LOMA –– A patch of asphalt interrupts the median of Interstate 70 on an empty stretch of scrubby desert 10 miles east of the Utah border. It is a perfect spot for watching vehicles blow through on commutes, vacations, recreational outings, commercial load-hauling trips. And drug smuggling missions.
For more than two decades, Mesa County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Miller has been parking on this bit of asphalt to intercept drugs on a major artery for moving contraband that most often originates with cartels in Mexico.
Miller has become a legend for pulling more drugs off the interstate at this west-of-Grand Junction outpost than at any other interstate interdiction point in Colorado. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that he is responsible for more than 1,000 seizures that have yielded more than 20 tons of drugs over the years.
To do this job, Miller spends long hours sitting in a Tahoe SUV with a Batman sticker on the front and a drug-sniffing German shepherd named C.J. in the back. From this vantage point, Miller can eagle eye the interstate parade – the Jesus-Is-My-Co-pilot-stickered minivans, the magnesium-chloride-encrusted sedans, the loaded semis, the fancy black SUVs with tinted windows, the four-wheel-drives bristling with skis and bikes.
He is not just watching them. He is, in his words, “reading” them.
“I am looking for that person making an effort to blend in,” Miller explains as vehicles whiz by. “I have learned to see what’s normal, and what’s not.”
This is what he has noticed as abnormal in the past seven weeks:
On the first day of December, Miller scored one of his more significant busts ever. He uncovered 67 pounds of methamphetamine and 2 pounds of fentanyl pills hidden in a diesel tank in the back of a pickup truck driving in the passing lane.
Five days before Christmas, Miller stopped a California rental car that was driving in the passing lane. The driver and his passenger gave nervous, conflicting accounts of their travel plans before agreeing to a search. A check with a rental agency showed that neither person in the vehicle was on the rental agreement. A search turned up nearly 31 pounds of suspected methamphetamine in the trunk.
A day earlier, Miller was driving behind a minivan from California. The van crossed a rumble strip as it appeared the female driver was going to take an exit near Fruita. She then drove the van back onto the interstate. Miller pulled her over. C.J. alerted to the odor of drugs from behind the driver’s door. Suitcases inside a storage space contained 30 pounds of suspected methamphetamine.
In that same time period, Miller found 20 pounds of suspected methamphetamine tucked into the trunk of a black Mazda from Arizona that crossed the shoulder line numerous times. The Mazda was driven by a man who was shaking and sweating as Miller questioned him.
Last week, after a holiday vacation, Miller was back at it. He stopped a truck from Arizona that he observed weaving on the roadway at 2:30 a.m. and found 20 pounds of methamphetamine in the trunk.
The Sheriff’s Office hasn’t kept an individual tally of Miller’s seizures, but he is credited with a hefty portion of the overall interdictions of the Western Colorado Drug Task Force. The sheriff’s office works cooperatively with the task force.
In the past five years, the task force has snagged drugs worth $90 million in street value. That includes 66 pounds of cocaine, 60 pounds of heroin, 1,430 pounds of methamphetamine and $5 million in drug cash. Those busts have netted 871 arrests.
The Task Force has no statistics showing dispositions of those cases. Miller said few go to trial. They are usually resolved with plea bargains and often yield information that helps to string together drug networks across the country.
Seized cash flows to the task force and some comes back to local law enforcement departments to fund equipment and programs. The illicit drugs are destroyed.
Miller’s work has earned him national, regional and state awards for successful interdiction efforts. And they have made him a standout in Colorado law enforcement circles as well as a recognized scourge in drug-dealing circles far beyond Colorado.
“God, he’s been a legend for a long, long time. Mike is just out there going like the Energizer bunny,” said Tom Gorman, director of the four-state Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Task Force.
Gorman points out that what Miller has done in one stretch of rural roadway has had an immeasurable life-saving effect across the state.
“The amounts of drugs he’s taken off the streets – whose veins those would have been in, whose noses it would have been in — we will never know the impact of that,” he said.
