Federal law lets the cops pocket anything seized in a drug bust -- cars, boats, cash -- and use it to fund the war on drugs. But when Jane Gerth found a half-million dollars in the Okanogan woods, the rules got more complicated.
The white ford pickup truck rolled onto a gravelly pullout next to Highway 97, about 15 minutes south of the Canadian border, and stopped, motor running. It was 7:20 p.m. on Friday, March 5, 2004, in the orchard-lined Okanogan Valley of north Central Washington, an expanse rimmed by pine-dotted hills and rocky ridges.
A stocky male figure stepped down from the four-door pickup, his breath exposed by the icy night, and waded into the woods behind a mailbox post. The driver felt his way through the scrub trees and high grass. About 10 steps in, he froze, reached down, and lifted a heavy black and gold backpack. Staggering, he returned to the truck and dumped the pack onto the passenger seat. The man then slid behind the wheel and eased the pickup back onto 97, a notorious drug pipeline from Canada to California.
As the truck began moving, Deputy Dennis Irwin slowly turned his Okanogan County sheriff's cruiser from the side road where he'd been on stakeout and onto the highway, falling in a safe distance behind the pickup. Irwin backed off as the driver briefly pulled over, apparently checking the backpack's contents. Moments later, he pulled over again. Game's up, an anxious Irwin thought, according to a report he'd write later. He flipped on his emergency lights.
"Sheriff's office!" Irwin announced, after stopping the big pickup. "Turn off your engine. Place your hands outside the window." With no resistance, the driver stepped out and dropped to the pavement. He was cuffed, patted down, and read his rights. Inside the truck, Irwin found the black and gold bag. Its contents were exposed and partially spilling onto the floor -- a rolled-up blanket, two boxes of latex gloves, and two military gas masks. That was all Okanogan deputies had been able to scrounge up when they filled the backpack that morning in preparation for their sting.
Ten hours earlier, on that same Friday, Jane Gerth was taking a walk along the woody edge of a Highway 97 turnout near her home south of Oroville. Her morning walks were a habit, and she'd notice the slightest alterations in scenery, she later told authorities. A black and gold bag poking up in the weeds was something that instantly caught her eye.
Gerth, then 52, stepped through the weeds and tugged on the backpack. She couldn't lift it. She untied some straps, and then unzipped the main compartment. She stood back in amazement as bundles of $20 bills oozed out.
There she stood, alone with her dogs and, clearly, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now what? Gerth today won't talk about the discovery, but she obviously faced a number of choices: take the bag home, hide it elsewhere in the woods, or call the cops, among others. The wife of a retired U.S. Border Patrol agent, Gerth would later tell authorities she wasn't naive about what she had found. Given the weight and size of the bag, stashed in the brush here along a stretch of highway known to be a Smuggler's Alley -- clearly, this had to be drug money. Turning the cash in would probably be the right thing to do. Then again, she could keep the cache herself and still deprive some trafficker of his ill-gotten gains. In one marvelous move: justice and a Lexus.
But Gerth didn't hesitate. She rushed the short distance home and told her husband. They quickly returned to the scene and, within minutes, Dan Gerth was on the phone with the sheriff.
When Deputy Kevin Kinman arrived at the pullout, Dan Gerth, a slight, 5-foot- 8-inch man who was preparing to celebrate his 55th birthday in a few weeks, waited anxiously with his wife. On Kinman's advice over the phone, Gerth had driven his own pickup into the pullout to occupy the scene and would later tell deputies he was feeling uncomfortable about protecting the bag. Like his wife, Gerth suspected the cash was crime money -- and that someone could show up to reclaim it at gunpoint.
Returning to headquarters with the backpack, Okanogan deputies removed 55 pounds of money -- $20 bills in $2,000 bundles, bound up in nine vacuum-sealed packages and a blue Wal-Mart bag. The bills, many in serial-number sequence, just kept coming, until they reached $497,920. (A later recount brought the final tally to $507,070.) Eyes widened: a half-million in cash, found in the toolies.
