Handwritten license plate leads to arrest and $120K drug seizure on I-15

File photo of Utah Highway Patrol vehicle on Interstate 15 near Cedar City, Utah, May 25, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

ST. GEORGE — A man has been charged with felony drug distribution after a keen-eyed Utah Highway Patrol trooper noticed a vehicle on Interstate 15 in Iron County with a handwritten license plate.

This 2015 file photo for illustrative purposes shows traffic backed up behind a felony traffic stop, St. George, Utah, June 26, 2015 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

On Sunday, the trooper was patrolling I-15 when he noticed a vehicle with tinted windows heading north with a license plate that appeared to be “homemade,” according to the probable cause statement filed in support of the arrest.

The trooper pulled out onto the interstate and caught up to the vehicle, which reportedly appeared to be tail-gaiting a slow-moving semitractor-trailer. At that point, the trooper activated his emergency lights.

As the vehicle pulled off the interstate, the trooper also noticed there was window tint covering one of the brake lights in the rear window of the vehicle. The driver and sole occupant provided his California driver’s license, which came back as suspended or revoked. A records check of the vehicle returned showing no valid registration on file.

The driver, identified as 41-year-old Francisco Velasquez, was sweating while speaking to the trooper, according to the report, and his eyes appeared bloodshot and he showed signs of facial tremors – all indications of drug use.

During a search of the suspect, officers allegedly found two small bindles of a white substance consistent with methamphetamine. With an unlicensed driver and a vehicle without any valid registration, a tow truck was also called in and an inventory of the car was conducted prior to impound.

During the search, the trooper found three large bundles under a carpet near the rear seat containing suspected methamphetamine with a combined weight of more than 7 pounds.

The suspect was arrested and transported to UHP headquarters. During an interview with police, the suspect allegedly said he had used methamphetamine prior to the traffic stop and that he was paid $2,000 to transport the drugs from Mexico.

A urine test administered at the office returned a positive result for drug use, the trooper noted.

Velasquez was transported to jail in Iron County, where the trooper requested he be held without bail, citing the suspect “crossed the United States border from Mexico yesterday. He has no ties to Utah, and is being paid by a criminal organization to move across the country with a large amount of narcotics.”

Stock image | Photo by Adam1Productions/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Velasquez was then booked into jail facing second-degree felony possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, along with several misdemeanors, including possession of a controlled substance and paraphernalia, driving with a measurable controlled substance and driving on a suspended license. He also faces failing to register a motor vehicle, following too close, a tail light and window tint violation – each an infraction.

On Tuesday, the suspect made an initial appearance before District Judge Ann Marie McIff-Allen, who also ordered Velasquez to remain in custody without bail.

Operation Pipeline 

The value of the narcotics the suspect was allegedly paid $2,000 to transport is estimated to be worth $125,000 on the wholesale level. The street level value can be as much as $180,000, according to the DEA. The state’s transportation infrastructure and Utah’s location makes it an important transit area used to transport illicit drugs.

Those factors have led to the implementation of “Operation Pipeline,” which is a national highway interdiction program supported by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), according to the the U.S. Department of Justice.

While a majority of the drugs transported into Utah by Mexican criminal groups are destined for other areas of the United States, there are groups that also distribute wholesale quantities of these narcotics throughout the state. According to the National Drug Center, the Mexican criminal groups that transport and distribute drugs in Utah typically have a structured hierarchy of members and are typically controlled by a single family.

Drug seizures from private vehicles, such as the Velasquez arrest over the weekend, are reported to Operation Pipeline by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies operating nationwide along the highways and interstates most frequently used to transport illegal drugs and drug proceeds.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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