Conflicting Tales Behind Cash Seized by FBI

Retired steelworker Luther Ricks is either a neighborhood drug dealer whose ill-gotten gains were rightfully seized by the authorities.

Or the 64-year-old is an ailing man whose $400,000 life savings was taken by the police after they found marijuana he was using to manage the pain of arthritis and shingles.

Those are the conflicting accounts of Hicks painted by the police in Lima, Ohio, and his lawyers in a case that has become a cause celebre to critics of asset forfeiture laws.

It all started in the summer when the home of Ricks and his wife, Meredith, was robbed by thieves who stabbed his son, prompting Ricks to grab a gun and fatally shoot one of them.

When police arrived to investigate the incident, they found 321 grams of marijuana along with traces of crack cocaine, said Lt. Jim Baker, supervisor for investigative services at the Lima police department.

They returned with a search warrant and seized a safe filled with $403,503, wedding rings, titles to several cars and pieces of jewelry, later turning over the assets to the FBI.

Through the Department of Justice's asset forfeiture program, law enforcement authorities investigating criminal activity can remove the proceeds of crime and other assets.

Now, the Rickses have filed a claim to get their money back while the's office in the Northern District of Ohio decides whether to pursue a claim against the couple for drug possession, among other charges.

In the meantime, the Rickses claim that they're having a hard time making ends meet while the government holds their money.

"I've been using Social Security to pay bills," Luther Ricks told "But it hasn't been easy. We don't work."

Ricks' wife, Meredith, disputed police accounts of what they found in the house.

"There was no crack cocaine in the house," she said. "That was pure shea butter. They're just a bunch of lies. They had me selling pills, which are prescribed for chronic back pain."

The police assert that the thieves targeted the house because Ricks was dealing marijuana and that authorities also found drug paraphernalia in the house.

"During the investigation of the shooting, we did a search warrant and came across the drugs and drug paraphernalia -- a scale, a pipe and small amount of crack cocaine," Baker said.

"In interviewing the suspect that survived [Diondrake L. Sims II, who pleaded guilty to burglary in February], in his statement, he said that they went there because [Ricks] has a lot of money and that he sold drugs."

Baker, who adds that the Rickses have no criminal history aside from a few misdemeanors including domestic violence and petty theft, justified the seizure under asset forfeiture laws.

"We looked at the totality of the situation -- the statement made by the suspect that lived, the marijuana in the house, the fact that the bills in the safe were newer bills. It's a combination of things."

The lawyers for the Rickses claim that the police are looking for reasons to justify taking the money.

"The government never brought charges against Mr. or Mrs. Ricks for drug possession at all," said Bryan Westhoff, a corporate lawyer from Dewey & LeBouef who is working the case pro bono.

"There is no evidence to connect any drugs to the money," he said, adding that the U.S. Attorney's office "needs to decide if they're going to try to keep their hard-earned money or if they're going to do the right thing."

Westhoff's partner, Vincent P. Schmeltz III, explained that if any money found in the safe consisted of newer bills, it was probably because the Rickses' earnings were "direct deposited in their bank and they withdraw and bundle them in $500 increments. By definition, they are newer bills."

In the future, the couple plan to keep money in the bank and not at home.

Neighbors of the Rickses said that they were law-abiding people.

"I've lived here all my life," Alexis Smith said. "I mean, as far as reputation goes, they are good people. I've never heard about any drug dealing."

The libertarian Institute for Justice, which has long denounced the increased use of asset forfeiture by law enforcement, is assisting with legal assistance for the Rickses. The revenue recovered jumped from $257 million in fiscal year 2006 to $366 million in fiscal year 2007, according to the Treasury Department.

"It's incredibly common to use civil forfeiture power," said Bob McNamara, a lawyer with the institute. "It gives [the government] a free hand to seize any property or cash without having to meet the burdens they have to meet in ordinary criminal cases."

An FBI spokesman referred calls to the U.S. attorney's office in the Northern District of Ohio.

"The case is still pending in our office and we have until June to file a complaint," said a spokesman for the prosecutor, adding that the couple could still be charged with possession.