Happy anniversary, druggies

Sgt. Tim Sterkel was supposed to be celebrating his 30th anniversary as a member of the Oak Harbor Police Department that night.

Instead, the department’s drug enforcement officer was tailing a Whidbey Island man with ties to the notorious Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang on the night of Oct. 4.

When it was all over, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the State Patrol arrested four men on federal drug charges and seized 41 kilos of cocaine and 25,000 tablets of the drug ecstasy. The DEA estimated the “wholesale street value” at more than $1.6 million.

“Without question, this is the largest drug seizure in which the Oak Harbor Police has participated,” said Police Chief Steve Almon. In fact, a federal prosecutor told Almon it was also the biggest seizure he had ever seen.

Sterkel said he received a tip from a confidential informant that 48-year-old Randy Canupp would be leaving his house with many kilos of cocaine Oct. 4. Sterkel said he had been keeping tabs on Canupp for the last four years after learning that he had ties to the Hell’s Angels.

“The Hell’s Angels are very involved in drug trafficking,” he said, adding that a member of the outlaw motorcycle gang likely brought the cocaine to Canupp’s Whidbey Island home from California.

After getting the tip, Sterkel got in touch with the DEA to let investigators know that he might need their help.

Sterkel secretly watched the house, located south of the city near the intersection of Highway 20 and Monroe Landing Road. After about seven hours of surveillance, Sterkel saw Canupp leave home in a white Toyota MR-2 car.

Sterkel discreetly followed in his unmarked car as Canupp headed north. He said tailing a car can be very difficult, especially if there’s too much traffic or not enough. He tried to stay four or five cars behind Canupp. Fortunately, the suspect never seemed to catch on that he was being tailed.

“It was mostly a matter of luck,” Sterkel said.

Sterkel followed the car along Highway 20 to Interstate 5, heading north. Sterkel said he was in contact with the State Patrol and DEA; they discussed when was the best time to stop the car.

Finally, the State Patrol pulled the Canupp vehicle over on a traffic violation in Bellingham at the Bellis Fair exit at about 8:30 p.m. A trooper’s drug-sniffing dog went to work on the car.

Investigators found 41 kilos of cocaine stashed away in different areas of the car.

“I was shocked,” Sterkel said. “I didn’t expect that many kilos.”

According to Sterkel, Canupp confessed at the scene and told investigators where he was going and who he was going to meet. Based on that information, the DEA and the State Patrol raided a boat docked at Sandy Beach near Bellingham the next day. They seized 25,000 tablets of ecstasy and arrested three Canadian men.

According to a press release from the DEA, Canupp and the three other men were charged in the Western District of Washington with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to distribute ecstasy.

While he admits the amount of drugs seized in the bust was amazing, Chief Almon said it really shouldn’t be surprising that drug-related organized crime is on the island. He said drug traffickers are looking at different ways to convey narcotics with law enforcement’s post-9/11 emphasis on borders and major interstate highways. The drug dealers might think it’s easy to get away with mischief in a small town.

Almon said that’s why the department has a full-time drug investigator and the department’s canine officer switched from a tracking to a drug-sniffing dog.

“These drugs weren’t intended for our community, but passing through our community,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s probably a lot more than we like to think about.”

For Sterkel, the incident was an exciting way to celebrate his 30th anniversary with the department. If he were the bragging type, he’d give himself a pat on the back.

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