Drinking and Driving

On the last afternoon before a two-week shutdown at the Claycomo Ford plant, a tailgating party charges up a gravel parking lot at UAW Local 249. The plant sits across four lanes of U.S. Highway 69, but outside the shabby union hall, forty or fifty men and women cluster in small groups around beer coolers and open cars with radios playing, as if they just finished watching a softball game on the union’s field nearby.

The mix includes retired auto workers who know it’s party day for Ford employees. It includes a shirtless man with a tanned beer belly and a Harley-Davidson bandanna to match his motorcycle. And it includes two men in blue Ford coveralls.

Like homeless men, the two sit on rickety chairs in the shade of a tiny tree within arm’s reach of a cooler. They are working. That’s why they have radios strapped to their hips with microphones extending to their shoulders. One man’s radio belches static and voices. He pushes the button on the microphone and cranes his neck to respond. Then he gets up to drive the few hundred yards back to the plant.

The second man in coveralls reaches for another beer and walks over to the Harley rider, who has just dropped by to brag about his Easy Rider vacation plans. The two dispense high-volume opinions about their employer across the street.

Their jobs are good. The benefits and pay are great. The guy with the Harley makes $23.79 an hour, an amount compounded by the mandatory overtime. Almost everyone has been working “five-eleven,” which means they’re on the job eleven hours a day for five days straight, plus every third Saturday or so. The workers wilt under those hours. The schedule trashes their personal lives. Marriages don’t last.

“You live here,” the Harley rider says. “You don’t have a social life. You don’t have a family life.”

But the environment inside the plant is changing. The company is hiring more and more supervisors straight out of engineering school rather than promoting them from the line. The new hires don’t ask the line workers when there’s a problem. They solve it in their bookish way.

“They don’t rely on the people. They rely on the engineers,” the man in Ford coveralls says, as if engineers weren’t people. The line worker knows how to fix a problem because he has to compensate for it. “He does the same thing 500 fucking times a day. He knows exactly what’s wrong.”

The Harley rider says he got his ass chewed by one of the engineers after he was caught muscling engines into place instead of moving them solely with the hydraulic equipment. He let a few crack up to prove the point that push-buttons alone won’t get the job done.

The conversation turns to eleven Ford workers arrested on drug charges in January.

“What do you expect? You got 6,000 people crowded in there, working their ass off,” the Harley rider says. “You get this many people together, sure some are going to do drugs. But if there are big-time drug dealers out here, why are they working at Ford?”

The workers use drugs to cope with the hours, the engineers and, this time of year, the oppressive heat. Only the offices and the break areas are air-conditioned. The rest of the plant is cooled by fans, nearly one per workstation.

“‘Attitude adjustment’ is what I call it,” he says. “I use ephedrine. It’s legal.”

Having reached repeatedly into the cooler, the man in coveralls is far past the point of making sense. His soapbox outbursts come louder and more often. His “500 fucking times” is becoming a tired refrain. His eyelids droop.

Fortunately, his radio remains silent.

The Claycomo Ford Assembly Plant is so big that workers have to ride bikes and golf carts to get around inside. Staring down one of the long aisles, one can barely make out where the building ends amid the tangle of equipment and the glare of lights. It’s like looking at the stars.

The factory has two lines. One spits out the Escape, a mini SUV. The other, as it has for decades, builds F-150 pickup trucks, the pride of Ford. Around 5,800 people work there.

Bonnie dressed like the other women, in T-shirts and jeans or jean shorts. She kept her hair cut about shoulder length. She wasn’t gorgeous. She wasn’t physically remarkable in any way.

“She just blended in,” says a former coworker.

At twenty-something, maybe five feet tall and a hundred pounds, Bonnie’s size made her a little unusual in a plant where men have to strong-arm 35-pound bundles of carpet into place. But there were smaller women who took on less physically demanding jobs, such as installing trim work or door speakers.

Bonnie was not the most reliable employee, the coworker says. She failed to show up for work several times during the first ninety days. And she drank at lunch, something that worried coworkers; they feared she would be fired during her three-month probationary period. She wasn’t. Rumor had it her father was a big shot in Detroit.

But she did have a way of looking at you. “She’d get that twinkling in her eye like there could be something happening,” Michael Roberts says. “I was just trying to get some pussy.”

