Meet The Master Of Asset Forfeiture, A Phelps County Sergeant | St. Louis Public Radio

Meet The Master Of Asset Forfeiture, A Phelps County Sergeant

Feb 18, 2019

This story is part of a collaborative-reporting initiative supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. All stories can be found here: https://taken.pulitzercenter.org/

Sgt. Carmelo Crivello of the Phelps County Sheriff’s Department is a legend on the stretch of Highway 44 near Rolla, Missouri.

Some call him the “Sicilian” because of his family heritage. Others call him the “Puerto Rican,” because he speaks Spanish. To his fellow officers, he is the reason they drive new patrol cars, have state-of-the-art equipment and don’t have to buy their own holsters.

For more than two decades, Crivello has policed Interstate-44 looking for drug smugglers. He is a member of Group 33, a federal drug task force that includes most of the St. Louis area. Last year, federal Drug Enforcement Administration Supervisor Tiras Cunningham presented him with the Excellence in Investigative Effort award.

Phelps County also belongs to the state’s South-Central Drug Task Force. And, Crivello is associated with Desert Snow, a private firm from Oklahoma that runs the “Black Asphalt" data system. Black Asphalt is a private computer database of sensitive personal information to assist drug interdictors nationwide.

Kane County, Illinois Sheriff Ron Hain, another Desert Snow member, singled out Crivello in a self-published book on Desert Snow in 2010 titled “Inroads: A Working Solution to America’s War on Drugs.”

Hain described the Phelps County’s “state-of-the-art training facility, high-end equipment and … a car fleet that resembled a Chrysler new car lot. All these royalties were the result of the work of one man,” he wrote.

Hain did not name Crivello, but there was no mistaking the object of his praise whom he described as the “stocky little Sicilian.”

“He defines his passion for vigilance of the roadways … by recalling days of missing meals, spending off-duty time on patrol and urinating in empty water bottles so he did not have to take a bathroom break from his perch.”

Sgt. Carmelo Crivello of the Phelps County Sheriff's Department has policed Interstate-44 looking for drug smugglers for more than two decades.
Credit Brian Muñoz

Policing the westbound lanes

Crivello, like most highway interdictors, focuses on the westbound lanes of the interstate, targeting cash, rather than drugs, that comes through Missouri in the eastbound lanes.

“The westbound, generally speaking, are the profits from the drug sales,” said Crivello in an interview, “... so stopping westbound (is) more likely to hurt drugs … (You) hurt the cartels more than you hit the pocketbooks.”

To Crivello, interdiction is an art that requires continuing passion. He still remembers the excitement of finding 800 pounds of marijuana in a U-Haul early in his career. He was so excited, he vomited. “I don’t vomit anymore, but to thrive in this career, you have to chase that excitement,” he said.

On a recent Friday, Crivello took a reporting team on a ride-along on Highway 44, where he described how he finds big cash stashes in passing motorists’ cars.

A photo provided by the Phelps County Sheriff's Department shows a flatscreen TV stuffed with cash that the department seized.
Credit Phelps County Sheriff's Department

He has photos documenting his finds — $200,000 found behind the electronics of a big-screen TV; bags of money found behind a false wall in a tractor-trailer; bundles of cash discovered in mufflers, gas tanks and tires.

He even has found cars with a complicated mechanism for getting to a secret cash compartment. One involved “turning the A.C. unit on, turn another part of the vehicle on and running a magnet, and that opens the compartment.”

Crivello is constantly watching for a suspicious car or truck with out-of-state license plates. When he sees one, he checks on his patrol-car computer to see what is known about the owners. He can find out from the federal El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) if the car crossed the border from Mexico.

When Crivello identifies a suspicious vehicle, he watches for a traffic violation that will justify a stop and further investigation. The usual violations are changing lanes without a blinker, driving below the speed limit or touching the fog line — rumble strips — on the side of the road.

There’s always some “excuse” to stop a car, says Virginia lawyer David B. Smith, an expert on civil asset forfeiture.

Once Crivello makes a traffic stop, he gets the stories of the occupants. If there are multiple occupants, he will talk to them separately to see if their stories match. He brings suspects into his car and tries to put them at ease.

Killing them with kindness

He said he gets their stories “by being professional, being friendly; it brings their guard down and gets them to relax, and before you know it, they are spilling their story that doesn’t make any sense … We rely on the old school of human behavior and indicators.”

Sometimes Crivello will alter details of the story he heard from one person in the car. If it’s a prearranged story, the second person will “think their partners got the story wrong and they just go along with everything,” including the new details that Crivello works in.

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Sheriff Richard L. Lisenbe, who heads the Phelps County department and also is an expert in highway interdiction, said suspects sometimes tell the most unbelievable stories.

He stopped one person driving a rental car “that caught my eye because he had Veterans of Foreign Wars caps all across the back of there window. 'Who has Veterans of Foreign Wars caps across the back window of a rental?' he asked.

When Lisenbe pulled alongside, the man slowed to 35 miles an hour. When stopped, the man said he “got a rental car (in Texas) to drive to Missouri to see the Arch. I said, ‘What were you going to do while you’re there?’ He said, ‘I was going to drive up there and look at the Arch and drive right back.’”

Another physical cue is what Lisenbe calls a "felony forest" in their cars. "They have about 1,300 (deodorant) Christmas trees hanging off their rearview mirror trying to mask the smell of drugs," he said.

Ultimately, said Crivello, “it comes down to body language.” Some motorists are sweating profusely. Some suspects’ carotid arteries are pulsing noticeably. Others literally are holding onto their cars because their legs have gone weak with nervousness.

Once Crivello got underneath a car to look for a fake gas tank. “I started tapping on the place I thought it would be, and the kid (driving) started signing the stations of the cross.”

"I get them a motel, get them a bus ticket; I don't abandon people." - Sgt. Carmelo Crivello

When Crivello has enough indicators, he will ask the driver to consent to a search. Most drivers, even those with things to hide, agree to the search, because they think it makes them look more honest. If the motorist refuses to consent, the deputies summon their police dog, Jet, who will signal on drug scents.

Smith, the legal critic, says prolonging a search to wait for the arrival of a dog when there is no reasonable suspicion of a crime is a violation of the driver’s rights under Supreme Court decisions.

Many of the people stopped by Phelps County have Spanish surnames. But Crivello says there are “smugglers from every race and color and age — from Mennonites, whites, Asians. Everybody is capable of smuggling … in fact, the whole idea is to blend in. There is nothing more exciting than getting a grandma or grandpa … you have to remember that someone who is 70 years old today … (drugs are) nothing new to them.”

Crivello sometimes kills suspects with kindness. One person he stopped confessed he was about to shoot him, but Crivello was just “too damn nice.”

Prosecutor Brendon Fox remembers “one truck driver who was 60-something … Carmelo has just stopped this guy, and after Carmelo has done all his investigation ... the guy is thanking Carmelo. I remember watching this and thinking, ‘What in the hell is going on?’ … He didn’t end up arresting him … He got him set up at a hotel and going to take the bus … it was the guy who had the utility truck from Texas and the bed of the truck had a false bed. This guy is saying, 'Thanks so much …'”

Crivello added, “I get them a motel, get them a bus ticket; I don’t abandon people.”

Fox interjects, “The one and only Carmelo.”

William Freivogel is a journalism professor at the University of Illinois Carbondale. He is also an attorney. A student multimedia team from Southern Illinois University Carbondale - Holly Piepenburg, Brian Munoz and Abbey LaTour - assisted in reporting and illustrating the project.

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