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Ecstasy in Searsport

I found this News Story on the Web from the Daily News Transcript and thought you might be interested too…Searsport is one of three main ports on the Maine coast

Tales from the edge

Erin Prawoko
Norwood resident Mike Cunningham talks about his book, “In Safe Hands.”

Posted May 05, 2009 @ 01:57 AM
Last update May 05, 2009 @ 02:12 AM


When Margaret Street resident Michael Cunningham retired from U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2007, he said he had enough stories of his career to last a lifetime – and more than enough to fill a book.

Cunningham’s second book, “In Safe Hands,” is a compilation of more than three dozen stories from a career that took him from a clerical position to supervisor in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s contraband enforcement and terrorism teams.

Cunningham’s first book, “Walking Point,” published in 1997, detailed his experiences as an infantryman in Vietnam.

Cunningham said yesterday it was an easy decision after his retirement to pen his latest book.

“I’m proud of all the people I worked with and the things we did,” said Cunningham, 59. “I’m not sure people realize what unbelievable people we have out there on a day-to-day basis doing things to keep the United States of America safe.”

Cunningham’s tales take readers from the northern reaches of New England at the Houghton, Maine, border with Canada – where he went in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 – to Boston Harbor, where he patrolled the shipping lanes and inspected incoming vessels, to Logan Airport, where he made numerous drug and money laundering busts.

One story stems from his work on Boston’s contraband enforcement team.

A few days before Christmas in 2001, Cunningham was working the waterfront in Boston when he got a call from Bangor, Maine. An immigration inspector there had run a computer check of a crew on a ship from the Netherlands coming into Searsport, Maine. One of the crew was suspected of being involved in smuggling ecstasy.

Cunningham gathered a team and headed to Maine, where they boarded the vessel, searched the crewman’s room and found an estimated $5 million to $8 million worth of ecstasy pills, making it the largest ecstasy bust in the history of that state.

“That was a perfect example of what we do because all that started with a small little piece of information and it grew into the largest ecstasy bust in Maine,” said Cunningham.

Cunningham gives readers a flavor of customs and border work.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Cunningham was sitting in the dining room of his Norwood home when the terrorist attacks took place. As a supervisor of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s terrorism team, he immediately went to work – which in his case meant driving to the US-Canada border. Customs officials were charged with painstakingly checking every vehicle heading out of the United States.

“We knew the airports were shut down and we thought the bad guys were still around and would want to get out of Dodge,” said Cunningham. “The only way out, really, was to drive.”

Cunningham and his crew didn’t make any dramatic busts, but he believes the story shows the dedication of the agency and the people who work customs and border patrol.

“A lot of times, we’re doing things that nobody knows anything about,” said Cunningham. “When you’re asleep tonight listening to the rain pelt the window, there are people out on the high seas boarding ships to make sure we’re safe.”

Cunningham spent a fair amount of time on those seas as well, doing inspections of massive liquid natural gas ships, container ships and even fishing vessels suspected of smuggling drugs.

Cunningham was indirectly involved with the saga of the The Valhalla in the late 1980s. The Valhalla sailed out of Gloucester Harbor in 1984 laden with a cargo of guns and explosives destined for the Irish Republican Army in Ireland.

The Valhalla offloaded its cargo 200 miles off the coast of Ireland, but Irish authorities had been tipped off, and the crew and cargo were seized.

Payment, in the form of 34 tons of marijuana, for the armaments in The Valhalla was delivered to Boston via a ship called the Ramsland. Cunningham was part of the multi-agency team that boarded the Ramsland and found the drugs stashed in the ship’s double hull. The marijuana had a street value at the time of $136 million.

Cunningham said what he enjoyed most about that story was the interplay among so many law enforcement agencies.

“We all worked together very well – it wasn’t about the state police or the Coast Guard or customs; we are all working together to protect the United States of America,” said Cunningham.

But Cunningham’s stories are not all about drug busts, there are also touching stories of helping people, including one about helping to save a 14-year-old Chinese girl on a field trip in America who was being kidnapped.

“We did a lot of compassionate things that we took a lot of pride in,” said Cunningham.

“In Safe Hands” is available at Norwood News and Bookshop as well as on Amazon.com.

Daily News staff writer Brian Falla can be reached at 781-433-8339 or bfalla@cnc.com.

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