Carroll authorities make $750,000 pot bust

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — A sophisticated marijuana distribution effort with 313 pounds of marijuana packaged in mustard and coffee grounds and hidden in a 53-foot tractor-trailer still didn't fool Carroll authorities Tuesday.

Carroll deputies and a Virginia State Police trooper with a drug-sniffing dog got probable cause to search a tractor-trailer parked near a gas station at Fancy Gap and made the discovery that led to charges against three men from out of state.

Deputies Donnie Spangler, Charles Catron and Bobby Melton went to Kangaroo Express on Virginia 148 in Fancy Gap near Interstate 77 to check on the tractor-trailer parked there, according to information from the Carroll Sheriff's Office.

They had suspicions that the tractor-trailer might be related to a string of break-ins at convenience stores along interstates 81 and 77.

Deputies found two men in the trailer after talking to the driver, and Trooper David Barker's narcotics canine alerted on the rig — all of which gave the authorities probable cause for a search warrant, Sheriff Warren Manning told The Gazette.

First Sgt. Pat Harner and Sgt. Fred Bobbitt got a search warrant for contents of the tractor-trailer.

After moving the rig, all the contents were unloaded, according to authorities. The drug dog alerted on what's being described as "panels of aluminum with approximately four inches of Styrofoam insulation between the sections."

Deputies cut open the sections and found 28 packages of marijuana ranging from 5.5 to 14.5 pounds. The 313 pounds of marijuana have an estimated street value of $750,000.

Manning said that makes this discovery the "biggest bust in transporting marijuana" during his tenure as sheriff.

Charged were:

• Mario Martinez, 30, of Whittier, Calif., with possession with intent to distribute more than five pounds of marijuana and transport illegal narcotics into Virginia.

• Ramon Sanchez Santago, 42, of Oregon and Ramro Esparza Ibanez, 30, both with possession with intent to distribute more than five pounds of marijuana and breaking and entering of a motor vehicle.

All three men are being held without bond in the New River Valley Regional Jail for their first appearance in Carroll County General District Court.

Deputies investigating the case have seized a 2009 Dodge Nitro, a 2005 Freightliner tractor, a 53-foot refrigerated trailer and $1,600 in cash.

The trailer also had different kinds of produce in it, such as lettuce and broccoli, deputies said.

"I want to thank my guys — they've done a great job," Manning said. "It's just good basic police work."

The sheriff thinks there are more drug-laden tractor-trailers like this one rolling on interstates across the country.

"It just goes to show you how much it goes up and down the interstate," Manning said. "The interstate is the pathway of narcotics."