OKANOGAN — A man and woman who found a backpack containing more than $500,000 in cash have asked a court to give it to them, setting up a possible confrontation over the state's drug-seizure law.
The Okanogan County Sheriff's Department and the man deputies arrested when he picked up the backpack while it was under surveillance also have claims on the money, court records indicate.
Retired Border Patrol Agent Dan Gerth and his wife, Jane, called authorities after finding the money March 8 while hiking along Highway 97 near Ellisforde, Okanogan County.
Sheriff's officers then replaced the cash with rubber gloves, blankets, gas masks and other items from their patrol cars and staked out the spot where the backpack was found in a ditch. Oroville-area resident David L. Taber Jr., 35, was arrested when he drove up and collected the backpack later that day, sheriff's officers said.
Sheriff Frank Rogers said investigators believe the money was part of an international drug transaction. Taber was charged with money-laundering. A broad state law defines laundering as a transaction involving money known to have come from illegal activity.
If Taber is unable to prove legitimate ownership, the result could be an unprecedented legal test between the claims of the Gerths and drug detectives over ownership of the money, Okanogan County Prosecutor Karl Sloan said.
Sloan and others said they don't know of any Washington court case that has decided whether the forfeiture law trumps the found-property law.
But Sloan says the found-property law doesn't apply to drug money any more than it would to a backpack full of marijuana.
A decision on who gets the money likely will be deferred until after Taber's criminal case is resolved, authorities said. Rogers and Sloan said the forfeiture case probably will be passed to a Superior Court judge.
Rogers said he wants to give the Gerths a reward if his office gets the money, but he hasn't decided how much.
"It took a lot to turn this in, and we're glad they did," Rogers said. "From a cop's point of view, that's the right thing to do."
It is also a requirement of state law.
The Gerths have indicated they don't want to speak about the case, Rogers said.
Taber, who is free on bail pending trial, hasn't told investigators how he might legitimately have a half-million dollars in a backpack at the edge of a highway.
"That's one thing I and my client cannot comment on at this time," Seattle attorney Mark Watanabe said. "But he is absolutely not a drug dealer."
Watanabe said he filed the claim "simply for the purpose of preserving any rights my client might have" to the money. Taber isn't necessarily saying he owned the money, Watanabe said.