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Capitol Hill couple get odd package with hefty street value

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; A01

What happened to Eric Anderson and Melanie Sloan in their Capitol Hill townhouse Monday night occurs quite often in the city. So to D.C. police, it was fairly routine.

As for Anderson and Sloan, though . . . well, imagine their surprise.

"I was making dinner," Sloan said. "And the doorbell rang."

It was a little after 6 o'clock, she said. When she opened the door, she saw a FedEx truck pulling away. On the doorstep was a roughly 2-by-2-foot box. She lugged it inside -- it was very heavy -- and left it on the floor. Then, thinking nothing of the package, she went back to the stove and stirred her risotto.

"We have an 11-month-old," said Anderson, her husband. "Sometimes somebody will send us a present, and we don't know what it is."

About 8 p.m., Anderson said, he opened the package, which proved to be no easy task.

Inside the box was another cardboard box, heavily taped. He said he cut open that box and found yet another, this one made of Styrofoam, also bound with clear plastic tape. "You start to think, 'Did someone send us something refrigerated?' "

Anderson, 47, a former Air Force intelligence officer who served in Baghdad and other dangerous locales, is on the faculty of the National Intelligence University. Sloan, 44, director of the nonprofit watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was a prosecutor for five years with the U.S. attorney's office in the District. So the two have radar for the suspicious.

And this was turning out to be a very suspicious package indeed.

"My curiosity got the better of me," Anderson said. "Melanie will tell you, I'm very risk-acceptant. Something about 10 years on active duty. And I ride a Harley most days of the week. I don't get worried about a lot of things."

As he likes to say, many a man's famous last words have been: "Watch this!"

With a pocketknife, he began hacking at the tape around the Styrofoam, although his wife urged him not to.

"I thought maybe it was going to be explosive," Sloan said. "I have a job where people don't necessarily like me very much."

She told Anderson to stop. "I said we shouldn't open it anymore. But he wanted to open it anyway -- that's him. So I made him take it outside. I said, 'Go out on the back porch!' I said, 'If you're going to blow up, do it without me and the baby!' "

On the porch, Anderson kept hacking. "I cut through the Styrofoam, and now I discover they've blown all this foam insulation into the inside of it." The insulation hadn't hardened; it was still gummy. So he clawed through it.

"And I see that whatever's in there has been wrapped in Saran Wrap about a thousand times, as best I could tell. I cut through that layer, and I get down to a big ball of duct tape. And then you get down to the next layer, and it's more plastic wrap."

Mixed with the final layer of plastic was something brown. In the house, nervously watching her husband through a glass door, Sloan thought it was dirt. But Anderson told her it was coffee grounds.

Right away, the ex-prosecutor knew what they were dealing with.

Drug traffickers sometimes pack coffee grounds with their product, hoping to throw narcotics-sniffing dogs off the scent. "I cut about a three-inch-wide gap in the top," Anderson said. "And under the coffee grounds, you could really clearly see it. I said, 'Oh, yeah, it's pot.' "

Specifically, 33 pounds of marijuana with a street value of close to $120,000, police said.

Inspector Brian Bray of the D.C. police Narcotics and Special Investigations Division said he wasn't at all surprised by the couple's discovery.

Suppose you're a marijuana dealer in the District. You buy, say, 165 pounds of pot from a distant wholesaler, and you want it shipped to the city. You stake out a bunch of addresses at random and choose five houses whose occupants normally aren't home during the day. Then you arrange for five 33-pound FedEx boxes to be delivered to those addresses, with no signatures required.

With the tracking numbers, you can follow the shipments on a computer and be waiting outside when each arrives.

Except sometimes -- for instance, on a Monday not long after a city has been snowbound -- traffic is horrendous, and FedEx drivers get caught in it. A shipment you're waiting for doesn't arrive until evening, after the residents have returned from work.

For a dealer, Bray said, a lost shipment is just part of the cost of doing business. He said the couple needn't worry about some nefarious character showing up at their door, looking for his merchandise.

Bray explained the economics:

When undercover officers make wholesale buys, usually they pay about $1,000 a pound for medium-grade marijuana. So the 33 pounds that Anderson and Sloan received probably cost the local importer about $33,000. As a rule of thumb, a pound can be stretched into 360 $10 bags, meaning the shipment's retail value was nearly $120,000.

That's a profit of $87,000 or so. Multiply that by, say, five shipments, and the overall profit is north of $400,000. If you lose one of the five packages, so what? You're still roughly $300,000 in the black.

"Therein lies the reason why it continues to occur on a frequent basis," Bray said, adding that D.C. police recover 30 to 40 such shipments a year. "And it's very difficult to trace these packages to the people who sent them," he said. The box shipped to Anderson and Sloan had a return address in Anaheim, Calif., that apparently is fictitious.

Perhaps the most memorable recovery in the Washington area occurred July 29, 2008, when heavily armed police officers who had been tracking a marijuana shipment to Prince George's County raided the home of the unwitting recipients, Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo and his wife, Trinity Tomsic. In the chaos, officers shot and killed the couple's two black Labrador retrievers.

Sloan and Anderson have a German shepherd named Cheyenne. Sloan said the Berwyn Heights fiasco sprang to her mind the instant her husband told her about the coffee grounds.

"Before he even looked in to see what kind of drugs they were, I called 911," she said. "I told them exactly what was going on. I'm like, I don't want them coming through my door with guns drawn, because I love my dog."

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