Security guards watch as passenger embark on the ferry Columbia in Ketchikan on Feb. 17, 2023. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

Twenty pounds of methamphetamine were seized last week in what law enforcement is calling one of the largest drug busts in Southeast Alaska in recent years. A regional drug enforcement team worked together to locate the meth, which was bound for Alaska on a ferry. 

It all started with a tip. According to court documents, Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Casey Hershberger contacted the Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs task force to say he’d heard a shipment of meth would soon make its way towards Alaska. And it would be big: 10-plus pounds.

“We received some information from down south with some partnering law enforcement agencies that there may be a person traveling to Juneau on the Alaska Marine Highway System that was carrying a large quantity of methamphetamine,” Lt. Krag Crampbell of the Juneau Police Department said in a phone interview Monday. JPD is among more than a dozen agencies contributing to the task force.

The meth would sail the Inside Passage on the crown jewel of the Alaska Marine Highway fleet, the ferry Columbia, from Bellingham to Juneau.

But after a trip up the coast of British Columbia, the meth’s journey was interrupted in Ketchikan on Feb. 17. 

Acting on Hershberger’s tip, a state trooper and a Ketchikan detective boarded the Columbia with a search warrant for stateroom 151A and its occupant, 43-year-old Oregon man Michael D. Davis.

There, they found a blue duffel bag. Inside, said Ketchikan Police Lt. Andy Berntson, were 18 packages of meth wrapped in tortillas.

“That was a new one. Looked like big ol’ overstuffed burritos,” Berntson said in a phone interview Monday.

The packages totaled roughly 20 pounds, and are valued at over $1 million, according to police. Officers arrested Davis on a felony drug charge and booked him at Ketchikan Correctional Center. He’s facing a felony drug charge that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Information on bail was not immediately available.

While Davis’s journey ended in Ketchikan’s jail, the blue duffel bag continued north on the Columbia, along with what investigators describe in court documents as a “representative sample” of the seized drugs. 

But now, the bag’s traveling companion was Jack Ford, a Ketchikan Police Department detective.

“Throughout that investigation, we were able to determine that the end goal for that methamphetamine was, it was supposed to go to a person in Juneau, who was supposed to pick it up at the ferry,” JPD Lt. Krag Campbell said.

When the Columbia docked in Juneau’s Auke Bay, Detective Ford walked off the ferry with the blue duffel and a phone seized from Davis.

According to court documents, investigators believed the meth was coming from Miles Martin, an Oregon resident and the son of 59-year-old Juneau woman Nanette Brown. So Detective Ford texted Brown to let her know he’d arrived.

Soon afterward, a silver Nissan pickup pulled up. The driver told the undercover detective to put the bag in the truck, and the two went their separate ways. Shortly after, police stopped and arrested the driver, who they identified as Nanette Brown’s husband, 60-year-old Rodney Brown.

Then officers’ attention turned to the Browns’ Vista Drive apartment in Douglas. 

They watched as Nanette Brown went to a neighbor’s apartment carrying a multi-colored bag. Police say it contained two ammo boxes — one with nearly $70,000 in cash, the other with more than half a pound of meth and roughly 150 pills thought to contain fentanyl.

Police arrested Nanette Brown and searched her home. According to court documents, they found nine guns and another cache of meth. The Browns are facing two felony drug charges and a felony weapons charge.

The Browns and Davis have pleaded not guilty. They’re due for court hearings in the coming weeks.

All told, the bust was among the largest in recent memory. Campbell says it’s the biggest  he’s overseen in the three years he’s led the Juneau Police Department’s drug unit. He says he expects it’ll make a dent in the supply of meth in Juneau.

“I think that’s going to (have) a huge impact. We don’t see that quantity come into Southeast Alaska — it’s very, very rare,” he said.

Berntson, the Ketchikan lieutenant, says he expects the 20-pound bust to reduce the supply of meth in smaller communities throughout Southeast Alaska. And he says that’s the goal of the regional task force — though drug trafficking is sometimes thought of as a victimless crime, Berntson says that misses the bigger picture.

“When people get on these types of drugs, they aren’t the people they used to be,” he said. “They do things out of desperation. They do things because they need to get the drugs, and so that just trickles into all other areas of crime.”

Berntson says it’s also become somewhat rare to see busts aboard state ferries. Many recent busts have been tied to air travel or the U.S. Mail. Berntson chalks it up to a couple of factors.

“The sailings haven’t been as frequent in recent years,” he said. “Drug dealers essentially like a couple of things. One, speed, and two, reliability.”