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How Customs and Border Protection officers stop illegal enterprises from fueling crime in Ohio

10TV went to the Port of Cincinnati just over the Ohio River in northern Kentucky to see how officers stop illegal enterprises from fueling crime in Ohio.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There is a team of people who cannot wait for the clock to strike midnight.

“We’re looking for that needle in a stack of needles, right?” said Richard Gillespie, Port Director for Customs and Border Protection at the Port of Cincinnati.  “We see thousands and thousands and thousands of shipments every day and my team are experts at sniffing out and finding that stuff that doesn’t need to come into the United States.”

The “stuff” Director Gillespie is talking about includes everything from illegal drug trafficking to weapons, biohazards and counterfeit goods.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) says it seizes 4,732 pounds of drugs nationwide in a typical day along with $9 million of counterfeit goods.

10TV went to the Port of Cincinnati just over the Ohio River in northern Kentucky to see how officers stop these illegal enterprises from fueling crime in Ohio.  

The Port of Cincinnati is one of the 328 ports of entry throughout the country and one that receives international cargo. Chief Supervisory CBP officer Eric Zizelman said he has seen it all.

“I’ve opened shipments with dead baby cobras inside, we found shipments of smuggled horned lizards out of South Africa,” Zizelman told 10TV’s Angela An during a recent exclusive visit.  

“We’ve found Indian box turtles... any possible narcotic you can think of we found it. It all comes through here.”

Zizelman said so long as there’s a demand, criminals will find new ways to smuggle into Ohio.

“We do what we can to intercept what we can and keep what we can off the streets,” he added.

CBP officers use x-ray machines to inspect suspicious shipments. In one case, they found an AR-15 rifle disassembled into multiple pieces to avoid detection.

“A lot of times we'll find smugglers ship individual parts and then assemble the weapon at final destination,” Officer Jeremy Clark, a CBP supervisor, explained. 

“The reason they do that is they can commingle this with other items that have similar densities, whether it's car parts or other metal objects and try to conceal the weapon parts from being detected,” he added.

Clark said he knows his efforts to stop these dangerous weapons from their final destination is saving lives.

“Marion is obviously impacted by the opioid epidemic, it's a small town in Ohio,” Clark said. “So, the work that we do here impacts my hometown, so obviously there's passion.”

There are other CBP officers who specialize in biological and agricultural threats.

“It can be dangerous,” said Sharon Bishop, a biological threat operations specialist for CBP.

She noted that the emerging threat of biohazards can come in all forms. One example she showed 10TV included used catheters shipped to Ohio from overseas. Another shipment included sleeves of samples from birds and chickens from South Africa.

“As more scientific research advances and we become more and more adept at genetic engineering, you can sort of engineer something to become a very dangerous threat,” Bishop added.

Barbara Hassan can sometimes smell the danger.  She is a supervisory agricultural specialist for CBP whose main mission is to look for potentially dangerous or suspicious plant life, and then inspect, test, and destroy them as necessary so they don’t make their way into Ohio.

“When you have fresh fruits and vegetables, you have to bring them in under a permit,” Hassan explained.  “There are some countries that they're not even allowed in - even with a permit.”

Hassan recalled one case where a passenger disembarking from a cruise ship wanted to bring fruit she pulled off a tree back.

“When I got it back to the office, looked at it under the microscope and the skin slid off and there were fruit fly larvae running across the desk,” Hassan recalled. 

“We were grabbing them as fast as we could,” she added.  “If we hadn't stopped that she would have planted it and then we would have had a fruit fly outbreak in the middle of the country.”

It’s a game of hide and seek every day for CBP, with hidden objects changing by the day.

“We have weeks where you know, the narcotics increase and we have another week where we have more intellectual property rights violations,” Gillespie said.  “Last week we had I don’t even know how many kilos of liquid methamphetamine.”

On this night, the team scored big when a narcotics K9 sniffed out nearly 1.5 kilograms of methamphetamine stuffed inside the fabric of a new horse saddle.

“Anytime you finish a night like this, it's always a good night,” Chief Zizelman told 10TV’ Angela An with a smile.  “Smugglers will do just about anything to try and get their shipments into the country.  So that's why we're here to protect America from terrible narcotics like this.”

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