MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Every year, an estimated $12 billion in drug profits are smuggled south into Mexico, and that's turned some American highways into rivers of money. Smart law-enforcement agencies have learned how to dip their buckets in the stream; it's called highway interdiction. Alert agents can spot vehicles smuggling drugs and increasingly, money. Today we meet Eddie Ingram, the $11 million man; he may be the nation's most successful and controversial highway interdiction officer.
NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT: At lunchtime, you'll likely find Eddie Ingram here at Phil's Barbecue in Eufala, Alabama.
Chief Deputy EDDIE INGRAM (Barbour County Sheriff's Office): There ain't nothing bad here at all. I eat here about four days a week. It's good.
BURNETT: He'll be sitting at a table in the back with his husky son Jesse, who's a new deputy, hunched over a plate of chicken salad with a cup of sweet tea. Eddie Ingram is 48 years old and big. He bench presses 300.
(Soundbite of restaurant)
BURNETT: Ingram is a great believer in highway interdiction. The theory is that criminals have to be mobile. They're moving between crimes. They're carrying contraband, and they're bound to slip up. When an officer stops a vehicle for any moving violation, he should not treat the driver simply as a speeder. He should regard him as a possible felon.
Deputy INGRAM: You get a lot of burglars, rapists, murderers, armed robbery suspects, child molesters. It's not just the drug couriers or the money couriers we recognize, it's everybody.
BURNETT: But it's the money couriers who've made Eddie Ingram famous in law enforcement across the South. He and the officers he supervised have uncovered more than $11 million in drug assets in the past 15 years. Like treasure hunters, police agencies that make a seizure can keep up to 80 percent of it, but Ingram cautions you can't treat the highway like an ATM machine.
Deputy INGRAM: And if you get money, God bless America. It's a wonderful thing. You know, taking drug money and using it for the good that the taxpayers don't have to pay is the best thing in the world. But that ain't what our sole purpose in life is. I mean, if all I want to is get money, I know how to get out there and get all the money I want.
BURNETT: Ingram's record at sniffing out drug money has made him a valuable addition to every law-enforcement agency where he's worked. One federal agent called him a rainmaker. Ingram is currently employed by the sheriff's department in Barbour County, Alabama, about 150 miles south of Atlanta. He and Sheriff Leroy Upshaw push back from the table after lunch, working their toothpicks thoughtfully.
Deputy INGRAM: Take the sheriff, for instance. If I come in here and bring him $100,000, is he going to be jumping up and down? Absolutely. If I bring him four or five kilos, is he going to be jumping up and down? Not as high.
BURNETT: The Barbour County Sheriff's Office exemplifies the situation that NPR found in our reporting in department after department, particularly in the South. Many police agencies have grown dependent on confiscated drug money - an outcome specifically discouraged by state and federal laws. Seized assets are supposed to be only a supplement. But listen to Sheriff Leroy Upshaw.
Sheriff LEROY UPSHAW (Barbour County Sheriff's Office): We're a very poor department. Our county commissioner don't allow us any money for equipment. So we use seized drug money to buy basic items that should be provided to us, such as bulletproof vests, gun belts, guns. Nine out of 14 of my cars have been paid with drug money.
Deputy INGRAM: I can't think of a county anywhere I've ever worked that needed it worse than we do right here, to be honest with you.
BURNETT: And with that, it's time to go to work.
Deputy INGRAM: Okey-dokey.
BURNETT: Ingram climbs into his white Ford Crown Victoria and heads out onto U.S. Highway 431, the main north-south thoroughfare through Barbour County.
Deputy INGRAM: I look for things that just are different, and there's no one way to explain it. There's no one indicator. I just look for people that try to fit in that make themselves stand out.
BURNETT: Without giving away his secrets, here's one thing Ingram looks for: If the speed limit is 65 miles per hour, most people will drive 75. But someone wanted by the law will go 65 or less, and avoid eye contact with the cop who pulls up next to him. Ingram calls them stress-induced indicators. Ingram has gotten so good at spotting suspicious vehicles that he formed his own training academy. He figures he's trained 15,000 to 20,000 officers. Some of them now run their own training seminars.
After the classroom portion, Ingram takes his students out on the highway for hands-on experience. If they make a stop and find hidden currency, his employer, the Barbour County Sheriff's Office, gets to keep 40 percent of the assets. The DEA frowns on this arrangement. One agent in Birmingham called it mercenary. Ingram asserts it's perfectly legal, and other highway interdiction trainers across the South do it, too. But that doesn't mean it passes the smell test, says Jack Killorin. He's the Atlanta-based chairman of the Domestic Highway Enforcement Project under the White House drug czar's office.
Mr. JACK KILLORIN (Chairman, Domestic Highway Enforcement Project): That's a pretty questionable practice. You know, it's not piracy. I don't think we're flying the Jolly Roger here, but it's at best privateering.
BURNETT: Controversy has sometimes shadowed Ingram. Earlier this decade, when he was a captain on the highway interdiction team at the Villa Rica Police Department, 30 miles west of Atlanta, there were complaints of racial profiling. The Department of Justice investigated, found problems, and appointed a monitor to oversee improvements. When asked about this and about his reputation in general for pushing the envelope of highway interdiction, Ingram bridles.
Deputy INGRAM: And if anybody faults me for getting out here and trying to make a difference, they can kiss my tail. And I don't care who it is, because I raised my children. That boy you met this morning? His mother's dead now on account of drugs. I hate drugs. I put three of my first cousins and my brother-in-law in prison, and I'll put yours in prison.
BURNETT: He then told the story of his ex-wife, Cynthia. According to him, she became a meth addict and died in a drug-related accident in 1998, after they had divorced. The next year, his friend and mentor, Captain Robbie Bishop, was shot and killed during a highway interdiction stop in Villa Rica. Those deaths, he says, changed him.
Deputy INGRAM: I was always dedicated, more or less, but it really focused me on what needs to be done out here.
Central (unintelligible). Go ahead, (unintelligible).
BURNETT: A call comes in for a backup to a traffic stop. Ingram guns his Crown Vic and flies past an antiques store, a public library and a VFW post, and comes to a stop in front of a church marquee that reads, Jesus is coming soon. A thin woman in a polka-dot blouse and jeans, holding a baby, stands beside a dented sedan. The sheriff is interviewing her, while her husband stands nearby, glowering.
Unidentified Woman: I ain't had nothing to drink but one beer, and that wasn't in the morning. That was at 6 o'clock, and that's been four or five hours ago. So you can give me a Breathalyzer, or whatever.
BURNETT: Ingram crawls into the back seat and with a swift, practiced technique, searches the seat cushion, the baby carrier and the floorboard. The driver holds her infant on her hip and rolls her eyes.
Unidentified Woman: I don't even do crack or cocaine. That's crazy.
BURNETT: He can't find anything. So it's time to cut them loose.
Deputy INGRAM: Have a good day.
Unidentified Woman: You too.
Deputy INGRAM: Bye-bye.
Unidentified Woman: Bye.
Deputy INGRAM: Don't drink no more.
Unidentified Woman: OK, I won't. I promise.
BURNETT: Then Chief Deputy Eddie Ingram drives back toward his favorite spot on the grassy median, where he'll sit and wait to see what the highway brings him.
John Burnett, NPR News.
BLOCK: Our series Dirty Money concludes tomorrow, when we'll hear how some law-enforcement operations misuse forfeited assets, and what's being done to stop them.