Miller’s work has helped spotlight the amount of drugs passing through Colorado. It has led to more interdiction efforts by other agencies. The Colorado State Patrol has, in the past year and a half, assigned 25 officers to interdiction work around the state.
Those troopers intercepted 364 loads of drugs, cash, weapons and trafficked humans across Colorado in the past year.
Last week, a trooper found 23 pounds of suspected methamphetamine and a third of a pound of fentanyl pills hidden in panels in the back of the vehicle — a load the driver told investigators originated in Mexico. Gorman said if all the busts and the numbers sound impressive, in truth, the interdictions by all law enforcement likely account for only 10% of what moves through Colorado, on its way to other places where the drugs are repackaged and sold on the street.
Not giving up the secrets of the search
Back on that strip of asphalt, Miller is tight-lipped about describing exactly what he looks for in the passing lines of cars. When pressed for specifics, he puts on the same disarming grin he uses when he slow-walks up to a pulled-over vehicle and slouches his 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pound frame over to peer inside the passenger-side window.
“I can’t tell the details. If I tell, I will just make them (the drug mules) better at what they do,” he says.
Miller drops a few clues. Part of his knowledge is based on tracking cartel trends in Mexico and California. He also pays attention to Asian and Canadian cartels. He and drug officers in other states share information about what is moving across the country at any given time and who is suspected of moving it.
Beyond that intelligence, Miller says anything and everything on the interstate can potentially be suspect. Kiddie car seats don’t imply innocence. Neither do youngsters belted into a backseat and purportedly headed to the grandparents for a visit. Elderly drivers are not to be overlooked. A 13-year-old driving a car with two adult passengers raises alarms. One has to wonder about barely-out-of-their-teens women who claim to be driving to a family reunion. Two women driving home from Disneyland – with no children — and two guys conspicuously snapping photos of bare hills as they pass Miller’s vehicle raise questions.
All these scenarios have yielded drug loads in the past.
Miller can’t pull suspicious vehicles over on appearances alone. He needs probable cause. The drivers need to be violating traffic laws – weaving, driving in the passing lane, failing to signal a lane change, following another vehicle too closely or crossing over the fog line on the right side of the highway. Their vehicles must have missing tags, expired tags, unreadable license plates or plates that turn up as wanted on the computer parked on a stand at eye level in Miller’s truck.
Miller compares the way he picks out his vehicles to an old playground game, Duck Duck Goose. In that game, players sit in a circle while one person makes the rounds tapping the others while calling out “duck,” before suddenly tagging one person by calling out “goose.”
Most of the vehicles passing by Miller on I-70 are ducks. But four to six times on an average day, Miller will key in on a goose and will accelerate his truck out of its median strip and catch up for a closer look. If something seems off, he flips on the overhead lights. Then comes that saunter to the passenger-side window.
“I give myself a minute and a half to decide if something is suspicious,” he says.
If those in the vehicles are shaking, twitching, thick-tongued, stuttering or exhibiting facial tics – that raises suspicion. If they blurt out obviously rehearsed stories, or if their stories have holes in them, those are strong clues. Sometimes, Miller simply needs to detect the smell of glue that might have been used to build a secret compartment. If things are “not right,” Miller will ask if he can search the vehicle.
“I am trying to get you off your game. I can switch from nice guy to all business if needed,” Miller says about his approach. “I try to make you question what you’re doing.”
Often drivers consent when they realize a drug-sniffing dog will be nosing around the outside of their vehicle if they say “no.” They also know that consent may earn them a lighter sentence. Miller said they may also be operating on instructions from cartel bosses.
“Drug cartels don’t want to engage,” Miller explains.
If a suspicious driver says no to a search, Miller walks his dog around the vehicle. If C.J. – his fourth drug-sniffing dog in 20 years – doesn’t hit on anything, the driver is free to continue on.
