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County ICE team nets largest drug haul in 2014

What should have been a typical traffic stop turned into the largest cocaine haul in 2014 for all of South Carolina and the largest in Clarendon County law enforcement history. Clarendon County Sheriff's Dep. 1st Class Brandon Braxton said "some things just seemed off" about the car he and Dep. 1st Class Andrew Beasley stopped about 11 p.m. one hot May night last year. The pair make up the county's Interstate Crime Enforcement team, which is focused on "criminal interdiction on the Interstate, which means everything from drugs to fraudulent checks to counterfeit goods," Braxton said. "We're trained to pick up on certain things that may be off about vehicles or suspects during traffic stops," Braxton said. "And with that traffic stop, things stuck out." Braxton and Beasley have special training provided by the county at state and national programs that alert them "to anomalies that would let one know possible criminal behavior is present," Beasley said. Ultimately, the suspects in the May 2014 stop allowed a search of the vehicle. "We noticed that the seats had been removed before, so we took the seats out again," Braxton said. Underneath was 121 pounds - or 55 kilos - of powder cocaine, 10 times the highest amount previously found during one incident in Clarendon County. "It's a staggering amount," Braxton said. "On a normal drug arrest, you might see your user have a gram on them at the most, or even less than a gram. You come across a street-level drug sale, the suspect might have half-an-ounce or a little more on him." "These types of guys, the guys who carry that many kilos, they're part of the big picture," Beasley said. "This is trafficking." The suspects, the deputies noted, fabricated a compartment underneath the car in the "natural void" of the vehicle. "It's extra space the manufacturer doesn't do anything with," Braxton said. "They put sound-dampening material or styrofoam down there." This particular car had cocaine spread "from the vehicle's firewall all the way to the rear passenger's seats," Beasley said. "It was all underneath this vehicle," he said. And, initially, the deputies didn't stop the vehicle because they suspected criminal behavior. They didn't even stop the driver for speeding excessively. "It was for improper lane use," Braxton said. "He crossed over into the emergency lane. With our DUI laws, it's a good sign you might be impaired if you're doing that. Or you could be under the influence of drugs. You could just be falling asleep at the wheel or having a diabetic problem. Either way that's dangerous and you might just need our help."

"This just turned into something a whole lot bigger," Beasley said. "We never expected this at all." Braxton said he believes the driver of the vehicle stopped last year was simply paying more attention to the deputies than he was to the road. "I think it was likely a nerves thing," Braxton said. "He was definitely paying more attention to us, and he swerved a few times." Braxton said most of their stops that produce criminal activity are from "minor issues" the deputies initially notice. "When you're involved in any type of criminal behavior and you're riding the interstate from one place to another, even if you're just going from Florence to Clarendon County, you're not going to be running 100 mph or passing people right and left," he said. "You're going to be trying to get under the radar. A lot of times, it's a broken taillight or the improper use of lane that makes the stop. And like the one last year, the stop just turns into something else. We look for the smallest things. Those typically turn into the big cases." Braxton said he and Beasley do see a lot of drugs in their jurisdiction - which solely includes the 30-mile stretch of Interstate 95 running through Clarendon County. "But that's not all we do," he said. "We're not working drug interdiction; we're working criminal interdiction." That includes counterfeit goods or credit cards, stolen firearms and vehicles and even wanted fugitives. "If you can imagine it, we've found it," Beasley said. "You name it, if it travels that interstate. We've found it at some point." Started by Sheriff Randy Garrett in 2013, the ICE team has brought in thousands in legal drug currency Braxton noted. "This year, since January, we're up to maybe $30,000 in legal currency," Braxton said. "The legal drug money goes into a narcotics fund, and the sheriff can use that money to further local efforts in hurting the drug trade." That includes more training for Braxton and Beasley that doesn't cost taxpayers any money. "It helps everyone: It keeps the drugs off our streets and keeps taxpayers from having to pay for more training," Braxton said. "And by keeping those drugs off our streets, major enterprises see a place like Clarendon County is safe and that they can expand and grow their businesses here." Braxton said ultimately that public safety is the main goal of the ICE team. "Sheriff Garrett wants us out there and wants us to be seen," Braxton said. "Even if we don't make that stop or that arrest, these folks involved in criminal activity riding up and down the interstate see us on the road and they might not stop at Exit 119 or Exit 108 to eat or get gas. They don't stop in our county, and that's good for the public's safety." "The criminal element sees us stopping cars and all these blue lights," Braxton continued. "It just deters a lot of bad things from happening."


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