Jul 20, 2015

Sixteen months after seizure of plane and cash in Cody, feds still investigating

More than year after Cody police seized a plane and nearly $260,000 from a pair of suspicious Colorado men, federal prosecutors apparently have yet to determine whether the men committed any crimes.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Cheyenne has alleged in a civil forfeiture complaint that the aircraft and cash were involved in trafficking drugs and that the government should get to keep them. However, prosecutors have not made those allegations in a criminal case, with no charges filed to date.

The man who flew the Cessna TU206E into Cody’s Yellowstone Regional Airport in February 2014, Scott M. Lewis, has been fighting to get the plane and the money back from the government. He’s denied any wrongdoing.

“The criminal investigation has not been completed and remains active,” Eric Heimann, a federal prosecutor, said last month.

Authorities say Lewis and his traveling companion, Gilbert W. Wiles Jr., acted strangely after landing in Cody in February 2014 (taking steps to obscure their identities that included Lewis using a fake name) and a Powell police drug dog detected the scent of narcotics on the plane.

After getting search warrants for the aircraft and the men’s hotel room at the Holiday Inn, Cody police found the cash (mostly inside vacuum-sealed plastic bags) and three fake Idaho licenses that had Lewis' photo paired with three different names. Police did not find any drugs.

The legal fight over who gets to keep the plane and the $259,717 has been on hold since December to keep it from conflicting with the government's ongoing criminal investigation.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Alan Johnson of Cheyenne postponed the civil forfeiture case for another 60 days to let federal authorities continue the investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Heimann sent Lewis a letter in November saying the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was looking into allegations that could include conspiracy to distribute marijuana, money laundering, identity theft and operating an unregistered aircraft.

“The criminal investigation has not been completed and remains active,” Heimann wrote in a motion last month, saying the extra time would allow the investigation to wrap up.

Lewis’ legal team objected to the additional delay.

“The government has now had ample time to complete its criminal investigation and, because of that, Claimant (Lewis) does not agree to any additional stays,” attorney David M. Michael of San Francisco wrote in a filing.

“The government has now had ample time to complete its criminal investigation,” wrote David M. Michael, an attorney for Lewis.

After a July 9 hearing in Cheyenne, Judge Johnson sided with the government. He did not detail his reasoning in the written order.

Federal law makes it significantly easier for the government to get a person’s property in a forfeiture proceeding than to convict a person of a crime. The government needs only to prove the property’s involvement with the drug trade by a “preponderance of the evidence” rather than the higher threshold of “beyond a reasonable doubt” required in criminal cases.

The law is intended to discourage drug trafficking, though critics says it’s subject to abuse.

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