Sheriff Frank Rogers, a solidly built, 22-year law-enforcement veteran, who calls Okanogan drug smuggling "an epidemic," was delighted to hear of the find: If, as everyone suspected, it was drug money, his department could, by law, take it for themselves.
A federal law passed in 1984 allows government agencies to seize money and other assets associated with drug crime and use them to fund the long and often futile war on drugs. The seizures can provide law-enforcement windfalls: Just last month, the federal bust of a Northwest ring allegedly running pot and Ecstasy out of Canada included $5.2 million in seized homes, vehicles, land, and cash.
After concluding the stash was drug money, Okanogan deputies decided they should return the backpack and stake out the drop site. The backpack was refilled with the gas masks and other items, and then dropped back into the woods.
That night, David L. Taber, 35, of Oroville, arrived at the scene in his white Ford pickup. He was arrested and eventually charged with money laundering. Okanogan County looked ready to collect on its biggest drug forfeiture ever.
But three days after the bust, Dan Gerth sat down and penned a note to Sheriff Rogers. "Dear Sheriff," he wrote, "On March 05, 2004, while walking near Highway 97 south of Oroville, Washington, Jane Gerth discovered a gold and black backpack along the road at a location locally known as the Thorton Rest Area. Subsequent to this discovery, the backpack was found to contain $497,000 in cash money. Presently, this money has not been claimed by the owner(s). As finders of this property we are making an official claim to the $497,000 cash. Please consider this claim made with this letter as prescribed by section 63.21.010 Revised Code of Washington State. . . . Thank You."
Until he retired a few years ago, Gerth patrolled the border crossing near Oroville. It's one of 12 entry points on Washington state's 300-mile border with Canada, ranging from a major crossing at Blaine to remote eastern ports of entry such as Danville and Laurier in Ferry County. Smugglers favor Highway 97, a two-lane pipeline that runs from Osoyoos, B.C., through isolated Okanogan County, and into, appropriately enough, Weed, Calif. They come bearing marijuana shipments, bags of cocaine, and boxes of Ecstasy, among other narcotics, but four-wheeled traffickers most frequently haul potent B.C. bud to the States before ferrying back bags of money.
Officials say the Canadian drug industry is a multibillion-dollar business, about equal the cost to combat it. There are more than 20,000 marijuana grow operations in British Columbia alone, according to Canadian federal authorities, and most of the product heads south. Active distributors include outlaw bikers and ethnic gangs. Last month, a two-year, cross-border drug probe ended with the arrests of almost 50 suspects, including members of a Seattle Vietnamese street gang. (Federal officials in Seattle unabashedly named the investigation "This Bud's Pho You.")
The most popular import is red-tipped B.C. bud -- which is to hard-core potheads what single malt is to Scotch connoisseurs. Shippers buy it in British Columbia for up to $1,500 a pound and resell it for a $1,000 per unit markup in Washington ($2,000 in California). On the street, it can go for $300 an ounce.
Some smuggling operations have the cash flow of small countries. Frank Tran, a multimillionaire financial kingpin based in Vancouver, B.C., got 10 years in the slammer this past May for his involvement in a cross-border money-laundering operation. At one point, Tran was exchanging U.S. and Canadian currency at a rate of $300,000 a day.
It's the kind of money that attracts crowds. In June, four dozen accused smugglers were indicted in Seattle and Spokane for delivering tons of marijuana and cocaine across the border via helicopter. Among those nabbed were former Edmonds municipal court judge and state Supreme Court candidate James White, as well as onetime assistant Seattle city attorney Mark Vanderveen. The two, now imprisoned, were working as criminal defense attorneys when they decided a $100,000 drug-money payment from a client was worth risking their careers.
