domestic disputes between broken families, said Sherman.

"Because we are at the crossroads between 81 and the turnpike, a lot of people meet here at rest stops to exchange the kids. I guess they are meeting face to face for the first time in a long time, and the things that have been brewing can explode," he said.

It is also a dangerous area to patrol, as Sherman experienced when one truck driver trying to flee a soliciting-prostitution charge knocked him down with his truck. The quick action of another police officer in grabbing the rig's emergency brake prevented him from being severely injured, he said.

"You are looking at acres and acres of parking," Sherman said. "I imagine these lots can handle 250 trucks a night, and they are all filled. When you are in middle of that trying to solve a problem, it gets dangerous back there."

Stolen cargo

While some truck drivers may be committing crimes, others become victims when their cargo is stolen. Cargo thefts have been climbing in recent years, according to Nancy Wilkes, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association - an organization of more than 2,000 trucking and affiliated insurance companies.

Increasingly, gangs of thieves are targeting trucks at warehouses and terminals, she said.

"The Miracle Mile is a pretty bad area," said Wilkes. "It doesn't matter if you are hauling cigarettes or electronics, it is vulnerable for theft. Criminals are getting more sophisticated and seem to stay one step ahead of companies trying to keep loads secure."

More than crime

While I-81 may provide access and a quick getaway for criminals who strike in the borough, Carlisle's six-term mayor, Kirk Wilson, said the traffic tie-ups from major accidents on the highway are a much bigger headache than its associated crime.

More truck traffic from the warehouses that have sprouted near I-81 has only compounded the problem, he said.

"What happens is they close down the interstate, and that traffic ends up coming down our main street," he said. "That brings traffic to standstill for the entire community."

It is not just a quality-of-life issue, it is a matter of safety, Wilson continued.

"It (the detour) blocks the north-to-south and east-to-west flow of traffic in Carlisle," he said. "It makes it especially difficult for emergency apparatus to get through."

About 35 miles south of Carlisle, Chambersburg Mayor Peter Laviogne agreed with Wilson that Interstate 81 does not contribute greatly to his town's crime problem. Overall, it is a benefit to the economy of the town, which has a population of about 18,500, he said.

"I'm sure there are criminals that use 81 on a regular basis. But we haven't had any real significant street-level crime that I would attribute to it," he said. "Chambersburg is a small enough community that the issues we could have associated with 81, we don't have here. We have a good police force and a good undercover operation, so it would be hard for someone to set up shop without us knowing about it."

John Latimer can be reached at johnlatimer@ldnews.com; 272-5611, ext. 149


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"Interstate 81: Troubled Highway" is a Central Pennsylvania Joint Reporting Project by the news staffs of the Public Opinion, Chambersburg; Th…

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