A dream vacation turned into a nightmare for a local mother who says she was tricked into smuggling cocaine for a man she met while on a tropical getaway. Now she wants to share her story as a warning to others.
Tiwanda White of Delaware County was arrested in 2016 after she arrived at Philly International Airport with half a million dollars of cocaine in her bag. She spent nearly four months in jail.
“That was the first time I’ve ever been forcibly away from my children,” White said while in tears.
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White's ordeal began when she had a fling with a man she met while vacationing in Jamaica. White said the man asked her to bring what he called a “Care Package” of cocoa and spices for his family in New Jersey. She told investigators she thought nothing of what was actually inside the package until officials stopped her at the airport and found the stash.
“I’m not saying I’m easily connived,” White said. “But I’m kind of happy-go-lucky.”
Video of White’s airport interrogation helped prove that she was duped. After seeing it last year, a jury cleared her of every drug charge she faced. Even after proving her innocence, White knows there are still people who believe she had to have known what was really inside the package.
“I don’t respond because you never know until you’re in that situation,” White said.
The man who White met in Jamaica was never arrested or charged in connection with her case. White says he stopped responding to her text messages as soon as she returned to the United States.
Investigators say drug seizures at Philadelphia International Airport and the nearby Port of Philadelphia occur as often as once a week. The number of drug seizures at U.S. International Ports has been rising over recent years, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“Unfortunately a lot of times what we see here in Philadelphia is somebody who might be taken advantage of or coerced,” said Ed Moriarty, the Acting Director for the Port of Philadelphia.
Moriarty’s team has intercepted narcotics not obvious to the untrained eye including drugs inside candy, sandwiches and soda cans as well as cocaine behind the wood of a bedpost, built into the soles of shoes and sewn into a pair of underwear. Moriarty has even seen drugs hidden inside religious statues of Joseph and the Virgin Mary.
Moriarty says his team’s approach has changed as they’ve gotten better at separating the law-abiding majority from the drug-running few.
“Instead of us looking for that needle in a haystack, we try and blow away that hay, get rid of all those low risk passengers, that ‘hay’ we call it,” Moriarty said. “And then the needle will kind of present itself to us and be obvious.”
Customs and Border Protection officials who are cracking down on smuggling normally search passenger names while planes are still in the air. Once passengers land, drug-sniffing dogs are brought in as well as uniformed and undercover officers. The officers pay attention to mannerisms, eye contact and the “practiced confidence” of someone trying too hard to look calm.
“Smugglers always adjust,” Moriarty said. “Their business is to stay one step ahead of us and our business is to keep up with them.”
Correction: An early version of this story misidentified one location where seizures occurred, it is the Port of Philadelphia. In addition, it misstated the name of Customs and Border Protection.