I-65 car-stop nets $360,000
Friday, June 06, 2008By BRENDAN KIRBYStaff Reporter
A search of Eduardo Hampl-Amaya's car in April turned up no drugs, but something still didn't seem right to the Saraland police officer who had pulled him over on Interstate 65.
Hampl-Amaya appeared nervous and fidgety, failing to make eye contact and picking up rocks from the roadside, according to a federal affidavit.
Then Sgt. Greg Cully noticed that the rear wheel well of the 2001 Chevrolet Astro was strangely rubbery. Investigating further, he found fresh silicone, according to the affidavit.
Cully asked Hampl-Amaya to follow him to the police station, where officers discovered $20 and $100 bills duct-taped in 21 separate bundles in hidden compartments on the sides of the car.
The bills added up to $360,040. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators believe that it was drug money on its way to Mexican suppliers. Investigators said they also took $2,005 from Hampl-Amaya's wallet and another $598 that was in his pocket.
Hampl-Amaya, a 36-year-old Mexican man who had entered the U.S. illegally, pleaded not guilty on Thursday in Mobile to a number of federal charges. Those included smuggling cash, making false statements and smuggling goods.
He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the smuggling counts, although the actual prison sentence likely would be less under advisory guidelines.
"He told them he didn't know the money was there," Federal Defender Carlos Williams said.
A federal agent praised the work of Cully, who last year was responsible for a $10 million cocaine seizure during a traffic stop on I-65. It was the second-largest such seizure in Alabama in 2007.
"I don't know if he's part bird dog. He smells dope," said Dwight McDaniel, the assistant special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations in Alabama. "In the last year, the guy's done something most officers don't do in a career."
Saraland Police Chief Gerald Young said Cully works on a three-officer team that patrols the interstate in 12-hour shifts for drugs, illicit money, illegal immigrants and contraband.
Young said Cully has been specially trained to spot unusual driving that may signal other irregularities. "He's very good at what he does," the police chief said. "It is definitely not profiling. ... It's not just random pull them over for what they look like or what the car looks like."
In Hampl-Amaya's case, the affidavit said, he was following too close to the marked police car, and shifting lanes in an odd manner.
Hampl-Amaya told Cully that he was traveling between Atlanta and Mexico after searching for equipment to work on roadways. Asked why he wasn't making such a long trip by air, Hampl-Amaya said he wanted to look at the scenery and at the big ship in Pensacola, according to the affidavit.
Later, Hampl-Amaya said he had met a man six months earlier while on his honeymoon in Mexico who told him he could pick up extra money by driving a car. At the time of the honeymoon, according to the affidavit, Hampl-Amaya was working as a restaurant manager in Baja, Mexico, and was looking for extra money so he could open a paint store.
Hampl-Amaya said that he got a call on April 26 from an unidentified man who told him to pick up a car in Mexico and drive it to Atlanta.
Immigration records show that customs officials at the border in Eagle Pass, Texas, searched Hampl-Amaya's car with a drug-sniffing dog on April 26. The dog signaled the possible presence of drugs, but two searches yielded none, and Hampl-Amaya drove away.
Hampl-Amaya entered the United States 11 times within the last two years, according to immigration records cited in the affidavit.
Young said he started the I-65 interdiction unit about four years ago and added a third officer in 2007. He said he plans to expand the unit.
"This is a major artery for criminal activity," he said. "This cuts down on crime in my city."
There's another benefit, too: Saraland gets to keep most of the money it seizes. In the last two years, Young said, his Police Department has used forfeited money to buy 12 police cars and several sport utility vehicles.
"That's things we needed that we would have bought anyway," he said. "That would have been bought with taxpayer money."
Saving the taxpayer money with every seizure.