What he got was arrested and fired.

The woman Roberts and his coworkers knew as Bonnie wasn’t just another line worker. She was an employee of North American Security Solutions Inc., an investigative company Ford hired to seek out drug dealers at the Claycomo plant.

Roberts was her first case.

He was a maintenance worker on the 3 to 11 shift, fixing the equipment on the line when it broke, replacing robot-arm parts and repairing other problems. The job came without breaks, but Roberts got an hour for lunch each day. He often took it across the street at Charlie’s Cue Ball, where he would order a tenderloin sandwich and a beer or two.

That was where he met Bonnie. A friend, Danny Wilson, introduced them. After that, Roberts made a point to say hi as he passed the station where Bonnie worked installing plastic interior trim. He’d ask how she was doing or whether she’d seen Wilson lately. But their short and ultimately doomed relationship mostly played out over beers at Charlie’s.

Across from the plant entrance and two doors down from the union hall, Charlie’s is a Ford bar. Its customers are Ford em-ployees, some just off their shifts, some about to start theirs and some enjoying lunch breaks. But the bar does not discriminate. NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Budweiser Chevy gets just as much wall space as Rusty Wallace’s Miller Lite Taurus. Both are represented by posters and mock hoods, though a lighted model of Wallace’s Ford hangs above the back bar, where a cooler chills cans of Miller High Life.

Regular customers can serve themselves when the bartender goes for more ice — but they’d better be ready to serve their peers as well. The men lining the bar shove their empties forward and joke about the need for service. Few of them stop at just one.

The air conditioner barely keeps pace with the heat outside and the warm air blowing from beneath the coolers. But compared with the furnace of the plant, the darkened bar is an oasis, where tablets of Nu-Breath are within sight and guaranteed to take away the smell of alcohol.

For a week in the fall of 1999, Bonnie was as much a fixture at the bar as the jukebox and the bar stools. The plant was shut down for maintenance, so Roberts was working. Bonnie was not. But she still made the trip to Claycomo each day to hang around Charlie’s and chat up some of the men. Roberts, a forty-year-old who had been divorced six years, welcomed the younger woman’s lunchtime attention — the casual brush of her small elbow at the bar, her “nice homey look,” her high-pitched voice, which inevitably would steer the conversation around to drugs.

Roberts remembers that she’d say things like “‘Can you get me anything? … I would buy it from you if we could get it.’ She’d kind of flirt and say, ‘We can get together,'” he says.

It got to the point of pestering. Roberts made $84,000 last year. He wasn’t interested in selling drugs. But he was interested in Bonnie. “I’d say, ‘If I ever did get anything, we could party.'”

The closest Roberts ever came to that party was joining Bonnie and another Ford worker in the women’s restroom at Charlie’s. Roberts says he watched as Bonnie snorted lines of cocaine off the counter through a rolled-up dollar bill. He says the coworker also claimed to have smoked pot with Bonnie.

Roberts quit pursuing Bonnie when Wilson told him he wanted to date her himself. “I just backed off,” Roberts recalls.

But not before he made the wrong decision about when to pee.

Prosecutors say Roberts went to the bar bathroom with Wilson, who came out with cocaine. This was the day after Roberts agreed to sell Bonnie $100 worth of coke, the court records say. Roberts has a hard time remembering the conversation. “I might have said, ‘Well, I can look into it.'”

Bonnie’s own statements support the idea that she and Wilson had fired up a romance. Wilson seemed far more thoughtful than the average drug supplier.

On November 22, Bonnie told investigators, Wilson stopped by her workstation and gave her a gift — two Valium, little blue pills inscribed with a “V.” Lab tests later showed the pills contained diazepam, the main ingredient in Valium, which is a controlled drug.

Wilson dropped by again two days later to ask if she wanted any pain pills. This time he produced two white tablets from a prescription bottle. The pills were tramadol, which is not controlled. But Bonnie wanted something else, and toward that end she handed Wilson her work glove filled with $110 in cash.

After their shift, at about 4:10 p.m., they drove across 169, behind the union hall, and parked next to a blue car with two people inside. Wilson folded up $200 and handed it to Bonnie to toss through the window of the other car. The people in the other car threw back a folded piece of paper, and Wilson gave Bonnie 1.29 grams of coke.

