Clearly the old van had taken an interesting road in life.
Clues appeared when Emerson Hunt began to renovate his 19-year-old Mercedes camper van. Photographs found behind the cabinets showed stops in Peru, New Delhi and Australia. Two women in their 50s or 60s and a younger man were adventuring.
Hunt wanted to fix a sagging roof panel when he discovered a bigger cloud of mystery.
Telegram-Tribune reporter Ann Fairbanks told the story Sept. 6, 1995:
Hashish hitchhiker found in van
SAN LUIS OBISPO — Emerson Hunt had always admired the 1976 Mercedes camper that his father bought about four years ago in Fresno.
“As soon as I saw it,” Hunt said, “I told him, ‘When you ever get ready to get rid of it, I’ll take it.’”
His father gave it to him in December, and Hunt has been busy ever since refurbishing what the Germans call a “housecar” and what Hunt calls “my white whale.”
“I think it’s a very unique vehicle. As you drive it along the road, everyone points to it and looks at you. There’s not that many on the road,” Hunt said.
“It’s different. It’s unique.”
Hunt discovered just how unique it was this weekend, when he and his father-in-law were working on the camper’s interior.
“One of the roof panels had always hung down and bothered me,” Hunt said. “So my father-in-law unscrewed the headliner, and a big weight fell on our heads. It was 33 pounds of hashish.”
Hunt has no idea how long the 22 packages of “brown, tarry wafers” had been stashed behind the van’s roof panel and insulation.
Chuck Graves, a Sheriff’s Department detective, suspects the flat blocks of compressed marijuana — called “soles” — were hidden in the van in the mid-’70s.
“The question is why someone, after going to the trouble of concealing it,” Graves said, “didn’t remove it.”
Hunt has the original sales slip that indicates the camper was purchased from the factory in Germany.
In the process of gutting the van’s interior, Hunt found photographs behind the cabinets that indicate the van traveled to the outbacks of Australia, New Delhi and Peru.
“So the van or he (the original owner) had been lots of places around the world,” Hunt said. “It’s hard telling at what point the drugs were put in there.”
Mercedes-Benz never exported any of the campers to the United States, Hunt said, so those that are here were brought over by the individual owners.
He said his father bought the front-wheel-drive, diesel van from a farm implements dealer in Fresno who had gotten it as payment for a bad debt.
“My dad had been watching it on the farm implement lot for two years,” Hunt said. “It had always piqued his interest and it seemed never to have moved.”
After buying it from the dealer, his father drove the van to Iowa a couple of times for family visits, Hunt said, before giving it to his son at Christmastime.
Since then, Hunt has replaced several mechanical parts — after waiting three months for replacements to arrive from Germany — in addition to removing the cabinets and rebuilding the floor.
He had taken the van to several people and asked their advice on the buckling roof panel. “They said, ‘Well, it’s just insulation sagging in that area,”’ Hunt said.
So on Saturday, his father-in-law decided to investigate. He unscrewed the wooden roof panel and part of it gave way, dropping an end of a plastic-wrapped bundle on their heads.
Hunt had to reach in behind the styrofoam insulation with a utility knife and scrape the rest of the taped bundle — which stretched about 3 1/2-feet across the ceiling — from the fiberglass.
“I said, ‘This is not insulation,’” Hunt said.
“It was 22 packages all bundled together. Each had two brown, tarry wafers, each about 4 inches wide by 8 inches long by 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.
“We opened one of the packages and it smelled very strong, like marijuana,” said the 44-year-old Hunt. “I was a teenager during the ’60s … and thought it might be hashish.
“It was just unbelievable.”
He summoned a neighbor who’s a police officer, who agreed it looked like hash. Hunt, plant manager of Blake Printery, also called his boss Richard Blake, who’s a reserve sheriff’s deputy. Blake took a look and, in turn, summoned Chuck Graves from the Sheriff’s Department.
“I’ll check it out the best I can,” Graves said Tuesday. Naturally the statute of limitations has run out in any criminal sense.”
But he said he’ll probably try to trace back the van’s ownership out of curiosity and see what turns up.
Hunt said he was very eager to get rid of the stuff — which he said he was told has a street value of $165,000 — and was relieved when a San Luis Obispo police officer took it off his hands Saturday night. It’s in storage at the Police Department while Graves and the Narcotics Task Force conduct their investigation.
“I’m just very grateful we found it while we were refurbishing,” Hunt said. “If we had taken the van as is and gone on a trip and crossed a border and had a drug-sniffing dog find it, it could have been a very embarrassing if not treacherous situation trying to talk yourself out of that one.”
• • •
A follow-up story on Dec. 29, 1995, revealed more details. The story was transmitted all over the United States. Calls also came into sheriff’s detective Chuck Graves from U.S. Customs and a narcotics officer from San Francisco that confirmed the Australian connection.
Among the calls was one from an Australian native who had emigrated to the United States.
“While she was there (mid-’70s), she said two gray-haired ladies were arrested in a Mercedes van with drugs,” Graves said.
“She said it was the O.J. Simpson of Australia, it received that much publicity.”
One shared tale said that the women claimed to know nothing about the drugs and blamed the young man, who skipped the country and was never convicted.
Hunt fielded calls as well.
“I’ve been getting calls from all over the United States, radio stations and everything,” Hunt said. “Some lost-in-the ’60s radio guys who say, ‘Oh man, you didn’t turn it in, did you?’”