New owners sue after DEA takes cash found in car it sold

Officials believe $82,000 resulted from drug trade

November 01, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- At $5,400, the 1995 shiny, blue Volkswagen Golf seemed to be a steal, or so thought Helen Chappell and her son when they bought it in the spring from the federal government.

But two months later the engine quit. Suspecting a fuel problem, a mechanic at a Kansas City garage checked the gas tank -- where he found $82,000 in more than a dozen plastic bundles.

The Chappells thought they had won the lottery.

The federal government did not.

U.S. Attorney Stephen Hill has filed a complaint in federal court, saying the money should go to the Department of Justice because the car and cash might have been used in illegal drug activity three years ago.

Jeffrey Chappell, Helen Chappell's son, contends that they should get the money because they bought the car "as is."

"You always read about stuff the government does, but I was in disbelief that they would do this," said Jeffrey Chappell of Kansas City. "The forfeiture laws are there for trying to get the money out of the hands of drug dealers and stuff like that. They know darn good and well the money is not in the hands of drug dealers."

The Chappells have filed a lawsuit and are contesting the forfeiture, but that has required them to pay a $5,000 bond.

In February 1996, the Volkswagen had been stopped by the Missouri Highway Patrol for speeding. During a search, troopers found $24,000 cash in plastic bags. The patrol handed over the money and the car to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The government kept the Volkswagen, declaring it abandoned two years later. The General Services Administration took bids, and Helen Chappell got an almost new car that had been driven only 3,600 miles for a little over $5,000.

Two months later, when the car broke down, Jeffrey Chappell had it towed to Waldo Imports. When the mechanic found the money, the garage called DEA and then Chappell called DEA.

Chappell says DEA Special Agent Lawrence Melton told him about the money and explained that the cash should be Chappell's free and clear.

" `As the legal owner of that car, that'll be your money,' " Chappell said Melton told him. " `You bought the car as is.' He said, `That's our mistake, and we missed it.' "

Melton refused to comment last week. Chris Whitley, Hill's spokesman, said law enforcement agents did not have the authority to give that type of advice. "Whether he is right or wrong the courts will have to take care of those matters," Whitley said.

Jeffrey Chappell said he hurried to the garage, but DEA had already scooped up the money.

The Chappells said DEA advised them that all they had to do was fill out paperwork and they could have the money. Helen Chappell, who is retired after more than 20 years at the Missouri Restaurant Association, said she began planning vacations.

Now she and her son are fighting the Department of Justice and have hired Kansas City lawyer Paul Katz.

Legal disputes over forfeitures are known to take months.

Federal law requires that the Chappells prove that they are the owners of the money or that the money "was not derived from any kind of criminal activity, or both," Whitley said. Then it is up to the judge to decide.

That requirement upsets Jeffrey Chappell.

"This country was not founded on the government being able to seize your property and requiring you to prove that you are innocent," Chappell said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.