When Gila County Sheriff's Deputy Dennis Newman stopped a pickup truck pulling an empty flat bed trailer that was traveling north on Highway 87 toward Payson, he said he intended to give the driver a warning for a minor traffic violation.
Instead, he and Zelma, his golden retriever recently certified as a narcotics dog, made one of the county's biggest drug busts this year.
"This started as just a traffic stop," Newman said. "He was going north on Highway 87, a bit under the speed limit, but he was driving on the white fog line that separates the emergency lane from the traffic lane."
Newman pulled the truck over at the rest area at the junction of Highway 87 and 188. There, he made contact with the driver who was the sole occupant.
Michael Garland, 53, of Mesa, said he was on his way to New Mexico to help a friend move.
"The stuff he was telling me, like where he was headed and what he was doing and saying that it wasn't his truck -- it just didn't add up," Newman said. "He couldn't tell me where his friend in New Mexico lived. He said he had known the owner of the pickup for several years, but didn't know what he did for a living."
Newman gave Garland a written warning and then asked if he could search his vehicle. According to the deputy, Garland readily consented to the search.
"He said he appreciated that we were out here looking to take drugs off the road," Newman said.
Newman found some Massachusetts license plates in the cab of the truck. More intriguing, Newman said, was the unique flat bed trailer.
"I got to looking at the trailer and the way it was constructed," Newman said. "That's when I decided to get Zelma, Gila county's newest narcotics dog."
Meanwhile, DPS Officer Doc Dimbat arrived to assist Newman.
"I brought Zelma out and ran her around the vehicle," Newman said. "She alerted on the trailer and I knew we were going to have to investigate this further."
Zelma alerts by pawing aggressively at the spot where she smells the drugs. What Zelma found was 571 pounds of marijuana under the deck of the trailer.
"The trailer was built so that the whole top deck slides off," Newman said. "Underneath, they put the bales of packaged marijuana."
Newman said throughout the stop, Garland was cool and collected.
Sgt. Jaime Escobedo of the Gila County Narcotics Task Force arrived to assist Newman and Dimbat. The truck and trailer were taken to the county yard to be thoroughly searched. Garland was taken to jail, where he remains in lieu of $100,000 bond.
According to Task Force Commander Steve Craig, minutes after booking Garland, someone called the jail to inquire about his bail amount.
Garland claims he didn't know the drugs were in the trailer, nor could he offer any explanation as to why he had five $100 bills inserted in his rectum. The bills were discovered during a body cavity search.
A first look at the load
Although the smell emanating from the bed was pungent, deputies and task force agents still didn't know how much marijuana was inside the bed.
Using a small crane, the metal deck was carefully pulled off to reveal 32 tightly packaged and labeled bundles of marijuana that would exceed 500 pounds.
The blocks of marijuana were wrapped tightly in cellophane with fabric softener sheets around them. Laundry detergent was sprinkled throughout the bed.
"They think they can disguise the scent," Newman said. "But Zelma discriminates between scents -- she can separate them out and find which scent smells like her training toys."
Escobedo said the marijuana probably came from Mexico. Many dealers are heading east where the price of pot is much higher than in the southwest, Escobedo said. A pound, on average, in Arizona sells for $600 -- in Massachusetts, $2,500.
"It also depends on how you break it down, in what quantities you sell it," Escobedo said. "This load could sell for anywhere between $500,000 and $3 million."
Just two days after being certified as a narcotics dog, Newman says this is a big find for Zelma. The two posed for a photo opportunity -- the deputy, his dog, and 571 pounds of pot.