By Ed Runyan
Last week was not the first time that marijuana made its way from Mexico to the United States inside the spare-tire compartments of Ford Fusions via the CSX rail yard in Lordstown.
An Aug. 7, 2015, incident at the same rail yard, which is off state Route 45, never made the news, but the Lordstown Police Department on Monday provided the details after Jeff Orr, former Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force commander, revealed the case to The Vindicator.
In that case, bales of marijuana were found attached to the underside of a new Ford Fusion at the rail yard.
Detective Chris Bordonaro of the Lordstown police said the rail yard notified Lordstown officers after finding 50 to 100 pounds of marijuana attached to the Fusion.
It appeared tape was used to secure the marijuana, and remnants of the tape were found on 11 other vehicles, suggesting the drugs had been off-loaded from about 11 Fusions, Bordonaro said.
Like in the current case, the rail car carrying the Fusions in 2015 had come from Hermosillo, Mexico. In that case, it sat idle in Chicago 18 hours before coming to Lordstown, leading to a theory the drugs were off-loaded in Chicago but a smuggler missed one vehicle, Bordonaro said.
Also, during the summer of 2016, a Ford dealership near Pittsburgh called Lordstown police to say a car that had come through the CSX rail yard had come to the dealership with marijuana packaged in the car’s spare-tire space, Bordonaro said.
The July 7 discovery of marijuana inside the spare-tire compartment of a Ford Fusion led to an investigation by Portage County law enforcement and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the finding of about 450 pounds of marijuana in the compartments of 15 Ford Fusions that came through the Lordstown rail yard.
Law-enforcement officials say the Fusions were made in Hermosillo, and the marijuana may have been planted in the cars by a Mexican drug cartel.
The story of the marijuana being found in the Fusions has attracted worldwide attention.
In fact, the driver in the July 7 incident acknowledges there also are safety reasons why people fear calling police about drugs – fear of the cartels.
“These are the kind of people who might be very vindictive,” the driver said.
The Vindicator is withholding his name.
The driver said the July 7 incident began with a Fusion he delivered to a Kent dealership. Only one of the 15 Fusions was on his carrier. Other carriers delivered other Fusions.
The Fusion “was on my auto carrier, and when the [auto dealership employee] popped the trunk to where the spare tire should be, it [the marijuana] was sitting there,” he said. “Not knowing what it was, [the auto dealership employee] took a pocket knife and cut it open. When he opened it, we saw it was marijuana.”
The dealership employee said, “‘What do you want to do?’ I said it’s a no-brainer. I’m calling the cops, so I called the Kent Police Department.”
The driver said it’s possible his company may discipline him for not checking the trunk to inspect the spare tire before he got to the dealership, but he says there are hundreds of drivers hauling cars from that rail yard, and he doesn’t believe any of them check the spare tire.
“But they will check now,” he said.
The driver said one of the drug investigators he spoke with told him he’s lucky because sometimes drug shipments are booby-trapped to explode if the person finding the drugs doesn’t know how to disarm it.
“It’s sad. It’s like a movie,” he said, noting this is the first time he’s encountered this during many years of driving a car hauler. Authorities estimate the street value of the marijuana seized to be between $400,000 and $1 million.
After The Vindicator’s story garnered national attention this past weekend, the Ford Motor Co. issued a statement.
“We’re aware of the situation and are taking it very seriously,” said Kelli Felker, Ford’s communication manager for manufacturing and labor. “We are working with the FBI and Customs on an extensive investigation. We have confirmed that this is not happening at our plant or at our internal shipping yards.”
Felker said she doesn’t believe the vehicle identification numbers for the Fusions used for the smuggling would have alerted drug smugglers which cars had a space for a full-size tire in the trunk.
In a separate incident March 10, the Associated Press reported railroad police notified the police department in Dilworth, Minn., that marijuana was found in a Ford Fusion from Mexico. Police searched more than 400 other vehicles in the Dilworth rail yard and found 217 pounds of marijuana packaged and sealed to look like spare tires in seven new Fusions from Mexico, Dilworth Police Chief Ty Sharpe said.
At the Arizona-Sonora border in May 2015, the Mexican military found 430 pounds of marijuana in the spare-tire spaces of 14 new cars inside a rail car in Nogales, Sonora.
Portage County Sheriff David Doak said one of the techniques the smugglers apparently used was to mark each of the Fusions that had the drugs inside to aid the smugglers in recovery of the drugs. He didn’t want to reveal more specific information for investigative reasons.
Doak said his officers received a phone call from the Kent car dealership about the drugs in the Fusion trunk.
The task force went on to seize marijuana in the trunks of Fusions at dealerships in Portage, Stark and Columbiana counties, as well as one in Pennsylvania, Doak said. Five vehicles carrying marijuana were still at the rail yard.
Orr, the former commander of the Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force, said TAG didn’t publicize the 2015 case because it was in the midst of an investigation and investigators didn’t want to “tip anyone off.”
Orr, who will begin a new job with a drug-treatment facility later this month, said this type of smuggling “happens every day” because there are not enough immigration and border-patrol agents to stop it.
Youngstown DEA agent Bob Balzano said he believes the same cartel used the same method as at the Lordstown rail yard in April when it shipped marijuana into Minnesota. Balzano said he’s not certain whether the drugs were planted in the car in Mexico or in the United States.
Investigators are following “a few domestic leads” in the most recent case, he said.
In the fallout of the story, the driver told The Vindicator he was irritated to discover some people in the new-car and hauling industry are not supportive of his decision to call police.
It appears the companies involved would have preferred the matter to be referred to Ford security instead of the local police.
He says he’s gotten some “cold-shoulder” treatment since the incident and believes the reason is the auto industry and companies that work with it don’t want bad publicity over the fact new cars are being used to smuggle drugs into the United States.
“I’m not going to jail for some marijuana,” he said.