View attachment 23815 SURREY, B.C. — Just metres from the Canadian border in British Columbia, Paul Vogt pops the top on a secret compartment in the ceiling of a commercial truck’s cab.
“There were 50 kilos of cocaine in this,” says Vogt, the Canada Border Services Agency’s local expert on clandestine compartments.
He notes the telltale signs: “The roof’s a bit low. This is plywood construction. That is all aftermarket.”
And he warns the compartment “reeks” of glue and other substances.
“That is all lead-lined … You have a car alarm to release it.”
He points to upholstery in the upper part of the cab, explaining that it doesn’t match up with the fabric used on the lower walls.
“If you really look at it, it stands out like a sore thumb.”
Vogt is passionate about his work. Not only is he among the best at locating secret compartments in commercial vehicles used for cross-border cocaine and marijuana smuggling, he also works part-time with the Gang Task Force to find gun “traps” in gangster rides.
Since he began his Gang Task Force stint, he has seen an increasing sophistication in the 40 or so compartments he has encountered.
“From the first compartments I started seeing, they have definitely changed … And that is just in a two-year period,” Vogt said. “They are getting better at secreting things for us to look for and find.”
Vogt is one of a handful of experts in Canada in detecting and decoding secret compartments.
“I got an interest in this early on in my career. I found we were lacking any knowledge of these compartments. I had management supporting me in seeking out training and that’s where I took off,” he said. “And I took a real love to it and I find it a real challenge.”
The 47-year-old CBSA intelligence officer has received special training in the U.S. He has testified as an expert in court cases on both sides of the border — including the successful prosecution of gangster Jamie Bacon on firearms charges.
And he has trained thousands of others in detection methods, as well as the latest technological tricks used by those working for gangs and organized crime in B.C.
Vogt also helped write part of B.C.’s new Armoured Vehicle and Aftermarket Compartment Control Act, which allows for fines up to $10,000 and six months in jail for people convicted of driving an armoured vehicle or having a secret compartment in their vehicle.
“Until now there has been no legislation that actually hindered anyone from doing this,” Vogt said.
He was specifically consulted about the wording of the secret compartment section of the law, which came into effect earlier this year.
“That was really cool,” Vogt said of the help he provided. “It does give some teeth to British Columbia now because they have recognized the safety issue.”
And that issue is simple — “police officers are rolling around and these guys have access to guns that are 10 seconds away,” Vogt said.
Last July, a judge said the existence of a secret compartment in the BMW of gangster Aleksandar Radjenovic was an aggravating factor in sentencing him for conspiracy to commit murder and possessing firearms while under a ban.
“His BMW had a secret compartment in it to assist in the secreting and transportation of firearms,” the judge said. “The hidden compartment was sophisticated and professionally installed. It would permit quick and immediate access to secreted contraband and avoid detection by law enforcement personnel.”
So far in 2011, the Gang Task Force has found 14 secret gun compartments in vehicles.
Vogt believes there are “quite a few” builders in B.C. willing to take the risk and make the compartments simply because “it is good money.”
No one has yet faced charges under the new legislation, though Vogt believes that will come.
He now knows the trademarks of some of the makers, who are often so proud of their craftsmanship they incorporate identifiers as if they want credit for their work.
“I can look at them and say `this is a similar build to the one that was there. It is almost identical. It uses the same components, the same wiring technique, the same looping of their tape, the same components.”
With the smaller gun compartments, there can be more than one in a vehicle and there are many more places to hide them, he said.
Detectors like Vogt must know where every cavity is and then search section by section to eliminate locations that might house a compartment.
“So, you are negating spaces,” he said. “That’s what you’re doing.”
It doesn’t take Vogt long to figure it out when a vehicle has a secret compartment.
“On average within a 15-minute period, you will know if there is something there,” he said.
The more challenging part is figuring out the mechanism to open a compartment and then “defeating” that mechanism. It can take hours.
Vogt said the components used in gangster vehicles are more complex than ever. They blend in “whereas before, a lot of things were obvious,” he said. “And the builders are getting much better.”
That is one of the Catch-22s of being an expert. When Vogt testifies in court, compartment makers learn how he does his job and try to modify their practices accordingly. They are often one step ahead of law enforcement.
“Those guys share that information,” he said. “They have the funding and the money and the time.”
And the best equipment money can buy.
“The electronics are getting better … The weapons traps are smaller, more sophisticated. They are using electric drawer locks that are extremely strong and hard to defeat and easy to secret within the vehicle.”
A new programmable trigger switch is often used now to open the clandestine gun boxes in vehicles.
“They can hook it up in any sequence, any form that they wish. So it could be hitting a button 33 times, turning down the window and having the car in park,” Vogt said.
The compartments used to smuggle contraband across the border are also increasingly sophisticated. Even the decks of pickup trucks have been found completely modified to stash drugs,
“They go to great lengths to raise the boxes in pickups. We have had three hydraulically-lifted ones,” Vogt said.
He showed another semi-trailer with 16 hidden compartments designed to hold up to 400 pounds of marijuana each or an equal volume of cocaine.
“You see the true floor?” Vogt asks. “See how much they have raised it and brought it back? They did a great job mimicking everything to look normal.”
Vogt is spreading his knowledge as far afield as possible so more CBSA officers and police are trained to detect even the most sophisticated compartments. He has even been invited to Australia to teach.
The work may be challenging, but it is also extremely rewarding knowing he is reducing the number of firearms and volume of drugs in B.C. communities.
“I am proud every day I find some drugs or guns because I know I am taking them off the streets and protecting my family and your family,” Vogt said. “That’s what it’s all about. It is good to get them off the streets.”
By Kim Bolan
Postmedia News Dec 26, 2011
1)CBSA officer and hidden compartment specialist Paul Vogt shines the light on hidden smuggling drawers built into the floor of a 53 foot commercial truck trailer Monday, December 12, 2011 at the Pacific Border Crossing in Surrey, B.C. Ian Lindsay/Postmedia News
2)Vogt shows the electronic lock control hidden behind the electric connection that release the smuggling drawers built into the floor of a 53 foot commercial truck trailer. Ian Lindsay/Postmedia News
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How Canada sniffs out smugglers