FOX 11 Investigates drug trafficking on interstate

(WLUK) -- Interstate 41 makes a lot of things easier. It allows for faster travel from city to city, faster deliveries. But police say it also makes things easier for drug traffickers.

"We are out there and we are looking for these people and looking to stop drugs," said Chief Deputy Ryan Waldschmidt from the Fond du Lac County Sheriff's Department.

Every day, tens of thousands of vehicles travel along Interstate 41.

"That's well-known to be a major thoroughfare for drugs," Waldschmidt said. "We're an hour from three of the biggest cities in Wisconsin: Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay. And we're literally in the center of those three so a lot of the trafficking that would go between those cities comes through Fond du Lac, even if it doesn't stop here. It's moving through here."

Case in point: August 2016. A sheriff's deputy on routine patrol made what is sometimes considered a routine traffic stop on Interstate 41.

"No traffic stop is ever really routine," Waldschmidt said.

"It was near the end of that deputy's shift. It was 6:30 in the morning," Waldschmidt said of the stop. "Decides to make a quick traffic stop and it turns into one of the largest heroin conspiracy cases that Fond du Lac county has seen."

Police say after smelling marijuana, the deputy searched the vehicle. And founds drugs.

"It's the largest amount of heroin I've seen seized in Fond du Lac County," Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney said.

Toney says that traffic stop sparked a months-long investigation.

“About 10 individuals were charged with over $1-million heroin conspiracy,” Toney said.

The case highlights a reality that law enforcement knows well.

"It can be in any car that we stop," Sgt. Andy Jacobs from the Wisconsin State Patrol told FOX 11 Investigates.

Jacobs says so-called routine traffic stops often lead to much more.

“That happens on a daily basis,” Jacobs said. “You do a simple speed stop because a person was going a little bit too fast. And all of the sudden when you walk up you notice the signs of impairment. That's how most investigations start is off a small traffic stop for something that seems meaningless.”

“Certainly, having the Interstate corridor that runs through Fond du Lac, Winnebago and Outagamie counties and large metropolitan areas that connect to those, it is a natural progression for things to move interstate traffic where these things are coming in our area,” said Brian Liethen, Special-Agent-in-Charge of the Lake Winnebago Area MEG Unit.

Traffic stops play a major role in the way police are cracking on drug traffickers. Agencies are working together to hold targeted, drug enforcement operations.

“What we try to do is stop a volume of cars just to increase our chances that we can locate those drugs,” Jacobs said.

During the operations, police pull over vehicles for any violation, even minor ones. Police dogs are brought in if needed.

“Stopping cars for speed, stopping cars for headlights. Find a legal reason to stop the car, make contact with the person. Make sure that they're not impaired. Look for those indicators or drug use that you see in the vehicle and then if you do see some of that stuff, then we have the K-9 there to assist us,” Jacobs said.

“They do exterior sniffs of vehicles on traffic stops to do an air sniff to search for drugs,” Waldschmidt said.

Investigators says drugs are easy to hide and more potent than ever before.

“A very small amount still can be a significant quantity. The areas in someone can conceal those within their vehicle or on their person make it an extra challenge,” Liethen said.

While it's not always easy to track down drug traffickers, law enforcement is working on it.

“The public needs to know that between the undercover work we're doing and the work that patrol is doing out there, our K-9's are doing out there and searching cars, there's probably a lot more drug investigations going on than the public even realizes,” Waldschmidt said.

Police say one of the best sources of information is the general public. Investigators tell me they take every tip they get seriously. They add that even if the tip doesn't lead to results right away, the information could be one piece in the puzzle they're trying to solve.

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