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Married team truckers jailed after baking soda wrongly tested positive as cocaine

Dec. 2, 2016
$4,000 damage to truck while in police possession

A husband-wife driving team was jailed for over two months because police found baking soda in their truck and quick tests by local police wrongly identified it as cocaine. Until their public defender insisted the state retest the substance, the grandparents, in their 60s, endured hunger, cold, lack of sanitation, and physical threats during their incarceration in a facility that has been under federal investigation for more than a decade.

While in Sebastian County (Arkansas) Detention Facility, the couple's family didn't know where they were, they had no access to a lawyer and it was only through luck and the perseverance of a public defender that they were finally released.

Their confiscated truck had been ransacked, allegedly by police, and they had to pay almost $4,000 to make it roadworthy. The team, both of whom have government clearances to deliver munitions and other sensitive materials to military and other facilities, has not yet gotten their security clearances reinstated so they are hauling less profitable cargo.

The ordeal started in May for husband Wendell Harvey (a former Fort Wayne, Indiana police officer) and his wife Gale Griffin during a delivery of munitions to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Wendell has been driving since 1990 and they teamed up in 1997.

The incident began when Fort Chaffee Public Safety Department officers stopped them for a routine check and found several bags of baking soda.

Married team truckers Wendell Harvey and Gale Griffin were imprisoned for over two months after baking soda wrongly tested positive for cocaine. Family members have set up a GoFundMe account on behalf of the couple. (GoFundMe)

Harvey said: "We flat-out told the officers, 'My wife and I are pretty much into supplements. We have a shoebox full of supplements on the truck that we take to maintain our health.' We've been through these searches before and never had a problem. I kept saying, 'We have a secret clearance and we're delivering Class I explosives and not coming through the base to sell drugs, you know?'

"We use a lot of baking soda,” he continued. “We use it for everything from cleaning to dental care. The bags accumulated over the various stops we make at home and that's why there was more than one baggie in the truck. We buy it in bulk from Costco and carry it in smaller bags.”

“The police must have thought that they had had the mother lode of cocaine for some reason. They just weren't thinking; either that or it's prejudice. (The couple is African American.) I'm not sure what it is. Maybe they're just poorly trained."

During the search, Harvey asked if he could remove his valuables but his request was denied.

"I told them I have valuables in the truck and I don't want any of it stolen. The reason why I said that is because when they search a truck this thoroughly like they were doing at the gate they usually allow you to hand carry off everything you consider to be a valuable, so that there's not a temptation to the people who are searching.

"In most cases when we've been in nuclear power plants, for instance, and they want to search your truck top-to-bottom, they say, 'Take your computers out, take your laptops out, take any cash, or anything you think is a valuable that you can hand carry. Just take it out while we're searching your truck.' These guys were giving us this type of third-degree search and all our valuables were still on the truck. I was getting upset and I said, 'You know I have cash on that truck and I don't want it stolen.' I was getting mad, because they weren't following what I consider to be standard procedure like at the other bases."

The police requested that the powder be checked by the Barling Police Department which tested the white powder three times and each time the results indicated positive for cocaine. The test they used is a $2 per test Narcotics Identification Kit or NIK, which is used by law enforcement agencies across the country. The kit, which can be bought on Amazon, is known to produce many false positives, but police use it because it is fast and inexpensive.

Harvey said: "They said we had 13.22 ounces of cocaine worth over $3,000."

'Terrified' at Sebastian County Detention Facility

Gale Griffin recounts her time in the Sebastian County Detention Facility. [In 2014, the facility agreed to resolve a complaint dating from 2008 lodged by the U.S. Department of Justice concerning illegal inmate treatment.]

"They gave me a plastic pad to sleep on with the stuffing coming out of it and a half of a blanket and threw me in a cell where I had to sleep on the floor because there were three other people in there,” she said. “The air was so cold that I was shivering for three weeks before I even got a pair of socks. I couldn't eat the food. It was spoiled garbage. As for medicines, they didn't label anything. They were giving girls drugs and the guards were bringing in drugs. A lot of the girls were taking all kinds of drugs. I had a bone infection in my teeth because I'd just had my teeth done, which was why I was swishing out with baking soda. When  I finally did get somebody to give me an antibiotic they gave me amoxicillin which I'm allergic to.”

