Feb 24, 2015

After seizure of plane and $260,000, county prosecutors drop charges and feds keep investigating

Federal authorities say they should get to keep the plane and nearly $260,000 in cash seized from two Coloradans who flew into Cody a year ago — claiming the items were involved in trafficking drugs.
One of the men, meanwhile, says he and the property were not involved in illegal activity and that the items should be returned to him.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wyoming is seeking the forfeiture of the aircraft and cash in a civil case pending before a federal judge in Cheyenne and is trying to put together a criminal case as well. The federal prosecutors allege the Cessna TU206E was used to transport illegal drugs and the cash represents proceeds from drug sales.

“It’s basically a federal issue at this point,” said Park County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Skoric.

However, the 26-year-old man who flew the plane into Cody, Scott M. Lewis of Englewood, Colo., has said in court filings that the aircraft and money came from legitimate, unspecified activities.
Cody police obtained a warrant to search the aircraft and Lewis’ room at the Holiday Inn on Feb. 28, 2014. That was after reports that Lewis and his traveling companion had acted suspiciously and after a Powell police drug dog alerted to the scent of narcotics on the plane.

Officers didn’t find any drugs, but they did find $258,520 inside a blue duffel bag, packaged in 12 vacuum-sealed bags and labeled “Deposit I” and “Deposit II.” Close to $1,467 more was found on top of a hotel dresser and in a jacket.

Police took the money and the plane, but no serious criminal charges were filed.

Lewis’ traveling companion, 37-year-old Gilbert Wiles Jr., was released without any charges, while Lewis was arrested and charged with two misdemeanors alleging he didn’t have a valid pilot's license and that the plane was improperly registered. Those charges were dismissed Feb. 11 at the request of the Park County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

The "target letter" sent to Lewis.
“It’s basically a federal issue at this point,” Park County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Skoric said Monday.

Court records show the federal government is mulling whether to file more serious federal charges.

On Nov. 7, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Heimann of Cheyenne sent a letter to Lewis that began, “I am writing to inform you that you are the subject of an investigation by Homeland Security Investigations of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”

Heimann wrote that investigators are probing allegations that Lewis may have committed several federal crimes, including: conspiracy to distribute marijuana, money laundering, identity theft and operating an unregistered aircraft.

The document is what’s known as a “target letter.” Target letters are not public documents, but Lewis’ became public when his attorneys attached it to other court filings.

Lewis attorney Joe Bustos of Cheyenne said in one filing that, in his experience with the letters, “a federal indictment will almost always follow.”

Speaking in general terms about prosecutors’ procedures, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman John Powell similarly told the Tribune that “the bottom line is this: If you receive a target letter, you are most likely going to be indicted.” Powell declined to comment on the possibility of charges against Lewis and a Monday search of federal records showed no pending charges against him.

U.S. District Court Judge Alan Johnson put the federal government’s civil forfeiture case on hold on Dec. 4 because of the pending criminal investigation.

“If you receive a target letter, you are most likely going to be indicted,” said John Powell, a spokesman for federal prosecutors.

David M. Michael of San Francisco, another Lewis defense attorney, had argued that forcing Lewis to provide more information about his interest in the seized plane and cash would violate his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Lewis has denied any wrongdoing.

Attorney Michael, writing on Lewis’ behalf, said in a filing that police lacked probable cause to seize the property, that the federal court doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear the forfeiture case and that the government’s claim on the property is unconstitutional because it violates Lewis’ rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment, as well as his right to due process.

Further, Lewis’ response says the property “was not proceeds of, or used or intended to be used to facilitate, any violation of law, nor was it furnished or intended to be furnished in exchange for any controlled substance or listed chemical, that would subject the property to forfeiture pursuant to any law.”
Scott M. Lewis, after his 2014 arrest

Wiles, meanwhile, has not filed a claim for the seized property and he has not received a target letter, his attorney, Dion Custis of Cheyenne, told the Tribune in January.

Federal prosecutors’ case for forfeiture focuses largely on how suspiciously Lewis and Wiles acted while in Cody.

Prosecutors say the two men: immediately covered their plane’s windows with sunshades after touching down and parking in a hangar on Feb. 27 (unlike most pilots, who use sunshades only when outside in the summer); paid for their fuel and other services with $100 bills; didn’t radio the airport prior to landing; didn’t identify the plane by its tail number (suggesting the pilot didn’t want a record of his identity, the feds say) and used a fake name.

Poor weather forced the men to stay the night in Cody.

On the way to the Holiday Inn, Lewis and Wiles reportedly refused to let a shuttle driver touch one of their three duffel bags. Further, when the men later asked for hotel staff to bring an HDMI cable to their room, they opened the door only wide enough to slide the cable through.

All this was reported to police, who then took Zeke — a narcotics detection canine handled by Powell Police Officer Reece McLain — to the plane’s hangar. Zeke alerted to scent of a controlled substance at the plane’s two doors, police say.

That was enough for Cody police to get a search warrant for the plane and Lewis and Wiles’ hotel room. Police say they found evidence the men had been living on the airplane and, in the hotel room, they found the $259,717, two laptop computers, six electronic storage devices, 15 cellphones and three bogus Idaho driver’s licenses. Each license had a picture of Lewis, but each had a different name.

Lewis filed this claim for the seized cash with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (His personal address has been redacted.)
Lewis’ response to the government’s forfeiture request disputes that he and Wiles were acting suspiciously. For example, he says putting up sunshades is “standard procedure in cold weather” and he denies that the men refused to let the shuttle driver touch one of the duffel bags. As to the allegation that police found three fake driver’s licenses with his photo on them, Lewis says he “lacks sufficient information to form a belief as to the truth of the allegations.”

Federal prosecutors say Lewis and Wiles bought the plane for $130,000 in May of 2013, paying cash at a hotel in Austin, Texas.

The plane’s bill of sale showed it as being owned by Morris Point LLC, a New Mexico corporation with a mailing address in the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco; federal investigators believe Morris Point LLC was set up through businesses who advertise their ability to make people’s assets “invisible” to others.

Prosecutors say Lewis and Wiles bought the plane with cash, then used certain business services to obscure its ownership.

At his initial March 1, 2014, court appearance in Park County Circuit Court in Cody, Lewis had successfully applied for a court-appointed attorney. Lewis said he made only $200 to $500 as a part-time employee at a Denver hotel and he did not list the plane or the cash as assets.

In May, however, Lewis filed a claim with U.S. Customs and Border Protection for both the aircraft and cash, writing, “I have an ownership and possessory interest in all or part of the above named property.”

He valued the plane at $140,000.

Lewis eventually brought in Bustos, a private attorney, to represent him in the recently dismissed Park County case. Michael — whose website describes him as specializing “in medical cannabis cases as well as state and federal forfeiture litigation” — is representing Lewis in the forfeiture case.

To obtain the airplane and the money, the government must prove its case by a “preponderance of the evidence.” That’s the legal standard used in civil lawsuits, and it basically means the government must show it’s more likely than not that the plane and cash were used in trafficking drugs.

It’s a significantly lower standard of proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt” — the high threshold the government must meet if it tries to convict Lewis of a crime.

The forfeiture case is scheduled to resume in early March, though it could be delayed again.

~By CJ Baker


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