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‘Operation Wrong Exit': They tried to give cops the slip and instead drove straight to them

The annual St. Paddy’s sting is among the creative measures police resort to in the ever-evolving cat-and-mouse game to reel in wrongdoers

By Joe Kovac Jr.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

DANVILLE, Ga. — On a sleepy stretch of America’s open road last weekend, while travelers motored through Georgia’s coastal plain bound for St. Patrick’s Day revelry in Savannah and to points between and beyond, some of them took an unexpected detour. Fifty-four went to jail.

They outsmarted themselves. Southeast of Macon on I-16, they spied flashing blue lights on the freeway ahead at what appeared to be a law enforcement checkpoint. Never mind that police do not halt interstate traffic for license or sobriety checks on holiday weekends, or ever.

Dozens of the drivers and their passengers, who might have been doing illegal things or concealing them, couldn’t resist the self-preserving urge to give cops the slip. They chose to hop off the freeway at an all-too-convenient exit, one that popped up ever-so-timely a quarter-mile before the apparent checkpoint.

Then they were had. At the top of the off-ramp, police were waiting. There, law enforcement officers performed driver’s license checks and, if necessary, sobriety tests. Drug-sniffing dogs stood by.

A middle-aged husband and wife from Florida in a compact Hyundai SUV wheeled in early last Saturday afternoon. On board with them: a small amount of medical marijuana.

After telling officers about the drugs, they granted permission to search the car.

Cops sent them on their way with a citation for misdemeanor possession.

“We’re Floridians and, in Florida, we’re not breaking any laws,” the wife said before they took off.

As they were leaving, they were informed that it would have been smooth sailing for them had they stayed on the freeway, that there was no checkpoint out there.

Then it sank in.

“Oh,” the wife said. “Then they’re getting more than just some Floridians with marijuana.”

That they were.

‘You can’t fix stupid’

In a span of about 15 hours over two days, cops seized an estimated $93,000 in drugs.

Police said they collected 26 pounds of pot and 5.5 kilos of methamphetamine. Six people were charged with DUI and 24 more with having open containers of alcohol.

The annual St. Paddy’s sting on I-16 is among the creative measures that police these days resort to in the ever-evolving cat-and-mouse game to reel in wrongdoers. From dangling free sports tickets to lure fugitives, or parking bait cars to trick auto thieves into stealing them, cops employ whatever cunning they can to catch crooks.

Twiggs County sheriff’s Capt. Lee Smith coordinates 50 or so deputies, state troopers, Governor’s Office of Highway Safety officers and other law agents at the I-16 checkpoint.

“We do it every year and say to ourselves, ‘There’s no way it’s gonna work again,’” Smith said. “Then it works.”

Not even social media seems to slow it down. Passersby might post Facebook warnings for others to beware. But unless you “follow” those feeds, you’re driving blind.

Any number of apps blast cops-ahead alerts that allow users to plot on a communal map the places they see the fuzz. At the Twiggs checkpoint, police openly declare their presence. They’re just not where lawbreakers think they are.

A few motorists have driven into the snare more than once. One guy, believed to have been impaired, has been nabbed three times over the years.

“You can’t fix stupid,” Smith said. “But we can sure write it a ticket.”

‘There is nothing here’

Deputies in Twiggs over the past two decades have perfected the ploy, which they’ve dubbed “Operation Wrong Exit.”

Its local originator, Sheriff Darren Mitchum, fashioned it from a scenario hatched by deputies in Tennessee.

He sprang it on unwitting motorists in his county — which has 8,000 people and nary a stoplight — for the first time in 2006. During that trial run, conducted on a two-lane highway, drivers eager to evade a nonexistent checkpoint peeled off in droves, bumper to bumper at times, onto an unpaved lane where deputies lay in wait.

“I had a traffic jam on a dirt road,” Mitchum, now in his fifth term, recalled. “I thought, this’ll work.”

The subterfuge is so subtle that it seems slick. More than a few of the hoodwinked are unaware they have been duped at all. They fail to comprehend that they have apprehended themselves. That or they won’t admit it. Many who were stopped told a reporter they had pulled off to go to the bathroom. The problem with that?

“There is nothing here,” the sheriff said.

The exit where the deputies set up shop features zero fuel marts, eateries or restrooms. The nearest gas station, Bowman’s 1 Stop, is almost 3 miles distant, and it closes before sundown. Or, as a man who answered the phone there the other day put it, “about 10 minutes before 7.”

If you’re not a local, you’ve little reason to dip in.

The off-ramp at eastbound Exit 27 is ideally suited for stealth. A few dozen lavender-blooming crepe myrtles shroud a grassy pie-wedge of land between the exit chute and the freeway’s eastbound artery.

While the checkpoint is tucked in what is technically an interchange, a more befitting term is crossroad. Georgia 358, a 6-mile-long nub of a highway there, shoots across I-16 and passes Chance Road on its way into the western reaches of Danville .

