The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement (OALE) confiscated 1,733 pounds of packaged marijuana on Interstate 10 in Suwannee County over the weekend valued at $3.9 million, according to Florida Agricultural Commissioner Charles Bronson and Suwannee County Sheriff Tony Cameron.

Sheriff Cameron said in addition to the driver and passenger being arrested, a semi tractor trailer and cab and the marijuana was confiscated, and OALE and Suwannee County deputies found more than $4,000 in cash inside the truck.

"The office of Agricultural Law Enforcement is doing a great service in the war on illegal drugs," Sheriff Cameron said after the confiscation. "It is great when state agencies such as the OALE, Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and our own county Sheriff's Office work together."

Bronson said the seizure came after the eastbound semi truck pulled into the OALE's I-10 interdiction station just east of the Suwannee River Saturday night, March 4. OALE officers checked the cargo and found there was less than half a load of paper towels. The two men inside, driver Jose Ledesma, 43, of Mexico, and passenger, Harry Gonzales Quezada, 21, of Guatemala, apparently had arrived in Florida all the way from California with less than a half load of cargo, an amount that would not be profitable to transport such a long distance, Sheriff Cameron said. With their suspicions aroused, officers investigated further and found the 85 packages of marijuana hidden near the front of the trailer among the boxes of paper towels with several pallets of the paper towels on top of the pot. The Sheriff's Office, FDLE and DEA were all notified and went to the scene. Sheriff Cameron went to the scene and participated in the investigation.

Ledesma and Quezada were both arrested and charged with trafficking in more than 1,700 pounds of marijuana. They were booked into the Suwannee County Jail where they remain. Bond has been set at $1 million on both men.

Suwannee County deputies assisted in loading the marijuana into a truck for transportation to and storage at the Suwannee County Jail assisted with weighing the drugs and other aspects of the case, Sheriff Cameron said.

The street value of the drugs is estimated at nearly $3.9 million. The investigation is continuing into where the drugs came from, who owns them and where they were headed.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration whose agents were at the scene assisted OALE in the case, Bronson said.

The confiscation is a reminder of the late 70s when it was a daily occurrence at the county's six interdiction stations to find large and small trucks trying to smuggle large quantities of marijuana into and out of Florida. It was the inspection stations then that shone the spotlight on drug smuggling activity through counties like Suwannee and Hamilton County where inspection stations abound and trucks passing through the area and local trucks must stop. One such stop late one night on Interstate 75 in Hamilton County lead to the kidnapping of an OALE officer, who was later found unhurt, bound and gagged inside an isolated church. When the criminals came back looking for the officer a month or so later, they got the wrong man OALE officer Austin Gay was found murdered weeks later, his body inside a canvas dumped alongside a graded road in Brooks County, Ga. The disappearance of Gay prompted one of the largest manhunts ever seen in North Florida. Nine of the 10 men arrested were eventually convicted or plea-bargained in the case. The 10th man was found not guilty by a Leon County jury and set free.

The weekend incident caps a busy two years at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' 22 Interdiction Stations, where officers have recovered an estimated $16 million in drugs, stolen goods and contraband at the locations, including a $7 million cocaine shipment, $600,000 in stolen medicines, 60 large-screen televisions and a truckload of pilfered computer chassis.

Designed historically to keep plant and animal diseases out of Florida by inspecting the estimated 12 million commercial vehicles which enter and leave the state each year, the stations are playing an increasingly important role in homeland security efforts as officers have detained several truckloads of illegal aliens in addition to the seizures of drugs and stolen goods.

A 23rd Interdiction Station, along I-10 in Pensacola, is expected to begin operations this month.

Susan K. Lamb may be reached by calling 1-386-362-1734 ext. 131 or by emailing susan.lamb@gaflnews.com.

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