In July, demonstrating the global nature of Canadian drug exports, authorities busted a ring of Alaskans and Canadians alleged to have trafficked $10 million in B.C. bud while arranging international money transfers in locales as varied as Alabama and Latvia. Canadian drugs are constantly on the move by sea, air, and especially land, using ATVs, RVs, and SUVs. There is a small smuggler air force of planes and helicopters, adding to the smugglers' risks -- three people have died in two drug-chopper crashes in Canada since March 2005.
The drug flights are especially annoying to the smugglers' foes. Leigh Winchell, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agent in charge of the Seattle office, told reporters that smugglers took a Playboy magazine writer on a drug sortie over B.C. last year and bragged their dope delivery system was better than FedEx. "I would be lying if I said we didn't take it as an affront," Winchell said.
New surveillance and identification technology, including motion detectors, is used at the border. But authorities have also resorted to throwback horse patrols in the wild terrain to contain a growing invasion of drug-toting foot soldiers. They are often seen, according to veteran ICE agent Tyler Morgan, walking "on farm roads, through raspberry fields, and on logging roads." They bear knapsacks, duffle bags, and hockey bags stuffed with marijuana and others drugs.
Still others go underground -- literally. Last year, at a cost of $400,000, a trio of tunnelers burrowed from a Quonset hut on the Canadian side of the border into the living room of a house in Lynden, Wash. The three men, who got nine-year prison terms, had hoped to smuggle 300 pounds of dope a day, for starters.
Then there's the smuggler navy. When not floating the coastal waters off Washington state and B.C., they take to the isolated lakes of the North Cascades. Among them: Ross Lake, which ranges from Canada into Skagit County, and 14-mile-long Lake Osoyoos, which flows from deep in Canada to a state park on the edge of Oroville. ICE agent Morgan, with a degree in accounting from the University of Washington, says kayaks and inflatable boats are common drug conveyances of small-time couriers who get anywhere from $100 to $300 per pound of dope they carry.
Of course, Washington also grows its own. Federal and local law-enforcement officers last year seized 135,000 marijuana plants in the state, worth $270 million, according to the Washington State Patrol. As an agricultural product, dope ranks as Washington's eighth-largest crop, just ahead of sweet cherries.
Most of last year's busts were made in arid Eastern Washington. As Jane Gerth discovered, it's a bountiful region for the fruits of crime.
Okanogan officials suspected that Taber, an orchardist and part-time used-car salesman, planned to haul the cash in the backpack to Canada or wash it through a commercial bank account. Those are the two most common methods buyers and sellers use to transfer funds: They enlist intermediaries to physically smuggle the cash across the border or to mix it into the accounts of a business front and then wire the money to Canada.
Before Taber could be accused of money laundering, Okanogan County Prosecutor Karl Sloan, a Seattle University law grad and two-term prosecutor, had to link the money to drugs. He relied in part on two notes found in the black and gold bag. One, handwritten, contained assorted calculations. The second, typed, appeared to list a variety of payments for drugs, and seemed to indicate that the delivery came up a few lids light: "Less shortages 20 + 18 + 21 + 34 grams," the note stated. Receipts of quantity and price are commonplace in drug deals, authorities said.
Both prosecutors and defense agreed that Taber picked up a bag that had earlier contained $507,070 and that a dope smell filled the counting room at the sheriff's office -- along with the scent of Febreze, commonly used to cover such odors. Experts told the court that Taber's was a classic drug-money case, similar to others in the past decade where seized backpacks contained hundreds of thousands of dollars in vacuum-sealed bundles.
But Taber's attorney, Mark Watanabe of Seattle, argued that everyone overlooked a simple point: The sheriff's department emptied the backpack before Taber arrived. How could Taber launder money he never had in his possession?
Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Jack Burchard seemed to agree, noting that Taber "never received, possessed, or disposed of illegal proceeds," and that the state couldn't cite a case of a person being convicted of money laundering in similar circumstances. After a bench trial, Burchard found Taber not guilty.