"They had some bad apples in there that were very violent and wanted to fight everybody. It was a terrifying experience. There were a couple of people who were very threatening and intimidating towards me, but most of the girls were nice. They would try to be nice to me especially since I gave them all my food since I couldn't eat it anyway.

"The air was so cold, blasting into the cell, that the girls would ball up toilet paper and throw it into the vent to try to block the air from coming in. I thought I was in hell. The noise was unbelievable. At night there'd be yelling and screaming – all night long."

Griffin described the guards' behavior. "They said terrible things, and they manipulated the situation in such a way that conflict would erupt. You couldn't take a shower. There'd be 80 girls in the pod and four showers and they'd give you an hour out of your cell to take a shower and then complain that you didn't take a shower and that you stank. They would keep us in lockdown. Most jails have the doors open, but in this place you had to stay in your cell with three or four other women, and they would lock that metal door.

She was held incommunicado. "Nobody knew we were there, because they fixed it so when they booked me I said, 'Can I make a phone call?' He said, 'No.' When I got to the jail I tried to make a phone call, but the phone didn't work for me. They showed me how to use my Social Security number with all the other little numbers to call out, only to discover that my Social Security number wasn't in the system so I couldn't call out using my number. I asked an inmate if I could use her social security number but the only person that I could reach was the bail bondsman and he said that to get my husband and me out it was a $20,000 bond and we'd have to pay $1,745 of that up front. I would need three cosigners, but they took away my phone and purse so I didn't have any phone numbers of family or friends."

Tests come back negative

The drivers finally were released when the Arkansas Public Defenders Office insisted, after several attempts, that the white powder be tested by state authorities. The tests came back negative for cocaine or any other illegal substance.

Once released, the driving team's trials were not over. It took an additional two months to retrieve their truck. When they did, it had been vandalized.

Harvey said: "When I entered my truck they had totally trashed. It had been ransacked like it had been burglarized.

"Everything was thrown on the floor to where you had to walk between the storage cabinets and the bed, all the way to our rear backdoor. It took me 45 minutes to clear up my personal effects so that I could just walk into the back of the truck. By that time my wife was screaming and she wanted me to just drive away so that we could return our rental car to and then drive our truck home."

But there was more damage, intentionally done, says Wendell. "I stopped at Exit 1 in Arkansas and did an inspection and noticed that something was hanging from the truck. My slack adjusters were new and somebody had removed them and hung it upside down. We got out of Arkansas and made it to a Love's Truck Stop. I asked: 'Is there any way my slack adjuster could be like this?' He said, 'no, somebody hung it upside down for some reason and this has caused you to mess up your S-cam.'"

So that was a $600 repair for the S-cam. This was our first repair. By the time we got home the air compressor was out and it was another $1,200 to replace it. The air compressor was bad, they messed up my slack adjuster, the panel light on the bottom half of my sleeper was out. For some strange reason my air horn was out, too, I don't know how that happened."

All totaled, repairs on the a 2007 Freightliner Classic day cab with  have an ARI sleeper came to about $4,000. "When I asked the public defender how the damages occurred while it was under police care, he said, 'The police were angry.' That's all he said."

As for legal recourse, "Our attorney, who is white told us, 'Don't even think about going to trial around here because you're not going to get a fair trial. The area is too prejudiced.' He just flat-out said that." Still, Wendell holds out hope that he might be compensated for truck damages.

The driving couple is on the road, working to pay off their truck repairs, and trying to stay in their home in Draper, Utah after being served with foreclosure documents, because they could not pay their mortgage while in jail. They're also steering clear of Arkansas. "We're not going to drive through Arkansas ever again; we'll go around it if we get a load. If we're supposed to go down I-40, we'll go around Arkansas, pay the extra money and avoid the problems," said Harvey.

All charges have been dropped. Neither officials of the Fort Chaffee Public Service Department, the Sebastian County Detention Facility or Barling Police responded to requests for an interview focused solely on this incident.

To help pay for their truck and lost income, a GoFundMe account has been established by a family member.

About the Author

Larry Kahaner

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