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March 06, 2014 3:01 pm

Feds place hold on cash, plane in Cody

Written by CJ Baker

Powell Police Officer Reece McLain and his drug dog Zeke pose with a large amount of cash that was seized from two men at a Cody hotel last week. Powell Police Officer Reece McLain and his drug dog Zeke pose with a large amount of cash that was seized from two men at a Cody hotel last week. Photo courtesy Powell Police Department

For the time being, law enforcement officials plan to hold onto a plane and nearly $260,000 in cash seized by Cody police last week.

Police moved in Friday morning after a business owner at Yellowstone Regional Airport reported the plane as suspicious.

After a Powell Police Department drug dog indicated it smelled narcotics on the plane, Cody police received a search warrant for the aircraft and the hotel room where the plane’s two occupants were staying.

Court records indicate police found no drugs, but they did discover the two men had a duffel bag with $258,000 inside vacuum-sealed bags and multiple identification cards in their Holiday Inn hotel room.

Records say police also seized a flight log book, money order receipts, Visa gift cards, three electronic storage devices, notes, laptops, 15 cell phones and various other items — including a sealed jar of what was labeled as raw honey — from the plane and room.

Cody Police Detective Sgt. Jon Beck said Wednesday all the seized material has been turned over to the U.S. Homeland Security Department. Beck said it’s his understanding that the department has placed a “hold” on the plane and cash.

A regional spokesman for the Homeland Security Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch, Carl Rusnok, would say only that it’s “an ongoing investigation.”

In response to questions about what processes ICE generally follows regarding seized assets, Rusnok pointed to an ICE webpage on the subject. The page says in part that “the forfeiture of assets can be and is utilized as a sanction in criminal, civil and administrative investigative activities.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cheyenne said Homeland Security investigators in Wyoming “have an administrative procedure that they’re following” and that the attorney’s office isn’t directly involved.
“It’s administrative right now,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Green. “There may come a time we’re involved in it if someone disputes it or whatever, but at this point we’re not.”

Cody police’s investigation began after one of the fixed-based operators at Yellowstone Regional Airport reported suspicious behavior from the operators of a cargo-style fixed-wing airplane.

Choice Aviation personnel reported the pilot of the plane — alleged to be 25-year-old Scott M. Lewis of Englewood, Colo. — had not used the Cessna TU206E’s tail number when calling into the airport, had paid in $100 bills, had previously flown out in poor weather and that Lewis and another man on the plane covered up all the aircraft’s windows upon arriving in Cody.

None of those things are against the law, but they made Choice Aviation personnel suspicious.

Bad weather grounded the plane after it flew in Thursday afternoon, forcing Lewis and the other man to stay the night in Cody. When Lewis and his 35-year-old companion exited the aircraft, Choice Aviation personnel thought they were carrying an unusual amount of luggage.

Documents made public Tuesday — which were used to secure the search warrant — say Lewis and the other man drew the suspicions of Holiday Inn staff, too, when they refused to let a shuttle driver carry or touch one of the duffel bags, paid in cash and only opened their door a small crack when room service delivered an HDMI cable to their room.

The documents also indicate Lewis had the room listed under the name “Kenneth Howard.” Cody police would later seize an Idaho driver’s license under that name but with Lewis’ photo; they also found two other Idaho licenses featuring Lewis’ photo paired with two other names, according to court records.

While Lewis and the other man were at the hotel, Cody police inspected the exterior of the Cessna inside a Choice Aviation hangar, court records say. They spotted an apparent modification to the plane’s underside, which Choice Aviation personnel said appeared to be some kind of hatch, according to records.

The Powell Police Department’s drug dog Zeke — handled by Powell Police Officer Reece McLain and certified in narcotics detection — was summoned to the hangar around 7:45 p.m.

Zeke sat after smelling the doors on both sides of the plane and McLain explained that meant the dog had alerted to the odor of narcotics coming from the plane, according to the search warrant application from Cody Police Detective Ron Parduba.

Cody police worked through the night and successfully applied for a search warrant from Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters around 3:30 a.m. Friday. The search of the hotel room and plane followed at around 10 a.m.

“Without the dog, none of that would have happened,” said Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt, noting the animal’s role in getting the warrant.

He called K-9s an important tool for law enforcement, particularly in today’s mobile society.

“There’s not time to build a long-term conspiracy case on a car that’s driving through town,” Eckerdt said. “That (trained K-9) gives us the means to develop probable cause in a moment.”

Neither Lewis nor the companion have been charged with any wrongdoing in connection with the seized cash or on any drug-related allegations. The companion was released without any charges, and Lewis was cited for two misdemeanor charges alleging the plane was not properly registered and that Lewis flew the plane without a license.

Lewis, who was released on his own recognizance after spending the weekend in the Cody jail, said in court on Monday that he does have a valid pilot’s license.

During the proceeding, Lewis acknowledged having a 2010 conviction relating to a controlled substance.

“I think I have a misdemeanor in California for something to do with a small amount of marijuana,” Lewis said.

A September 2010 report from the Eureka, Calif., Times-Standard says Lewis was one of four men arrested there in connection with a search that turned up 177 pounds of “processed marijuana.” The Times-Standard quoted a Humboldt County Drug Task Force press release as saying officers also seized more than $261,000 in cash that had been placed inside heat-sealed vacuum bags.

It was not clear what — if any — connection Lewis was proven to have to the seized marijuana and cash.

5 comments

  • Comment Link March 07, 2014 8:39 am posted by John Drezen

    Gee, do you think anything is wrong? The way our "Justice System works" is they will probably be released with a return of the money and the plane and fined for the two violations. THATS JUSTICE IN OUR COUNTRY.

  • Comment Link March 08, 2014 12:24 pm posted by J Harper

    Golly, John, guess if it happened to you you would cry like a baby and lawyer up just like the cops do when they are caught. Always two levels of justice in your little world. Yours and everyone else's.

  • Comment Link March 09, 2014 8:45 am posted by Concerned Powell Citizen

    So there were no narcotics on board, yet since the dog alerted that there were it is a completely legal search and seizure? This is something that needs to be examined closely as there is obvious room for abuse of this system. For example, should the police desire a reason to search, yet they do not have any legal justification, they could simply call in the K9 and claim that the dog alerted that narcotics are present. If they do not find narcotics, they should not be allowed to charge the victim for anything that is discovered during the erroneous search.

  • Comment Link March 10, 2014 5:38 am posted by Rose W

    I applaud the man responsible for calling in with his suspicions! Maybe this will lead to a bust of a drug ring bringing dope to our area.

  • Comment Link March 19, 2014 7:44 pm posted by myobpolicia

    People aren't bringing dope to this area. I'm guessing they were on their way home and needed to make a pit stop. And I agree with you, Powell citizen. An animal gives you a trained signal and that's enough probable cause? Obviously these guys are trafficking but that's not the point. It blows my mind that drug dogs even exist.

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