Law enforcement officers this week found eight pounds of meth in a spare tire after a traffic stop in Stillwater County in which the driver allegedly said he had been visiting Yogi Bear in Yellowstone National Park.
The driver, Manuel Paz Sanchez Jr., 31, of Sacramento, California, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan in Billings on Thursday on a criminal complaint. The complaint charges him with possessing meth with intent to distribute.
Sanchez waived a preliminary hearing, and the case will be presented to a grand jury for indictment. He remains in custody.
Sanchez faces a mandatory minimum 10 years to life in prison and a $10 million fine if convicted.
Sanchez got arrested on Tuesday after a Montana Highway Patrol trooper pulled over his 2017 Ford Fusion for following a vehicle too closely while eastbound on Interstate 90.
The trooper determined that Sanchez had rented the car in Sacramento on Dec. 9 and that the car was due back to the same location on Monday, court records said.
Sanchez told the trooper he was coming from Idaho, where he had been visiting family, and that he was going to return to California but that his wife had found a cheaper flight out of Bismarck, North Dakota, so he had rented a car to drive to Bismarck, court records said.
Sanchez’s story raised suspicions with the trooper. In addition, Sanchez could not remember the Idaho town he was coming from and “frequently forgot” the name of the North Dakota town where he was headed, records said.
While the trooper went back to his vehicle to confirm Sanchez’s driver’s license and do a criminal record check, a federal Drug Enforcement Administration task force officer talked to Sanchez. Sanchez told the DEA agent that he was coming from Yellowstone National Park “where he was visiting Yogi Bear,” court records said.
The trooper gave Sanchez a warning for the traffic violation and asked if he had anything illegal in the vehicle. Sanchez said no and consented to a vehicle search.
The DEA agent found in the center console a tire repair kit that had been used and, based on his training, knew it was unusual to have to fix a flat on a rental car, court records said.
The agent and a second trooper found the spare tire in the trunk, and the first trooper used a small hammer to determine whether the tire had been tampered with.
The second trooper removed the tire from the vehicle and dropped it on the ground to see whether it bounced normally. The tire barely bounced, indicating it had little to no air, court records said.
The officers suspected there was something hidden in the spare and detained Sanchez. They took the tire to a local tire shop in Columbus, where the tire was removed from the rim.
Inside the tire were six vacuum-sealed packages suspected of containing meth. A test in Billings found the packages contained about eight pounds of meth, court records said.