U.S. federal government takes over Canadian trucker Ajitpal Sanghera’s prosecution in 60-kilogram cocaine bust

“We further learned that the container was opened in a location other than the Pacific Highway POE, during the time that Sanghera had possession of the container.”

WHATCOM County prosecutor Donna Bracke told The VOICE on Tuesday that the federal government had picked up the prosecution of Canadian trucker Ajitpal Sanghera in relation to the cocaine bust on May 9 reported in this newspaper last week.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in coordination with Homeland Security Investigations-Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Pacific Highway Truck Crossing in Blaine, allegedly found 60.64 kilograms of cocaine with an estimated value of $3 million, in the tractor-trailer Sanghera was driving to Canada.

The seizure occurred during an outbound inspection when CBP officers referred the Canadian citizen’s tractor-trailer for additional examination. While searching the trailer, CBP officers found five small duffle bags on the floor. Inside the duffle bags, officers found 50 plastic wrapped packages containing cocaine and Sanghera was taken into custody. He was eventually transferred over to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office along with the narcotics.

Whatcom County jail records showed that Sanghera was booked on May 10 and “released” on May 15 with “charge dismissed.”

Bracke explained to The VOICE that the charge was dismissed by the state (Washington) as it was taken over by the federal government. Only one agency can prosecute a case.

Sanghera is now in federal custody and has not been released.

On May 16, based on a complaint and an affidavit, U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Mary Alice Theiler ruled that there was “probable cause to believe the defendant, Ajitpal Sanghera, committed the offence set forth in this complaint.” Sanghera was scheduled to make his initial appearance in federal court in Seattle on Thursday (May 21).

Sanghera has been charged with “possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.”

ACCORDING to court documents, the task force officer with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in his affidavit stated that “on May 9, 2020, at approximately 7:40 p.m., Ravinder Gill, a commercial truck driver for Canadian Trucking Company, TAK Logistics, was contacted at the Pacific Highway Commercial Port of Entry (POE) on an outbound inspection leaving the United States. Gill was driving a commercial vehicle, bearing British Columbia license plate …, and towing a commercial trailer with Oklahoma license plate …. CBPOs observed a second commercial vehicle bearing a TAK Logistics logo in the northbound truck line-up behind Gill. CBPOs escorted both TAK Logistics trucks from the outbound inspection area to the Pacific Highway Cargo facility for further inspection. The other driver was identified as Canadian citizen Ajitpal Sanghera, Sanghera was driving TAK Logistics commercial Volvo tractor No. 428, bearing British Columbia license plate …, with a commercial trailer bearing Oklahoma licence plate ….

“The first semi-truck and trailer driven by Gill was cleared after an inspection did not uncover drugs. The second TAK Logistics truck, which was driven by Sanghera, contained rolls of roofing material within the container. At approximately 8:56 p.m., a physical inspection between the pallets of roofing material resulted in the discovery of 5 bags located on the trailer floor. Based on the location of the bags it appeared that they were thrown behind the first row of pallets. The 5 bags contained 50 plastic-wrapped packages. Inspection of those packages revealed a white powdery substance, which tested positive for cocaine when analyzed using GEMINI analysis equipment. A total cumulative weight of the seized cocaine packages was documented at 60.64 kilograms (kg). Based upon my training, knowledge, and experience, this amount of cocaine is consistent with distribution as opposed to personal use. Cocaine is a Schedule I controlled substance.

“At approximately 10:23 p.m., an HSI Special Agent and I interviewed Gill. I administered a Miranda warning and soon determined that a translator who spoke Punjabi would be helpful. A CBP officer who spoke Punjabi arrived and the interview was restarted at about 10:42 p.m. and conducted in Punjabi. Gill stated that he understood his rights and was willing to speak with law enforcement. In the course of the ensuing interview Gill reported that he knows Sanghera and that they had spoken to each other several times that day by cell phone while in the United States. Gill stated that he spoke to Sanghera through WhatsApp and voice messages. Gill dropped his load off at Union Pacific, located in Seattle, at the same time Sanghera was leaving Union Pacific with a load. Gill voluntarily consented to a search of his cellular phone. Gill and Sanghera spoke over 10 times between May 8 and 9, 2020.”

[Editor’s Note: According to Wikipedia: “In the United States, the Miranda warning is a type of notification customarily given by police to criminal suspects in police custody (or in a custodial interrogation) advising them of their right to silence; that is, their right to refuse to answer questions or provide information to law enforcement or other officials.”]

The task force officer wrote: “While at the Port of Entry, Sanghera complained of chest pain and was transported to the hospital for evaluation. Hospital staff evaluated Sanghera and stated that he would be released and could be interviewed. An HIS Special Agent and I interviewed Sanghera, again using a Punjabi translator. After I administered the defendant a Miranda warning, the defendant stated that he understood his rights and was willing to speak with law enforcement.

“During the interview, the defendant stated that he drove to Kent, dropped off his load, proceeded north to Seattle to pick up a load, then again headed south to Sumner to buy a part before proceeding north toward Canada. The defendant stated that in the past few months, he has picked up loads at Union Pacific. Sanghera stated that on two of these occasions, the number of the container’s seal has not matched the number on the manifest. The defendant reported that he cut off the seal at the Pacific Highway Port of Entry and placed it in the jockey box of the truck. An agent located the seal in the jockey box; the seal number was RTI 002924. The defendant acknowledged that the Union Pacific receipt shows the seal number on the container should have been 3402545.

“On May 15, 2020, an HIS Special Agent and I learned that the container was loaded on April 24, 2020 in Houston, Texas, and that the next time the container doors were opened was on May 9, 2020. We further learned that the container was opened in a location other than the Pacific Highway POE, during the time that Sanghera had possession of the container.”

In his conclusion, the task force officer wrote: “Based on the foregoing, I respectfully submit there is probable cause to believe that, on or about May 9, 2020, in Whatcom County, Washington, in the Western District of Washington, and elsewhere, the defendant, Ajitpal Sanghera, did knowingly and intentionally possess, and aid and abet the possession of, with intent to distribute, cocaine, …”