By Ed Runyan
A lot of mystery surrounded the announcement this month that 15 new Ford Fusions shipped to a “rail yard in the Warren, Ohio, area” contained smuggled marijuana in the spare-tire compartment.
One mystery was, where is there a Warren rail yard? The city once had several active rail lines, but trains are rare these days.
Turns out the rail yard is tucked into a rail-heavy part of Lordstown village adjacent to the Ohio Commerce Center on state Route 45. It’s about a half-mile west of Route 45 off of Lyntz Road. It’s owned by the rail company CSX Transportation and operated by a CSX subsidiary, North American Rail Services.
When CSX was asked last week to discuss the security measures it takes to protect vehicles at the rail yard and in transport, a company spokesman referred The Vindicator to “investigating agencies.”
“CSX complies with all federal requirements for security of the shipments that we transport, but I don’t have a lot of details about specific measures,” said CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle.
He also didn’t respond when asked what steps CSX took, if any, after learning that Fusions built in Hermosillo, Mexico, also were used to smuggle marijuana to two locations in Minnesota this year.
CSX does not operate any rail lines west of the Mississippi River, Doolittle said. The Fusions entered the United States in Arizona. It’s not known when the drugs were placed in the Fusions, and Doolittle didn’t reply to a question asking whether CSX trains or rail lines transport Fusions.
Hermosillo is an academic center for the state of Sonora, Mexico, but it also has experienced narcotics-related violence, according to a March U.S. Department of State security bulletin. Hermosillo is about 220 miles south of Tucson, Ariz.
During a Vindicator visit to the CSX rail yard in Lords- town, the rail yard manager referred all questions to CSX.
For years, there have been acres of parking in the Lords- town rail yard, which is surrounded by rail lines. Auto manufacturers from all over North America ship new cars to the rail yard, including General Motors, Ford and Toyota. Cars and light trucks are off-loaded and stored on asphalt parking areas until car dealerships order them.
Truck drivers from several auto-carrier-trucking companies deliver them to dealerships within a couple hundred miles.
Last year, CSX expanded the facility by 21.6 acres, which it bought from car-hauler Cassens Transport, according to minutes of the June 14, 2016, Lordstown Planning Commission meeting. The additional space brought CSX’s total area there to almost 83 acres and increased its acreage of parking space.
The space was needed to accommodate “additional business” CSX had been awarded, said Bryce Thomas of CSX Transportation. The additional space also will accommodate the “seasonality” of automobiles, such as storing vehicles when new car models are rolled out in the fall, he said.
CSX said the expansion would increase the number of employees working for North American Rail Services by four or five. The automakers hire the trucking companies, and Cassens was looking to add five more drivers, Thomas said.
Most of the trucking is done during the daytime, Thomas said. The rail-yard property is surrounded by 8-foot fencing that has three strands of barbed wire at the top, CSX said. The facility has lighting.
Brent Milhoan, Lordstown police chief, said the facility has security personnel, and the police department rarely gets called there for any problem. He could not recall a single break-in report there.
As for the marijuana found July 7 in the spare-tire compartment of 15 Ford Fusions shipped to the Lordstown CSX rail yard after being built in Hermosillo, Milhoan says he believes the smugglers meant for the drugs to be removed before they reached Lordstown.
CASES FROM 2015, 2016
His department investigated in August 2015 when marijuana was attached to the bottom of a Fusion in the Lordstown rail yard.
It also investigated when it received a phone call last summer from an auto dealership saying it found marijuana in the trunk of a Ford that came through the Lordstown rail yard.
In the 2015 incident, Lords- town Detective Chris Bordonaro theorized that marijuana was removed from 11 Fusions shipped to Lords- town during an 18-hour stop in Chicago. The smugglers apparently missed one Fusion with marijuana still attached, and it made it to Lordstown.
Milhoan said he’s seen how rail cars are tightly loaded when carrying automobiles. He thinks it would be difficult for someone to get into the trunk of a Fusion to remove marijuana.
But a source in the industry says he thinks it’s possible. For one thing, many Fords allow trunk access through the back seat. There’s also room enough inside rail cars to raise the trunk a foot or so.
The source said he’s heard of cars sitting in rail cars as long as a week, waiting for a sufficient number of rail cars to accumulate to make the trip to Ohio.
He said long stops like that in possibly remote areas out West would seem like a logical time for smugglers to retrieve marijuana from the cars.
In the three instances this year of marijuana being smuggled in Fusions, including the recent case in Lordstown, the drug was in the space in the trunk for a full-sized spare tire.
A full-sized spare tire is an option available in the Ford Fusion, but not all Fusions have them, the source told The Vindicator.
It makes sense that someone in Hermosillo, Mexico, is helping the smugglers identify Fusions that have a full-sized spare tire, the source said. He thinks the smugglers are also getting access to the cars’ “key card” or just the numbers from the card.
A key card, which looks like a credit card, contains numbers that can be used to access the car through a code-panel on the driver’s door. It also allows someone to track the car’s movements, which would help a smuggler locate the car so the drugs could be removed, the source said.
Kelli Felker, communications manager for Ford, said the company is taking marijuana smuggling in Ford Fusions “very seriously” and working with investigators on an “extensive investigation.”
She said Ford has also “confirmed that this is not happening at our plant or at our internal shipping yards,” though she declined to provide any documentation showing why Ford believes this.
She said the fact that Fords made at the Hermosillo plant have been used multiple times to smuggle drugs is not an indication that the Hermosillo plant is in some way responsible for the smuggling.
The Youngstown office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is among the agencies investigating the 15 Fusions with marijuana in the trunks.
Bob Balzano, who runs the Youngstown DEA office, said he is “unaware of evidence directly linking Ford Motor Co. to the seized marijuana,” in spite of the multiple smuggling operations involving Fusions.
“The drugs could have been placed in the vehicles anywhere along the transportation chain,” he said.