On December 4, Bonnie met Wilson at Charlie’s, and he gave her .34 grams of cocaine, calling it a “gift.” And three days later, the ever-attentive Wilson offered Bonnie another Valium.

Wilson was Bonnie’s second bust.

She made her third case against Leslie Williams II, 32, of Kansas City. Court documents say that, over the phone on January 31, Williams agreed to sell her $10 worth of pot. Four days later, Williams found Bonnie at her workstation just as her shift was about to start and said he had the “stuff.” Bonnie followed Williams to his workstation and gave him $10 in exchange for some pot in a plastic bag.

She spent April and May allegedly buying pot from Anthony W. Page, 24. In June, she reported, she bought $50 worth of coke from Keith Bailey of Gladstone. That same month, and into July and August, she went to work on 43-year-old Gerald Brian Padilla, also from Gladstone.

According to the charges, Padilla sold Bonnie drugs six times (once having them delivered by another suspect). Each time, Padilla hid the coke in a pack of cigarettes and left them at Bonnie’s workstation.

Their relationship was business from the start, according to Padilla’s court file. He approached Bonnie at 6 p.m. on June 22 and told her he had supplied the coke for the man who’d sold it to her in the past. Bonnie agreed to buy $50 worth, so Padilla slid a pack of Marlboro Lights into her lunch box. But Bonnie had only $20 on her, so Padilla said she could make up the difference next time. Prosecutors say the cigarette pack contained .35 grams of coke.

Next time came four days later. Padilla asked Bonnie if she had his $30. Bonnie gave him $80 and asked for more coke. Padilla delivered the Marlboro Lights the next day.

Over the next two months, Bonnie reported, Padilla sold her four more packs of coke, one delivered by 52-year-old Dennis Butler. In September she found a new supplier, Tyrone Gilford, a 32-year-old from Grandview. She paid him $10 for 3.13 grams of pot.

On September 19, Bonnie made a return visit to Williams, asking him if he still sold pot. She gave him $10 the next day, but Williams said he forgot the dope. Six days later, he told her the pot was in a bag in her workstation parts box.

In October, Bonnie scored another $10 worth of pot from Gilford at the plant, paid David C. Webb $25 for .25 grams of methamphetamine, also at the plant, and bought $40 worth of pot from Charles Bailey Jr. through Kelvin Venerable in the union hall parking lot.

The grand total for the fourteen months she spent working at Ford: $705 worth of dope.

Bonnie kept daily logs, which she mailed to a post office box. They were collected by members of the North Metro Drug and Gang Task Force.

The task force recruits its members from the sheriff’s and police departments of Clay County. Its members draw pay from their home departments for the weeks, months or even years they spend on the task force. A federal grant pays for office space and supplies and drug-buying money. Officers spend most of their time on quick-hit buys from suspected dealers and drug houses.

So an eighteen-month undercover investigation at the Ford plant was a little beyond the task force’s mission, says Mike Mooren, a deputy with the Clay County sheriff’s department. Mooren was the supervising sergeant during most of the investigation.

In the early 1990s, the task force planted at least one officer on the Ford assembly line in hopes of making drug cases, says Larry Buccero, assistant prosecutor for Clay County. But the woman couldn’t handle the heavy work.

This time, it was Ford that proposed the investigation, Mooren says. “I think they were hearing that there were some complications, there were some problems going on at the plant. They wanted to best know how to address it.”

Ford refuses to comment on anything related to the arrests, other than issuing a brief written statement. “Occasionally, if we have reason to believe there is a problem or we hear of a potential problem, we will take action,” writes Harold Allen, a company spokesman in Dallas. He goes on to say that Ford officials cooperated with local law enforcement agencies and that the company wants to keep its employees safe.

Buccero says Ford officials suggested paying for an undercover investigation through North American Security Solutions, a security firm out of Vandalia, Ohio. In addition to organizing undercover work, NASS looks into cases of workers’ compensation fraud, does parking-lot surveillance and offers training on preventing workplace violence and substance abuse.

The North Metro task force served as a sponsoring agency, collecting reports and evidence and making the arrests when the time came. The affidavits that led to the arrests were narratives written by an officer who met with Bonnie — or NASS agent B6426H, as she is called in the court files.

