You don't often see two mom-and-pop dealers, not a sophisticated crime group, using a small UAV to move product from their backyard.
Images: Google Earth, Shutterstock/dadalia, and Shutterstock/Lexxxx. Composition by Caroline Haskins.
Elegant palm trees hang over the symmetrical lawns of the peachy homes lining Chesapeake Lane in the Orangecrest neighborhood of Riverside, California. But on December 21, according to the Riverside Police Department, a noisy, small-fry drone, rigged to accommodate payloads of illegal drugs, whirred out of a backyard, crossed the street, flew over a block, and delivered a package to customers waiting in a nearby church parking lot.
Neighbors weren’t the only ones who noticed. Tipped-off narcotics officers saw the deal go down, and subsequently arrested Benjamin Baldassarre and Ashley Carroll, the father and step-mom of a 9-year-old girl, on suspicion of flying the drone from their residence on the 8700 block of Chesapeake to distribute drugs to customers in the area.
For a few years now, Motherboard has reported on the rise of remotely-piloted drug smuggling—we’ve seen various hacked and homemade drones used by drug cartels to deliver cocaine over the Mexico-US border, by over-the-wall accomplices dropping contraband to inmates in prisons from Australia to Canada, and by Lithuanian mobsters slipping cigarettes into Russia. The Riverside case is notable because you have two mom-and-pop style drug dealers, not an elaborate criminal collaboration, using drones for deliveries in the suburbs.
Authorities received multiple tips about Baldassarre, 39, and Carroll, 31, and had been investigating the couple since the beginning of last month, according to a Riverside PD press release. Officer Ryan Railsback, a Riverside PD representative, told me the department's Narcotics Unit was surprised to see the drone in action. Having witnessed the drug exchange first-hand, the Narcotics Unit secured a warrant to search the residence from which the drone originated, about a quarter mile from the church. For a standard consumer drone with a 2.4 GHz radio frequency, this distance represents just a fraction of its maximum range of a few miles.
Once inside the home, detectives confiscated methamphetamine, LSD-laced candies, and fentanyl powders. Most notably, the detectives found a drone.
Railsback noted that this drug case is no different from a case without a drone—say, if the Narcotics Unit witnessed an in-person exchange between the dealers and customers in the church parking lot.
“The mechanism or the way they actually deal the drugs was new and innovative in a way, but it’s still just delivering or dealing drugs,” he said. “There’s no specific crime for using a drone or something different than a hand-to-hand [drug deal]. There’s no additional charges.”
The couple was charged with possessing controlled substances, possessing those illegal drugs for the purposes of sale, conspiring to commit a crime, and child endangerment, since the 9-year-old child was living in the home.
Railsback said the Riverside PD has never dealt with a drug case, or any criminal case for that matter, involving a drone.
“Nothing like this,” he said, laughing. “This is the first time we’ve experienced it, at least. If bad guys are gonna start being more innovative, then we’re gonna have to adjust so we’re a couple steps ahead of them every time and be prepared for it.”
In any case, flying a loud drone at low altitude with a payload fluttering around in a cheap baggie probably isn’t the best idea if your neighbors already suspect you’re dealing drugs.
“People know if there’s a house or suspected drug house in their neighborhood,” Railsback said. “They may have already had some suspicions about this house, and then they see a drone coming from this house and doing certain things.”
Incidents like this may continue to happen, but Railsback added that this specific case hasn’t made Riverside authorities suspicious all the sudden of drone use in general.
“I used to have a drone!” he admitted. “I actually stopped using it.” But if it's just a parent flying one around with their kid, he said, there's no cause for alarm. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.