Deputy to be honored nationally for big drug seizure

K9 officer Manni of the Hancock County Sheriff's Department focuses on the speaker cabinet during the traffic stop in October. Sgt. Nick Ernstes of the Hancock County Sheriff's Department, who works with the area PACE team, had pulled the suspects' vehicle over. (File photo)

HANCOCK COUNTY — It was one of the largest drug-seizure traffic stops in the United States in 2020, leading to the discovery of more than 30 pounds of heroin, fentanyl and cocaine — over $1 million worth of illegal drugs.

The man responsible for the bust was Hancock County Sheriff’s Sgt. Nick Ernstes, coordinator for the Pro-Active Criminal Enforcement team, or PACE, which patrols Interstate 70 in a long-running campaign to intercept drugs along the busy smuggling corridor.

Ernstes will be in Baltimore on Monday, July 26, through Friday, July 30 for the National Interdiction Conference. The gathering is designed to train and influence a proactive “all crimes” approach to criminal interdiction while also promoting and encouraging the networking of law enforcement officers nationwide.

That’s where Ernstes will be recognized during a special banquet on Wednesday, July 28, and given the National Criminal Intervention Network award.

“It’s an award for one of the largest ‘cold’ traffic stops leading to a major seizure,” Ernstes said. “The ‘cold’ stop means no one called me and told me to stop the vehicle with drugs in it. It was just a traffic stop on I-70 where I knew something didn’t seem right.”

Ernstes made the stop Sept. 30, 2020, in Henry County, when he pulled over a 2020 Jeep Cherokee near the 115-mile marker along eastbound I-70, west of the interchange with State Road 3, for following too closely.

During a search of the vehicle, deputies focused on a speaker box in the cargo area of the vehicle. Ernstes’ K9 partner, Manni, alerted him drugs might be inside the box. When deputies opened the speaker, they found 15 kilograms — or about 33 pounds — of suspected heroin, fentanyl and cocaine hidden inside.

At the time of the stop, officials said the inside of the speaker box had been coated with spray foam to suppress the scent, but Manni detected the drugs anyway.

“It was a big catch,” Ernstes said. “Specifically because we were in the middle of a pandemic and the borders were shut down and cartels were in limbo with all their distributions.”

Ernstes has been working with the PACE team trying to stop the flow of drugs moving throughout the country for 11 years. He said this was one of the team’s bigger busts.

“This is the first time I’ve made it to the level of being able to receive a national award,” he said.

Capt. Robert Harris, the public information officer for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, said Ernstes is an excellent officer who is dedicated to the difficult task of slowing the drug pipeline.

“He has developed an expertise for finding criminal activity moving through Hancock County,” Harris said.

The PACE team Ernstes is part of has developed a network of partnerships with other local, state and federal agencies to gain information on potential criminal activity, Harris said.

“Over the years, Ernstes has taken large quantities of illegal drugs, guns, stolen and counterfeit merchandise, vehicles and money associated with criminal enterprises off the roads,” Harris said.

Ernstes noted the job the PACE Team does has required years of training and experience. Traffickers are always adapting their methods, so officers have to be creative and clever themselves to catch them as they move drugs around the country.

“Drug traffic offenders don’t always speed, so there are other things that we look for,” Ernstes said.

During the drug bust last October, deputies arrested the driver, Leandro Collado, and his passenger, Ramen Coca, without incident.

Collado, 27, Brooklyn, New York, was arrested on two counts of dealing narcotics and one count of dealing in a controlled substance. Coca, 39, who was listed as being from the Dominican Republic, was arrested on the same charges. All are Level 2 felonies and carry long prison sentences.

Collado’s case is set for a jury trial in August in Henry County. Coca no longer listed as having a case in Henry County. He was being held on a federal detainer since it was determined he was in the United States illegally at the time of his arrest.