Never definitively answered was why Taber picked up the money in the first place. Drug-money couriers are typically paid up to 4 percent of the cash they carry -- in Taber's case, this would have been around $20,000. Would that have been worth the risk for a successful married man who runs 12 fruit orchards in Okanogan County and who, according to court papers, had a gross income of $124,000 in 2000?
Taber declined to comment, and his attorney, Watanabe, says his client has moved on. An acquaintance, who preferred not to be named, says he never thought Taber was involved in drugs and, in this case, was probably just doing a favor for someone.
"I can see someone enlisting Taber to do this," says the acquaintance. "He's this really good-natured country boy who reminds me of Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies."
All parties agreed that the $507,000 was proceeds of a crime. The question now was: Who gets it?
If Sheriff Rogers got the money, he said, it would be earmarked, by law, to fight drug crime in his far-flung county, where 30 sworn personnel cover 5,280 sparsely populated miles of sageland, hills, and mountains. Though it is comprised mostly of government land and the Colville Indian Reservation, Okanogan County is the third-largest county in the lower 48 states, featuring a 90-mile border with Canada.
"We've taken some [budget] cuts, and we have a lot of drug problems here," Rogers says.
But the Gerths argued that the case was governed not by federal drug forfeiture law but by Washington's 1979 "found property" law, which says, in essence, that if the owner fails to turn up, finders keepers.
The Gerths' case, officially titled Okanogan County v. $507,070, was heard in Okanogan County Court by visiting Judge T.W. "Chip" Small of Chelan County. Small may be best remembered as the judge who recused himself from the 2005 civil case brought by the Republicans challenging the Washington gubernatorial election of Democrat Christine Gregoire -- in part because he was appointed to his seat by a Democratic governor, Booth Gardner (though Small's wife is a registered Republican and GOP national committee donor).
Small made clear he sided with the Gerths. They had found the stash before it was deemed by a court to be drug-related. Therefore, he ruled in January this year, "under the [state] lost-and-found statute . . . they are entitled to the funds."
When asked outside court that day what she'd do with the money, Jane Gerth just smiled at the prospect. The Gerths would have to pay income tax, which could lop more than $100,000 off the amount. Nonetheless, after two anxious years, she and her husband were officially, if accidentally, half-millionaires.
It could have ended there, with the Gerths living happily ever after. But euphoria turned to disappointment with the arrival of the next morning's newspaper, and the headline: "County vows to appeal decision awarding money to couple."
Deputy prosecutor Steve Bozarth said Small's ruling deserved review by a higher court. The conflict between laws regarding found property and drug-money seizures "needs to be fleshed out," he said. Bozarth's boss, Sloan, said in a recent interview that "even given the fact these were innocent finders, it's troubling that drug money doesn't go to the agency that interdicts drugs. We felt another court should be asked whether a finder has an interest in that money."
At that point, the case seemed headed for the state Court of Appeals in Spokane, and a likely appeal to the state Supreme Court thereafter. It looked like the Gerths might not see the money for years.
But, unknown to all but a few people, a few weeks after Judge Small's ruling, Sheriff Rogers quietly handed the money to the Gerths.
"I never announced it because they didn't want a lot of press," Rogers told the Weekly last month. The payment has not been publicly revealed until now.
Neither of the Gerths will talk about the payment today. "There's nothing more to say," Jane Gerth responds. The Gerths' attorney also would not comment.
His choice wasn't all that complicated, the sheriff indicated, once the court ruled.
"The bottom line is, the decision rested with me," says Rogers, 49, a Republican who recently was elected to a second term. "They're good folks, they did nothing wrong, and I just said, 'I'm not going to drag these people through this court stuff again.'"
On Feb. 17, Rogers signed the papers releasing the $507,070 -- plus about $10,000 interest -- to the Gerths. "They came by later and expressed their appreciation," Rogers says. "I'd say they were pretty happy."
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