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    Talking GRANDMA AND THE POT LEAF (no its not what you think)

    Border agents chase the contraband with close eye on travellers

    Gerard Young Times Colonist Monday, February 21, 2005

    Customs officer Ken Moore was baffled when his detector dog Lego kept chasing down an 80-year-old woman pulling a suitcase after she had just come off the Clipper ferry from Seattle.

    The 31/2 year old black Lab is trained to sit when he detects illegal drugs or the oil or powder from a handgun. But a little old lady?

    "The picture didn't fit," Moore said.

    He was even more confused when a search of the luggage revealed just what you might expect in an elderly traveller's luggage. Certainly, no drugs or guns.

    After a closer look, Moore found a single marijuana leaf attached to the wheel of the suitcase. The woman inadvertently picked up the leaf somewhere on her travels.

    Moore as well as Scott Abrahamson and Mara Gibbons, of the Canada Border Service Agency, shared anecdotes in order to put some perspective to just-released CBSA annual statistics.

    Agency staff processed more than 707,000 travellers last year through the Port of Victoria, including arrivals by seaplane, private vessel, ferry and cruise ship.

    There were 180 drug seizures, 13 seized weapons, including tear gas, stun guns and hand guns.

    Moore, Abrahamson and Gibbons are members of the CBSA mobile enforcement team for Victoria, Sidney and the Gulf Islands. The team comprises a superintendent and five officers as well as Lego.

    Their base is the government dock on Wharf Street where they also operate MV Portcullis, a 25-foot rigid hull inflatable vessel, filled with navigation and technological gadgets.

    Much of their work is routine. Many private vessels coming into Victoria from the United States phone ahead to the agency's downtown call centre to make a verbal declaration, or call from a dockside phone at the government dock.

    Duty officers can clear them by phone or call in a mobile enforcement team member for a closer inspection. They also attend the downtown ferry terminal to interview travellers arriving on the Coho or to docks for seaplanes. Lego and Moore also get called to the airport.

    They do not do surveillance as a rule, depending on other agencies to track down illegal activity. But they will work with other agencies once a suspect is tracked down.

    Their primary role is to ensure anyone coming to Canada reports their arrival once in local waters, which begins nine or 10 nautical miles outside the harbour, and that they are not carrying contraband.

    Some days they will check a marina to see whether boats have reported, on other days they will patrol the waters between Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

    Abrahamson recalls last October being out around Pender Island's Bedwell Harbour where officers spotted an 18-foot speed boat with two men on board.

    After checking to see whether those on board had declared and observing the vessel through binoculars, they approached the boat.

    "It was unusual," Abrahamson said. "They were dressed completely in black ... I would say Ninja outfits."

    That included balaclavas and goggles, leaving only their eyes and noses exposed. The boat was seized for not declaring and a subsequent search found a duffel bag with 51/2 kilograms of pot.

    Ironically, the boat only docked as the fuel gauge was broken and indicated it was running low on gas. Otherwise, the boat might have continued undetected.

    "They had lots of fuel," Abrahamson said.

    One of Gibbons' most memorable events was being part of the team that investigated a container ship arriving in Vancouver from Asia.

    Two of the containers each carried 18 Chinese citizens being smuggled from Fujian to somewhere in North America. While it wasn't in Victoria, local customs officers five years ago dealt with several boats involved in human smuggling from that region.

    "You feel sorry for these people," she said. "Who knows how much money they had to put up for the journey and they left family back home."

    What surprised her the most was how well dressed the migrants were, most had new clothes, some still with the tags. The shipping containers were set up with individual sleeping areas and lots of food and water.

    While the three have many interesting stories, it is clear Lego is the star. He loves his job. And he's good at it. His sister Molly works out of Vancouver airport and his brother Lord works with federal corrections.

    Last fall, Lego's nose led him to a young man coming off the Coho ferry from Port Angeles. He sits beside his subject when he smells something rather than pawing or barking as detector dogs once did.

    Officers found $25,000 US in a CD case on the young man, who insisted he had arrived from Washington state to buy a boat, though he could not provide any information about the seller.

    Most currency above a $20 bill, more so with American money, has traces of drugs, usually cocaine, on it. That indicates how widespread drug use is and how well travelled cash can be.

    Canadian laws require travellers to declare any money over $10,000. In this case, the money was seized.

    Lego and Moore also get called out by local police departments as part of a mutual aid agreement. But it is not all work, as the pair also get to talk to school classes about drugs.

    Overall, the CBSA, which morphed from the split Canada Customs and Revenue Agency in December 2003, has more than 1,500 officers at 42 land, air and marine ports of entry in the Pacific Region. Overall, they processed more than 18 million travellers last year.

    PHOTO CREDIT: Deddeda Stemler, Times Colonist
    Customs officer Ken Moore commisserates with Lego, a detector dog trained to sniff out drugs and firearms, aboard MV Portcullis in the Inner Harbour with fellow agents Mara Gibbons and Scott Abrahamson on deck.

    Times Colonist (Victoria) 2005
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