COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa -- Local police report a trend in the number of people they call "senior drug mules" -- older adults who carry drugs for cash.
Cruiser video from the Iowa State Patrol shows what looks like a typical traffic stop. A van was pulled over for traveling too close to another car. But after talking to the driver, the trooper got suspicious and asked for permission to check the back of the van. He found more than 300 pounds of marijuana.
The driver, Daniel O'Hara, 76, was arrested. O'Hara got a suspended sentence, two years of probation, a $1,000 fine and court costs. He didn't want to discuss his case with KETV NewsWatch 7.
In another case in January, Council Bluffs police found nearly 500 pounds of pot in a truck pulled over for a missing headlight. The man accused of driving was William Feldon, 72. Feldon's case is still in the courts.
"That is not somebody that you would expect to see a mug shot of," said Pottawattamie County Attorney Matt Wilber.
Wilber said he's seeing more of the senior drug mules because they can generally fly under the radar of police.
"A 75-year-old is not generally going to raise the average state trooper's suspicion," Wilber said.
That's why, Wilber said, drug dealers are using seniors, who are often not told what they're carrying -- only that they'll be paid to drive a car from point A to point B.
"The drugs or the money are hidden in hidden compartments somewhere in the car, perhaps in the trunk that's locked, and they don't have access -- aren't given a trunk key," Wilber said. "And they're just told, 'You just take this car from Phoenix to Detroit, and when you arrive in Detroit we'll pay you $5,000.'"
The drivers, Wilber said, think that's pretty good money for a road trip. One advocate for the elderly said it is often a matter of simple economics.
"You know, today, you can't be surprised about anything," said Dee Wilson, with a sigh.
Wilson is a case manager with the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Every day she sees seniors struggling to get by.
"Their Social Security checks don't begin to cover the bills. Their medication costs are very high. They may have houses they can't afford anymore," Wilson said.
Wilson said cases like those where seniors are accused of trafficking could be an unfortunate by-product of fixed incomes. Seniors are desperate to find some way to make ends meet.
"They're in a situation that is so overwhelming, I don't know that they think about the consequences," Wilson said.
Wilber said they should worry, especially if they ever get caught and end up facing a mandatory minimum sentence.
"A 10-year punishment for somebody that's 75 is actually much worse punishment for them, than if the same punishment would be for a 35-year-old," he said. "And I don't know that they're necessarily looking at it from that standpoint -- that it can effectively be a life sentence."
It isn't always a life sentence. Mary Stewart, 75, was convicted of transporting more than 140 grams of cocaine and got 1,000 of community service, probation and a $5-per-month fine to be paid for five years. Wilber said that kind of punishment is another reason dealers like to use seniors.
"When they're hoping to garner sympathy based on someone's age," he said.
Police said seniors are often recruited by a young family member they trust who persuades them to drive the drugs. Counselors suggested that seniors protect themselves by asking a lot of questions and not trusting anything that sounds too good to be true.