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Pleasantville officers look deeper in finding evidence inside vehicles

If Ameer Stephens had just buckled up, he might still be free.
But the accused leader of a drug-trafficking ring got pulled over last month for not wearing his seat belt in Pleasantville, where some officers take vehicle searching a little deeper.
They would eventually find that a truck seized from Stephens in a half-million drug bust months earlier had been sitting in a police impound lot with undiscovered evidence.
Officers Ryan VanSyckle and Girard Tell are trained in looking for traps — hidden compartments where people often hide illegal things such as drugs and guns.
They are installed by experts in modifying vehicles, and can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000 to have installed, depending how extravagant they are. Some are even as high as $20,000, they estimated.
The officers go through a very specific list in checking for traps, then go back and check each other’s work. They wouldn’t say exactly where the traps have been found or what gives them away.
“Vehicles have natural voids that are a good place to hide things,” VanSyckle said.
“Pretty much anywhere you can think of, they can be,” said Tell.
Some will be in the front for easy access, others in the back. Some can require a certain series to be performed to access them, although the officers say they can find them without knowing the sequence.
Stephens’ were in the center of the car, and were “pretty sophisticated,” VanSyckle said. They were also empty.
A first for the two who have helped find nearly a dozen traps.
But the discovery led Atlantic City Detective Darrin Lorady — who had Stephens original case — to have them look at the silver Dodge Ram that was seized as part of the original case in July, and had been sitting in Atlantic City’s compound lot.
“We were working on another case together, and he had mentioned about having us look,” Tell said.
Then the car stop happened, and “it was like it was meant to be.”
The search for traps can take as long as a 25 minutes, but this search was almost immediate, they said.
And very fruitful.
They found a kilogram of heroin, a gun and a pound of marijuana inside the trap.
“To find a large amount of heroin with this drug epidemic, it was a huge hit for Atlantic County and the surrounding area,” VanSyckle said.
It also proved a big hit to Stephens’ freedom.
At a detention hearing, Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Patricia Wild found the seizure was enough to revoke Stephens’ bail and send him to jail until his trial.
He and 40 others are accused as part of a drug rink that included police seizing a half-million dollars in drugs.
Defense attorney Hal Kokes argued at the detention hearing that — because it was part of the originally charged crime — the discovery shouldn’t count as a new charge for Stephens.
But Assistant Prosecutor Anne Crater successfully argued that this was a new charge — since the contraband had not been part of the original discovery — and called the truck “a mobile drug-dealing business.”
“If that doesn’t keep somebody in,” Tell said of the amount of drugs found, “I don’t know what would.”
The partners think that all officers should be trained to detect the signs. They can see the indicators, just as Officer Matt Laielli did when he pulled Stephens over.
The car was then seized, a search warrant obtained, and the empty traps found, leading to the Atlantic City case. And to Stephens going back to jail.

Officers Girard Tell and Ryan VanSyckle learned how to search cars for traps, where people often hide things such as guns, drugs and money.
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