Mooren says Bonnie had a tough assignment. “People don’t just walk up and say, ‘Hey, you’re a new employee. You want to buy some dope?'” He suspects it takes six months just to break into the clique. What she did to break in, Mooren doesn’t know.

But undercover officers aren’t allowed to use the drugs they’re buying, he says. They’re supposed to tell their dealers they’re buying drugs to take to a party. Mooren says they approach their work as strictly business: “I’m not their friend,” is their mantra. “I’m just there to buy dope.”

Even so, officers are tempted. To guard against that, they take urine tests when they sign on for task-force duty, when they leave and at a few random intervals in between. Mooren says Bonnie was doing an “adequate” job and he never saw her loaded.

Buccero says she was allowed to have a drink or two but “the guidelines are ‘Don’t do drugs under any circumstances.'”

Bonnie’s hair was tested for drug use, including cocaine, at least every sixty days, NASS President Michael Spencer says. Another NASS employee would come to town to take the hair samples, he says. “There was no controlled substance in her system throughout the investigation.”

Spencer says that as part of a four-week training, Bonnie was taught how to fake coke use. He wouldn’t say how it was done.

Roberts doesn’t believe Bonnie faked anything. “When it goes up that dollar bill,” Roberts says, “it sure didn’t seem simulated.”

On January 16, eleven unlucky men were invited to a special “training” session an hour before their 5 p.m. shifts were to start.

One of them, “James” (whose name has been changed because he hopes to get his job back), showed up early as he was told. Outside the plant, he saw sheriff’s patrol cars, deputies and a drug dog. He didn’t report to the meeting room. He reported to his boss instead. His boss wouldn’t meet his eyes. “He didn’t look up,” James remembers. “I just kind of went to work.”

Before long, word got around that the people who had gone to the special meeting had been arrested, handcuffed and shackled and paraded out of the plant just as the night-shift workers were arriving. “I was quite scared. I was ready to run,” James says.

About 45 minutes into James’ shift, a plant official arrived on a golf cart and asked James to go with him. They went to the hallway outside the administrative offices, where James sat with about six other workers who had skipped the special meeting. They too were cuffed, shackled and led out of the plant to a waiting van — a Ford Windstar.

The arrests seemed a little showy, coming during a shift change when the most workers were around to see it. Media coverage was immediate — the men’s mug shots appeared on the news, which was how at least one wife learned of her husband’s arrest.

A list of suspects appeared in the next morning’s Star. The stories implied that local lawmen had discovered major drug use inside the plant. In truth, each of the arrested men knew only one or two of his codefendants.

Clay County Sheriff Major Roger Yates says the timing of the arrests was simply convenient: That’s when all the suspects could be gathered and the most deputies were available. Yates says using handcuffs and shackles is standard, regardless of the crime. “If you don’t, that’s when something bad happens,” he explains.

Deputies arrested Roberts two days later — a chance vacation had given him a couple extra days of freedom.

He was charged with drug distribution but eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge: misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia. The judge sentenced him to two years’ probation and saddled him with monthly urine tests and meetings with a probation officer. The $55 monthly fees don’t help make his $200-a-week child-support payment. He had been making $28 an hour at Ford but now makes a lot less working construction for his brother in Des Moines, Iowa.

Two other workers also pleaded guilty — Page to one of his three counts of distributing marijuana (he received a five-year sentence with a possibility of probation after four months) and Charles Bailey to one count of distributing marijuana (he got two years’ probation).

Keith Bailey was shot to death before his case could make its way through the system. He was killed June 16, 2001, in a parking lot on the southwest corner of Mary Lou Williams Lane and Woodland Avenue. Police say he and another man exchanged words before the other man pulled a gun from his waistband and opened fire.

The seven other drug cases are pending in circuit court.

Buccero says there may be more arrests, though they won’t involve more drugs, or more money, than the ones already announced. Buccero says he likely will take a plea bargain on each one and none will go to trial.

“I’ve not been given any direction from Ford on how to dispose of the cases,” Buccero says. “They have not checked on one case. They have not gotten involved.”

