Traffic stop uncovers huge cocaine stash.

Police confiscated an estimated $10 million worth of cocaine during a routine traffic stop early yesterday morning, making it one of the largest drug seizures in the state's history.

A New Jersey livery driver and his California passenger were arrested after officers pulled them over for driving through a red traffic light and found 55 individually wrapped kilograms of cocaine in the trunk, police said.

"It was great work. And it was done with very little investigation on the part of our officers," Lt. Jon Fontneau, head of the department's narcotics and organized crime division, said during a press conference yesterday morning at police headquarters.

On a table next to the podium, police had displayed three duffle bags and the tightly sealed cocaine packages. The bags weighed about 2.2 pounds each, Fontneau said.

The driver, Luis Vavanco, 39, of Jersey City, N.J., and Nicolas Becema Asensio, 38, of Huron, Calif., were both charged with possession of narcotics and possession with intent to sell. The men are each being held on a $500,000 bond, and are scheduled to appear in court Jan. 4.

Fontneau said it is unknown where the car was headed and whether the driver and passenger knew each other.

"It's too early to elaborate at this point. At this time, anything we say would be speculation," he said.

The case has been turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration for further investigation.

At about 6:40 a.m., two officers on a routine patrol near the intersection of Atlantic and South State streets noticed a gray Lincoln Town Car with New Jersey license plates traveling east on South State Street. The car ran through a red light to turn right onto Atlantic Street, Fontneau said.

Fontneau said the department had expanded patrols in the area in recent weeks because of an increase in traffic accidents.

The officers stopped the car on Jefferson Street and questioned Vavanco and Asensio, who responded apprehensively, giving evasive answers about their destination and why they made the illegal turn, Fontneau said.

Suspicious, the officers were given permission by Vavanco to search his vehicle and inside the trunk, underneath a sleeping bag found three dark-colored duffle bags containing the 55 brick-shaped packages, Fontneau said. Both men denied ownership of the duffle bags, he said. A narcotics dog dispatched from a Stratford K-9 Unit confirmed the packages contained cocaine, he said.

Police believe the cocaine may be from Colombia.

"This appears to be a major person who would be selling this," Fontneau said. "This is a major wholesale. It's unusual to have that large of an amount."

Law enforcement officials said the drug seizure was the second-largest in Stamford history, after a Shippan warehouse raid 14 years ago in which officers found about $30 million worth of Colombian cocaine. In 1992, Bridgeport police divers seized about 63 kilograms of cocaine found in a tube attached underneath a boat owned by banana importer Turbana Corp. Yesterday's arrest happened just about a block away from the 1991 seizure on Gleason Avenue, in which two well-known Stamford businessmen were convicted of smuggling about 2,600 pounds of Colombian cocaine and housing it in aluminum containers at a warehouse in Shippan.

The FBI raided the warehouse after linking it to a case in Miami in which DEA agents found 12 tons of cocaine hidden in concrete fence posts. Paul Kakaletris, owner at the time of Imported Cars of Stamford Inc., was sentenced to an 18-year prison term and Dino Mandarino, a former manager of the Grade A supermarket in Shippan, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

[Source: The Advocate, Stamford, 21Dec05]

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