Sometimes, drivers erupt. Miller has never been attacked while out on this lonely stretch of road, but he has had drivers threaten to call lawyers or his supervisor. Some have called 911 to report that a deputy is harassing them. He has had to wrestle a few suspects to subdue them. He has been in high-speed chases. He has found weapons in vehicles, but no one has ever tried to use one on him.
Identifying the scent of Bondo
Miller’s background in the Air Force contributes to his drug interdiction success. He served four years as an airplane mechanic and learned how to tear down and reassemble parts. That work is why he is so familiar with the smell of the adhesive Bondo that wafts from secret compartments.
Using a cache of tools he carries in his truck, Miller has found drugs and cash by dismantling fuel tanks, tires, engine compartments, headliners, dashboards, doors, fire extinguishers and baby seats. He once found 19 pounds of methamphetamine inside a surfboard.
The arrest affidavit for his early December bust that netted 72 pounds of potentially deadly drugs illustrates how his mechanical knowledge can make a difference.
He noticed that the diesel tank in the back of the California pickup he pulled over had a clean filter on it. That detail piqued Miller’s interest. When Miller questioned the driver about the diesel tank, the driver said he used it to fuel things around his yard. Miller mentioned that it didn’t look like the tank had ever been used, and the driver became very nervous.
In a move befitting the slyly bumbling TV detective Columbo, Miller told the relieved driver he was good to go. Then Miller added an “oh, by the way … are you carrying any illegal drugs, weapons or large amounts of cash?”
The driver said “no,” and Miller asked if he would consent to a search. The driver agreed, and the tank yielded its motherlode of drugs.
The driver went to jail. The pile of drugs went to an evidence locker at the Western Colorado Drug Task Force.
The same week of that large drug bust, Miller seized more than $133,000 in bundles of cash from two vehicles. Those drug-profit cash interdictions usually happen when Miller turns his truck around to face the other direction on the median. The drugs are usually moving east. Cash-carrying vehicles are usually headed back west.
Miller had his largest cash seizure ever in July, when he found $1 million in bills wrapped up in cellophane packets in a westbound vehicle. Several years ago, he nabbed $600,000 from a driver with Canadian mob ties.
It started with small amounts of drugs on city streets
Miller’s long drug interdiction career had its start in 1995 when he was a deputy in training, fulfilling a 14-year-old’s dream of being a cop. He made his first methamphetamine bust and knew that is what he wanted to focus on. He wasn’t assigned to drugs, but for his first few years at the sheriff’s office he offered to work with drug cops in his free time. Back then, he wasn’t thinking much about where the drugs were coming from. He was focused on getting the small-gram amounts off the streets in urban areas of the county.
He attended his first interdiction class in 1996, and a comment made by former Mesa County District Attorney Frank Daniels pointed him to his I-70 interdiction path and his full-time assignment to that sector of law enforcement.
“Frank said if someone would go out on that stretch of the interstate you would find tons of stuff. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel,” Miller says.
“Holy smokes,” he remembers thinking to himself, “we’re talking about pounds out there, and I’ve just been getting grams.”
The following year Miller teamed up with his first drug-sniffing canine. But he didn’t make any significant busts until 1999, when he nabbed a kilo of cocaine and 16 pounds of pre-legalization marijuana. In 2000, he stopped a Cadillac with a kilo of cocaine and a kilo of methamphetamine and “a light bulb went on.”
He’d found his calling. From then on, it was just a matter of fine tuning his techniques.
“He definitely has developed a knack for this,” says Sgt. Jamie Pennay, Miller’s supervisor at the sheriff’s office. “He has great intuition. He is able to pick up on telltale signs and put it all together.”
Miller says his work is not about breaking any records or earning awards. The successful interdictions all roll together in his brain. The drugs he missed are the ones that bother him. He recalls letting a vehicle go last August that later was stopped in Indiana with 140 pounds of hard drugs hidden in the car body.
“That was a bad day,” he says, shaking his head. “I was not on my game.”
More days than not he is on, and in his mind, for good reason.
“It may sound clichéd,” he says as he leaves his outpost at the end of another 10-hour shift. “But I am trying to make a difference.”