As for the measly $705 worth of dope and a paltry eleven arrests out of 6,000 workers, Buccero says, “the numbers did not surprise me one bit. It was not logistically possible to put [Bonnie] in a position to make thirty, forty, fifty cases.”

Bonnie’s effectiveness was limited by the constraints of the job, Buccero says. Only a couple of people at the plant knew what she was doing, and as a new em-ployee, she couldn’t be moved around to different shifts or jobs.

“No one was claiming that we were cleaning up Clay County by making these cases,” Buccero says. “These people had the misfortune of working in the same location that they were going to have contact with this person.”

The arrests must have been enough for Ford to send its workers a message.

That message is don’t smoke pot, but booze all you want.

James says that like others, he has taken alcohol into the plant for years, disguising his Crown Royal by pouring it into a Styrofoam cup from the nearby Macaluso’s convenience store. Such subterfuge is common, particularly on Fridays or the last day before shutdown.

“They party the whole day,” James says.

And you know what? The place runs smoother. There are fewer work stoppages and a hell of a lot less conflict between supervisors and workers, James says. Buzzed, the employees spend the day thinking about what their families are doing at home, or their own plans for the weekend. Sober, they obsess over personal slights, who got what day off and the other worker who landed the plum job they wanted.

Ford boasts a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to substance abuse. But when it comes to alcohol, the rules sound like “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Mooren and Buccero aren’t sure why Ford was so hot to pursue its own employees. Though both have worked cases involving Ford employees, neither believes the plant is a significant center of drug distribution. “They either had information or believed there may be some deeper-rooted problems with drugs than they hoped,” Buccero says.

Ford workers don’t take random drug tests. That would have to be worked into the contract negotiated by the United Auto Workers, and the union won’t allow it, says Jerry Kline, president of UAW Local 249. Kline’s small office is in the union hall.

Every few years UAW and Ford officials negotiate a new contract that sets the pay, benefit and disciplinary packages for all of Ford’s unionized workers, including those at the Claycomo plant. Kline, who has been the local president since 1996, got to go to Detroit for the negotiations in 1999, when the two sides agreed to a four-year contract.

The contract does allow tests for cause, such as when a forklift driver crashes into something and appears to be drunk. Ford doesn’t abuse that provision, Kline says. “I’ve never had anyone tested who wasn’t obviously under the influence.”

Kline is disgusted by Bonnie and the way she made her cases. “Why would she want to do that to a fellow human being?” he asks. Ultimately, however, Kline is more interested in getting air conditioning installed at the plant than in worrying about undercover investigations of his brethren. And he doesn’t think the average workers are too bothered by what happened to their fellow employees. “The silent majority over there probably sees it as something necessary. It doesn’t bother them. It didn’t affect them.”

Frank and Steve are part of that silent majority. The men, who do not want to give their real names for fear of being singled out, have each worked at the plant for more than thirty years. And once in a while they stop in the union parking lot after work, put out their folding chairs and beer cooler, open the doors to Frank’s red F-150 and listen to talk radio.

They are day-shift guys, which means they didn’t work with Bonnie. They also don’t work in the “big house” — the giant assembly building. They work at the paint palace behind it.

They scoff at the idea of the factory as a haven for drug users.

The factory is no place for anyone running on marginal faculties. The torque wrenches are adjusted to ninety pounds. Use one wrong and you’re likely to get hit in the jaw. Other equipment can do much worse damage in the time it takes to fire a spark plug.

“Who in their rabid-ass mind would work in there drunk?” Steve says.

“You’re not going to get away with it…. We’re talking about things that can take a finger off or kill you,” Frank says. He holds up both his hands and points to the tiny white lines covering them, remnants of 156 stitches he needed after an accident at the plant.

If the machines don’t get you, the supervisors will. They double- and triple-check each job. If a screw isn’t installed correctly, they find it. Then they find out whether the mistake was a problem with equipment, the screw itself or the installer.

“If you’re a fuck-up, you’re out the door,” Steve says.

But their words sound about as empty as those High Life cans on Charlie’s bar. Just a half hour earlier, the bar rail at Charlie’s was full. A dozen men were lined up, drinking beers. It was 4 p.m., an hour before the start of the second shift. As 5 p.m. neared, a couple of them at a time rose and left to make the short drive to the plant.

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