The rest of the setup is surprisingly basic. Cops place three portable message boards — those digital signs you sometimes see flashing instructions ahead of construction zones or treacherous conditions — along the interstate. They space them in a series, beginning a mile or so from the off-ramp.

‘Know your rights’

The aim is to plant a seed: The law is lurking.

The message boards beam warnings: “License Check Ahead,” “DUI Checkpoint,” “Working K-9.”

But, again, police do not block interstates for license checks.

So at highway speeds, upon seeing the signs, lawbreakers typically have less than a minute to get wise.

Motorists cruising that stretch of I-16 in the two-plus-hour slog from Macon and Savannah have by then likely settled into the southeast Georgia scenery: trees, fields, woods, ponds, repeat. They tend to relax, maybe let down their guard. Then come the message boards and the blue lights: COPS.

At the moment of truth, at the mouth of the exit ramp, a driver can also see a pair of parked police cars. They sit beneath an overpass a quarter-mile ahead, their blue lights ablaze. Unbeknownst to travelers, the cars are decoys.

Because of a sharp bend in the exit, a hard curve to the right, motorists don’t see the waiting cops at the end of the exit until it’s too late.

Franklin J. Hogue, a defense attorney based in Macon, has on occasion represented clients who were stopped at the checkpoint — all guilty pleas, as he recalled.

“I have to say, my intuition, if things have not changed dramatically, is that these stops are legal,” Hogue said.

“All in all, it’s a pretty effective ruse. It’s designed to do exactly what it achieves, and it does so with amazing frequency. You figure, you’re driving down the highway and you’re carrying something you know is bad news and you see lights flickering up ahead and a sign saying (police) are a mile ahead, right here on the interstate, and you’re dumb enough to think there’s a roadblock on the interstate? Then you see that one little exit ... and you take it. You’re toast.”

At last week’s sting, a clean-cut fellow in a Toyota pickup probably wished he hadn’t veered off.

Cops found three thick, vacuum-sealed pouches of suspected marijuana buds in the cab of the truck. In the covered bed were golf clubs.

“He’s got golf clubs in the back. But he’s got three bags of marijuana in the front,” one of the officers said. “He should’ve stuck to playing golf.”

Now, make no mistake, law-abiding motorists no doubt exited thinking they’d avoid being hassled or delayed. Or because they’re wary of the police. Most drivers who passed through presented IDs and were waved through. (And, yes, drivers are required by Georgia law, in most cases, to show their licenses when asked by the cops to do so.)

When a young woman headed home to Savannah was sent on her way with a warning for the weed residue in her car, she told a reporter she had stopped for something to drink.

“I ran out of my Celsius, my energy drink, and I was looking for a possible gas station around here,” the woman said. “So, of course, I pulled over and got searched.”

She insisted she was not trying to avoid the heat.

“Actually, I’m really thirsty,” she went on. “I got pulled over, they searched, and nothing was found. Personally, I am not scared of the law. As long as you know your rights and you’re not doing anything, there’s no reason to be scared.”

‘I’m not high, I swear’

Some cars rolled in reeking of weed.

In futile efforts to mask the scent, hanging from some of the vehicles’ rearview mirrors were multiple, tree-shaped air fresheners. Cops affectionately dub such aromatic arbor “felony forests.”

But no amount of camouflage would have helped two men in a Hyundai SUV on their way home to Georgia’s coast. They had just flown into Hartsfield from California. After they were halted at the police checkpoint in Danville, a drug dog sniffed out some two dozen pounds of vacuum-packed, premium West Coast weed in their suitcases.

Just ahead of them, a man at the wheel of a U-Haul truck pulled into the checkpoint trembling and sweating. Officers soon discovered why. They found a few needles loaded with suspected meth stashed in the dash. The officers speculated the man had been shooting up while driving.

Soon, the man, 50, was distraught, weeping. He said he had been trying to pull his life together. He had on a motivational T-shirt that read, “Hardest Worker in the Room.”

“I’m not high,” he wailed, only to be led away in cuffs, “I swear to God.”

All told last weekend, 12 people caught felony drug cases, seven of them for alleged trafficking. Forty-five more face misdemeanor drug charges.

Ten of the people jailed were accused of driving with suspended licenses. Seven guns were seized, two from convicted felons, the cops said.

Meanwhile, 13 motorists were ticketed for child-restraint violations, many of whom the police, on the spot, presented with free car seats.

Nine people were cited for not wearing seatbelts. One of them was a woman in a Kia sedan.

At the checkpoint, she said her GPS had routed her to exit. (It had not. An officer glanced at the device and noticed it was actually returning her to the freeway.)

After a drug dog homed in on the car, a couple of cops searched it and found what they identified as marijuana residue, some of it in a “Desserts in a Jar” container.

But there was something far more unusual propped up on her back seat: a wedding dress-clad Bride of Chucky doll.

Bizarrely, inexplicably, the doll was buckled in.

The driver, before riding away with her seat belt citation, declined to explain.

“It’s an adventure,” the sheriff said, “to see what rolls up next.”

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