DEA Seized $262k From Sexting Extortioners And Now The Oldest Private College In West Virginia Wants Its Money Back

from the what-a-tangled-web-we-weave-when-first-we-engage-with-multiple-federal-agencies dept

The oldest private college in the state of West Virginia has a shot at getting back hundreds of thousands of dollars seized by the DEA, thanks to a recent decision by a federal judge. In very few cases do plaintiffs in asset forfeiture cases even get to make an attempt to retrieve seized money. In no other case but this one does the story begin like this [h/t Eric Goldman]:

This case arose from the collision of “sexting,” extortion, embezzlement, drugs, and most importantly, the administrative forfeiture of illicit funds under 21 U.S.C. § 881 and 19 U.S.C. §§ 1602-1619.
Shelly Lough was an employee of Bethany College, working as a cashier in the school's business office. She began an affair with Jason Weese, which apparently involved some sexting. Six months after this relationship began, Weese partnered up with his wife Rachaelle (going beyond the normal expectations set down by marriage vows) to use Lough's photos against her.
They told Lough that they would send the messages and photos to her husband, family, employer, and other authorities. Then the threats became violent. The Weeses told Lough that they knew where she lived and what vehicles her children drove. The Weeses threatened to burn Lough’s house down and to harm her husband. As the threats escalated, so too did the amount of money the Weeses demanded. In total, Lough embezzled $837,398.52 from Bethany to pay the Weeses.
Bethany College opened an investigation in August of 2013 after noticing $500,000 in "accounting discrepancies." The police were brought in. Detectives spoke to Lough, who admitted taking that (and much more) to pay the Weeses to keep them from distributing the intimate photos. The police turned this over to the FBI, who arrested the marital partners in crime in March of 2014.

MEANWHILE, AT ANOTHER FEDERAL AGENCY:
Before the Weeses’ extortion scheme was uncovered, the DEA began investigating Jason and Rachaelle Weese in October 2012. The DEA suspected that the Weeses were operating a marijuana “grow house” in their residence in East Liverpool, Ohio. Officers obtained a search warrant for the house and executed the search on March 19, 2013. The officers did not find a grow operation, but did find marijuana distribution paraphernalia. The officers also searched the Weeses’ safe, finding 169 grams of marijuana and $262,020.00 in United States currency (“the Currency”). The officers seized the Currency and determined that it was the proceeds of the Weeses’ drug activities.
Lough testified that the money she turned over to the Weeses was obtained from a local bank and could be identified by the branded bands (initialed by bank employees). Indeed, a post made to Rachaelle Weese's Facebook page by Jason Weese showed just such a band, along with a several $50 bills. The investigator in the extortion case confirmed Lough's assertions and the content of the Facebook post.

The DEA, however, noted the money it seized were stacks of smaller bills held together with rubber bands. It also pointed out that the money appeared to have come from the Weese's "drug operation" and that neither one of the Weeses could come up with a legitimate source for the $260,000.

As is the normal procedure for forfeitures, the DEA posted a notice on forfeiture.gov for the alotted 30 days, and sent out notices to the Weeses. After the notices expired, the DEA took the money and distributed it to itself and participating local law enforcement agencies.

Bethany College, obviously, had no idea this money had been seized by the government, much less for reasons entirely unrelated to its embezzlement investigation or the FBI's extortion investigation. By the time it contacted the DEA about the funds, the money was gone.

The government argued (at least on behalf of one of its agencies) that the DEA had no reason to believe the money came from anything but the nonexistent marijuana grow operation it didn't find. According to its officials, the $262,000 came from the Weeses' low-level "trafficking" operation, as supposedly evidenced by the one-third pound of marijuana and paraphernalia recovered.

Bethany contested this assertion, entering enough evidence to make the DEA's assertions questionable.
To that end, Bethany submitted enough evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the Currency belonged to Bethany. Lough confessed to giving the embezzled funds to the Weeses. Some of Lough’s payments were in smaller bills while other payments were in larger bills wrapped in WesBanco bands. Jason Weese posted a picture of crisp $50.00 bills on Rachaelle Weese’s Facebook page with a WesBanco band later identified by the issuing bank teller as being issued to Bethany. Jason and Rachaelle Weese admitted that the Currency came from the proceeds of their extortion. Further, the Weeses concealed the true source of the Currency from the DEA in the course of its investigation. Based on this evidence, a reasonable jury could certainly conclude that the Currency came from the proceeds of the Weeses’ extortion and Lough’s embezzlement from Bethany. Thus, a reasonable jury could find that Bethany had an interest in the Currency.
The government also argued there was no way the DEA would have uncovered the true source of the money it had seized. According to the government, the drugs and paraphernalia found at the Weeses' home was enough to support its contention that all of the funds it took were the proceeds of drug sales. This apparently makes any evidence produced after the fact completely irrelevant, even if the DEA's justification for the seizure was shaky to begin with.
Bethany argues that, based on the relatively small amount of marijuana found, it is unlikely that the Weeses had accumulated over $260,000.00 from street-level drug dealing. Further, the DEA looked at Jason’s Facebook page, but did not look at Rachaelle’s, which would have revealed a picture of $50.00 bills with a WesBanco band, later identified as having been issued to Bethany. Instead, Bethany argues, the DEA focused its investigation almost entirely on Jason and unjustifiably assumed that the Currency was the proceeds of the Weeses’ drug dealing.
Again, the judge finds Bethany's arguments to be persuasive enough to grant it permission to move forward in its challenge of the DEA's seizure.
Viewing the record in Bethany’s best light, this Court concludes that a reasonable jury could find that the DEA should have known, based on its investigation, that the Currency was not the proceeds from the Weeses’ drug sales. Further, a reasonable jury could find that a continued investigation into the Currency’s source could have revealed that it belonged to Bethany. Therefore, this Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the DEA reasonably should have known of Bethany’s interest in the Currency, and this Court denies the government’s motion for summary judgment as to this issue.
The court does grant the DEA summary judgment on the "actual knowledge" aspect, but is not convinced the agency has an open-and-shut case when it comes to the other issues. Bethany College can, for now, fight the uphill battle to retrieve a portion of the funds taken from it -- first by Shelly Lough, then by the Weeses and finally, by the DEA.

