Volume 6, Number 4, 1997

Custom Fit

It's 2200 hours. A salty wind blowing at better than 10 knots whips off the Atlantic Ocean onto a beach town in southern Florida. Suddenly, the warm, black night erupts. Waves of federal Customs Service agents, along with state and local police, descend on a warehouse that's been staked out for several days. They easily round up a handful of Haitian immigrants trafficking in stolen, luxury sport-utility vehicles.

It's a not-so-unusual night in the life of Bob Hutchinson, AS '85, '87M, a senior special agent with the U.S. Customs Service and Treasury Department.

Hutchinson explains how this particular clandestine game is played. A South Florida Haitian syndicate snatches high-end, popular vehicles (such as a Toyota 4-Runner or a Jeep Grand Cherokee) and transports them from the ports of Jacksonville or Miami via container ship to Haiti or the Dominican Republic. There, the pricey vehicles assume a value double that of the stateside price tag.

These two particular vehicles, for example, are swapped for $150,000 in cocaine. In the islands, the cost of cocaine is half that in the states because there's no additional transportation cost. So, the bandits prosper on both ends.

The syndicate purchases 15 kilograms of cocaine, which is smuggled back into South Florida and sold at a wholesale value of $300,000 (street value of $1 million). Total outlay by the syndicate-a $3,000 shipping charge on the two vehicles. Gross profit-$297,000.

"We're working both sides of the transaction," says Hutchinson, who resides in West Palm Beach. "It's obviously easier tracking the cars going out of the country than the drugs coming in, which can be the proverbial needle in a haystack."

Hutchinson's role was to infiltrate the South Florida group by posing as an import/export consultant. He dealt with the shipment of the vehicles by arranging space on a container ship out of Jacksonville.

"The group put me through all kinds of tests to gain their trust over a three-month period," says Hutchinson, who was part of the Auto Theft Task Force that recovered 336 stolen vehicles over a 12-month stretch. "I was involved with all the key people. In the end, we arrested and convicted the two main guys, got back 11 stolen sport-utility vehicles and some cash. These guys were a lot more sophisticated than many of the criminals we see. They used telephones with call forwarding and electronic devices to conceal their locations and identities.

"Just another group of entrepreneurs in America!" he quips. "But, the residents of South Florida wind up paying for this activity in their auto insurance premiums. One out of every 29 cars is stolen in Miami each year."

Hutchinson began his law enforcement career with a degree in criminal justice and an MPA in justice administration and policy analysis. During four summers, he worked as a seasonal police officer in Ocean City, Md.

"It was a great learning experience," recalls Hutchinson, whose sister and two older brothers also graduated from Delaware (Mary Clarke Van Sice, AS '74; Chris L., BE '77; and Franklin Scott, AS '82). "It got my foot in the door with the feds."

In April 1988, Hutchinson was hired by the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees the Secret Service, IRS, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Customs Service. Initially, he was assigned to the Customs Service office in San Angelo, Texas, to deal with air and land smuggling from Mexico. He was one of six agents responsible for 48 Texas counties.

"We dealt with drugs coming in from Mexico in false compartments, usually fake gas tanks with secret switches that opened the hidden compartments. They ate our lunch a lot with complex compartments in the propane tanks of tractor-trailers, where it was too dangerous to drill or explore."

In 1992, he was transferred to West Palm Beach, first working with state and local police in a joint Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) task force uncovering money-laundering schemes and narcotics smuggling.

Hutchinson says that the U.S. Customs Service takes in $22 for every $1 spent. While a good portion comes from tariffs on shipped goods, much of it is seized as contraband-houses, boats, vehicles, computers and hardware rustled from traffickers and then sold at government auction. The proceeds are deposited into the U.S. Treasury's general fund.

In a sting operation a few years back, Hutchinson was introduced to a U.S. company that was selling mainframe computers to a European firm, which then shipped them to Libya. Hutchinson's duties included initiating and finalizing the appropriate shipping contacts needed for delivery to southern Europe. As the undercover agent, he dealt with suspects in several nations.

"We got a U.S. federal warrant and went over to seize the goods," he says. "We convicted the ring leader, and there are several others still under prosecution. People don't realize the dangers of these transactions until something like the Gulf War comes along, where this computer technology can come back to bite us."

Two years ago, Hutchinson appeared (in shadows along with voice alteration) on a segment of U.S. Customs Classified, a syndicated television show by Stephen J. Cannell, creator of the Rockford Files, Wiseguy and the A-Team, among others. An actor portrayed Hutchinson in the re-enacted scenes.

"The agency considers it good PR, and the cases were accurately portrayed," says Hutchinson, who has worked on a number of cases with his friend and fellow UD alum Andrew Diamond, AS '85, a customs agent in Miami. "We have to be careful how much information and techniques we make public. Our first concern is always the safety of our agents.

"When I first got into this work, a lot of people figured I checked luggage as an inspector at the airport. No one knew that U.S. Customs had special agents investigating smuggling crimes. But, there have been many surprising cases we've worked on over the years. When I was in Texas, I remember our catching a man and woman in their 70s who were bringing 3,000 pounds of pot across the border. In this line of work, you never really know who you're dealing with.

"Greed is a powerful influence," he says. "What's interesting to me is how many people come to this country with the sole intention of being a criminal. What people do for money and what they let happen to other people to make money is incredible."

-Terry Conway