03/16/2006

Ill. police get to keep $2.3 million from cash seized at truck stop

By Leah Thorsen
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH 

Copyright 2006
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc. 

PONTOON BEACH--The police department in Pontoon Beach will take in $2.3 million as part of the largest cash forfeiture ever in Southern Illinois, authorities said Wednesday.

It's a windfall for the department, which runs on an annual budget of $1 million. Police Chief Charles Luehmann says he plans to use the extra money to pay for technology upgrades, among other things.

The story began on March 11, 2005, when Officer John Simmons went to the Flying J truck stop after a clerk reported that a tractor-trailer was blocking a driveway.

The driver acted strangely, Simmons said Wednesday. The driver was reading a map that was upside down and his hands were shaking. His log book also was not in order, so Simmons asked to search the trailer.

The driver agreed, Simmons said. During that search, Simmons found roughly $3.3 million in cash. Ten officers spent 12 hours counting the cash, mostly $20 bills.

Cocaine residue was found on the money, which was wrapped in fabric softener sheets, said Madison County State's Attorney Bill Mudge.

His office turned the money over to federal authorities, who began forfeiture proceedings.

Mudge's office will get $263,000, and the Drug Enforcement Administration will get $658,000 from the forfeiture.

"Here we have a situation where no one claimed the money," said Edward McNally, the U.S. attorney for Southern Illinois.

The cash was linked to a Mexican methamphetamine trafficking operation, McNally said. He would not elaborate other than to say that the driver has not been charged in connection with the money.

When large amounts of cash are found in vehicles, and drivers can't explain why they are hauling around piles of money, authorities can seize the money through forfeiture proceedings. The money is then divided between local and federal authorities, and must be used for law enforcement.

Luehmann said he'll use the windfall for training, to buy several new patrol cars and to upgrade equipment. 
 
March 16, 2006

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