Filed Under: asset forfeiture, dea, extortion, fraud, jason weese, money, rachaelle weese, scams, sexting, shelly lough
Companies: bethany college


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  • icon
    Whatever (profile), 4 Dec 2015 @ 6:38am

    "Viewing the record in Bethany’s best light"

    The key here is only that the judge says under the best legal argument they have they have at least a small nibble of legal standing. That doesn't at all suggest that they would come out on top, rather than the case can be made to have standing to try such an argument.

    It's giving them the opening to try to run this past a jury. it's not much more than that. They will pretty much have to prove their perfect world case, which may not be possible.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Richard (profile), 4 Dec 2015 @ 6:55am

      Re:

      They will pretty much have to prove their perfect world case, which may not be possible.

      They are not the prosecution in a criminal case - therefore at worst they only have to get as far as "balance of probabbilities".

      On that basis I'd say they have a slam dunk.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Richard (profile), 4 Dec 2015 @ 6:58am

        Re: Re:

        and if the government had any morality at all they would simply hand the money over and not put anyone through the hassle of a court case.

        Ah but I'm forgetting - they don't.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 4 Dec 2015 @ 7:37am

          Re: Re: Re:

          The US Government and all its agencies suffer from a "We're always right, there's no possible way would could ever be wrong about anything" mental disorder.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Geno0wl (profile), 4 Dec 2015 @ 6:42am

    East Liverpool

    Hey I grew up in East Liverpool.
    What a weird thing to see mentioned on Techdirt since it is a tiny ass little town.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Dec 2015 @ 7:00am

    4th Crapped on Again

    The only ruling the Judge needed to make was this one.

    No warrant was issued to obtain the money and further no trial was initiated to completely confiscate it.

    The 4th clearly states that the only reasonable search or seizure is one that done under issuance of a warrant!

    "a reasonable jury could certainly conclude"
    This type of language should simply not exist. These guys have just exactly NO business portending just what the fuck a jury could certainly conclude! They ONLY need to deal with evidence being collected in accordance with the constitution and gathered to be subsequently used in a REAL TRIAL where parties can have a legitimate way to challenge government theft!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Dec 2015 @ 7:38am

      Re: 4th Crapped on Again

      The only "reasonable" jury is the one who agrees with me. Anything less is unreasonable.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Dec 2015 @ 8:12am

        Re: Re: 4th Crapped on Again

        Ain't Dat da troof!

        It is beyond sad that MOST people fail to realize this, which has lead to the complete corruption of the entire court system.

        Had the founding fathers showed up some time this year and sat through the system they would have likely said that Judges and Lawyers in all cases should be brought up on jury tampering, sullying of the bench, and general assninery & corruption in service of the people.

        It is so bad, I don't even think people know what a proper court process should even remotely look like.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Dec 2015 @ 8:20am

      Re: 4th Crapped on Again

      This type of language should simply not exist. These guys have just exactly NO business portending just what the fuck a jury could certainly conclude! They ONLY need to deal with evidence being collected in accordance with the constitution and gathered to be subsequently used in a REAL TRIAL where parties can have a legitimate way to challenge government theft!


      You don't understand what's going on here. This is an order on summary judgment. Summary judgment motion are motions that summarily dispose of elements of a case, or even the case itself. When a party files for summary judgment, it is essentially alleging that there is no dispute as to the facts (or if there is a dispute, the disputed fact isn't material to the case) and that a decision can be made on the law alone. Questions decided on summary judgment don't go to a jury because a jury is the fact finder; if there is no dispute as to the facts, there is no finding of fact to be made and a jury is not needed. Juries decides fact, judges decide law.

      You defend against summary judgment by either a) alleging that the facts are disputed, b) show the disputed facts are in fact material to the case, and/or c) arguing what the law concludes.

      Unfortunately, a lot of the time lawyers simply file these motions as a matter of course, regardless of if there really is no dispute.

      Here, the Government moved for summary judgment, alleging there was no material facts in dispute. The college was defending against it, arguing there were facts in dispute and they were material.

      Because the college was alleging a dispute existed as the facts, the judge has a duty to analyze the facts and determine if summary judgment is appropriate before it can go to a jury. When the judge was analysing what the jury could conclude he wasn't making the decision for the jury or what it would in fact determine, but was merely showing that a jury could determine a different factual conclusion from the government's theory, showing a dispute did indeed exist.

      As such, on the issues were the motion was denied, the case will most likely move forward to jury on those issues.

      Here's a good example of summary judgment in action: I used to litigate wage and hour cases in Federal court. In any given overtime case, it was not uncommon for a defendant employer to allege that my clients were managers, exempt from overtime pay. So a lot of our discovery would be directed toward that issue: were the clients paid a salary in excess of $455 a week, did they control two or more employees, did they exercise managerial power like hiring/firing and other duties, etc. By the dispositive motion deadline, most Defendants would file summary judgment motions as a matter of course alleging all these facts that alleged supported my clients had those responsibilities/traits. Often, I had to then file responses in opposite, mining depositions of witness testimony to provide contradictions to their evidence. If I could show enough of a dispute, the Judge would deny the motion, and leave the jury to decide it.

      I had one case which was really bad: defense counsel filed a motion for summary judgment where every single fact was contradicted. EVERY SINGLE ONE. When she filed her motion, she basically just cut out really narrow excerpts from her own clients testimony and didn't even bother to file any thing else as exhibits. When the judge denied her motion and let it go to jury trial, the judge explicitly pointed out how much was contradicted in astonishment.

      Why do so many attorneys file as a matter of course when a genuine dispute of material fact does exist? 1) They hope to get an incompetent opposing counsel who will miss the response deadline, making the motion unopposed, 2) they want to get an incompetent counsel that does not properly address their arguments, or 3) they want to bill the hell out of their clients (this last one is more private practice than any government entities or public interest, but some do too).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    MadAsASnake (profile), 4 Dec 2015 @ 7:28am

    And once again, we see that the whole notion of civil forfeiture should not exist. The result is never right.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Dec 2015 @ 7:37am

    Wait wait wait wait wait wait wait "one third pound of marijuana" - that's what, a little over 5.3 ounces?

    Amazing how that justifies charges of 'intent to distribute'

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    hij (profile), 4 Dec 2015 @ 7:37am

    Do the right thing

    It is amazing how hard it is to make someone do the right thing.

    Then again, the government is now officially taking more stuff now then burglars: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/23/cops-took-more-stuff-from-people-than-burglar s-did-last-year/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Dec 2015 @ 7:40am

    same old story

    Let's not forget that Leaseweb is still waiting for the millions of dollars the company lost due to the FBI's raid on Megaupload -- a raid that put a fortune in the FBI's bank account.

    It's just the way the government's asset forfeiture policy works. It's got nothing to do with seeking justice, and everything to do with keeping the loot all to themselves while fighting tooth and nail against anyone who presents a legitimate ownership or debt claim on the seized property.

    Bethany College might as well just give up the fight, because they'll easily burn through that much money in legal costs against a federal agency with a history of engaging in stonewalling and scorched-earth tactics.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), 4 Dec 2015 @ 7:58am

    distribution paraphernalia?

    The officers did not find a grow operation, but did find marijuana distribution paraphernalia

    I have to wonder what that is. Ziplock baggies?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dr Evil, 4 Dec 2015 @ 8:18am

    using the gov'ts words against it

    'The government also argued there was no way the DEA would have uncovered the true source of the money it had seized'

    so they admit, in court, that they took the funds without proof (of guilt) .. in their own words. Even 'the currency' should be innocent until proven guilty. Guess its 'innocence' has been proven. Case closed, give it back.

    on a side note, this couple sounds special - and they deserve each other.

    and a PS.. what does it cost the gov't (ahem, I mean US) to fight this in court to keep it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PRMan (profile), 4 Dec 2015 @ 10:16am

      Re: using the gov'ts words against it

      Why does it matter? Seriously, who cares if the DEA "should have known"?

      Now that the true source of the funds has been uncovered, it should be returned to its "rightful owner", the college.

      Anything else is theft, pure and simple.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TruthHurts (profile), 4 Dec 2015 @ 10:58am

    DEA as an accomplice to Blackmail and Embezzlement

    Since the DEA illegally "stole" the money stolen from Bethany, this makes the DEA an accomplice to the blackmail by the couple and embezzlement by the blackmail victim.

    Let's see these criminal DEA agents spend some time in prison for their crimes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Dec 2015 @ 3:58pm

    Best Way to Stop this

    Agitate to set Up Victim of Crime funds in each state, and federally, All Asset seizures wind up in these Funds, (obviously stolen property/funds are returned to Original Owners), Monies are Used Only to compensate Crime Victims.

    I Bet The rate of asset seizure will be reduced to a rate proportional to the real crime rate

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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