Seized Property Sold, Bullet Holes Included

The U.S. government winds up with a lot of stuff seized from criminals: fast cars, fancy boats, jewelry and even the occasional strip club. And they're all up for sale.

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If you're in the market for a new car the U.S. government may have just the ride for you. But you better check the trunk. Its last owner may have filled it with drugs or stolen goods. The cars and thousands of other items like jewelry, homes and even businesses, go to auction every month. They're put up for sale by the U.S. Marshals Service and they're worth millions.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

LAURA SULLIVAN: Out near the historic stockyards of Fort Worth, Texas, there's a parking lot next to the old train tracks. There's not much out here, but on days when the U.S. Marshals are selling cars this place draws a crowd. Martie Biblian(ph) and her husband made a beeline for the only station wagon, a silver Dodge Magnum. But they were in for a shock.

Ms. MARTIE BIBLIAN: Can you imagine? I felt like a fool. Okay, children…

SULLIVAN: You have to picture this car. The doors don't open out, they open up and then they tilt, almost like a pair of butterfly wings. It would take three parking spaces to park this car at the supermarket.

Ms. BIBLIAN: Actually, that would be a great car (unintelligible). (Unintelligible) just a housewife but I have bat wings.

SULLIVAN: There are a lot of things about this car that aren't exactly factory direct.

Mr. PAUL WIBBELER (Lone Star Auctioneers): You ought to be able to hear that.

SULLIVAN: Auction staffer Paul Wibbeler flings open the rear door for Rob Hunter(ph) and his son. A custom speaker system covered in seamless gray suede takes up half the car.

Mr. ROB HUNTER: The entire neighborhood ought to hear that.

Mr. WIBBELER: I think it's expensive. Wow. I think they had more money than they had sense.

SULLIVAN: That's exactly what the U.S. government thinks too. This car and thousands more like it that the Marshals auction off every year have all been seized from convicted criminals. They were either used in a crime or bought with money illegally obtained. The Marshals acquire things to sell from all the federal law enforcement agencies: ATF, FBI, Customs. But the big moneymaker is the DEA. They bring in millions in expensive cars, go-fast boats and yachts, mostly from drug dealers.

The money they make goes back to the agencies and local police. The Marshals never reveal the history of the items, but sometimes it's obvious.

Mr. DUSTY RHODES(ph): That one, if you look inside it, (unintelligible) compartment (unintelligible) looking for drugs.

SULLIVAN: Dusty Rhodes is looking for a car in good condition. But this 28-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard knows a drug search when he sees one. He peers into a black Chevy Suburban. It's huge, with pitch-black windows, enormous chrome rims and a custom made grill of silver spider webs.

Mr. RHODES: See the dashboard of this is all torn up. And then back here you can see where the - like here they pulled the floorboards off.

SULLIVAN: It also has a rather suspicious reddish-brown paint all down the side of one of the doors.

Mr. RHODES: It looks like somebody might have got shot in this one, maybe - or hurt. I wouldn't doubt it in this thing.

Mr. WIBBELER: We have sold some with bullet holes in them.

SULLIVAN: Auction staffer Paul Wibbeler says blood isn't all that unusual.

Mr. WIBBELER: We have seen them (unintelligible) the windows are shut out. Or they'll have bullet holes in the fenders.

SULLIVAN: Does that bring down the price?

Mr. WIBBELER: Not really. Not for our parts buyers. And then of course you've got people that buy the bullet hole stickers to put on, or the deer hunters and stuff, so that's - hey, that's a badge of honor. Yeah.

Mr. RHOADES: Yeah.

Ms. MARILYN BURGESS (Owner, Lone Star Auctioneers): (Unintelligible).

SULLIVAN: When the auction gets underway, Lone Star Auctioneers owner Marilyn Burgess rattles off the prices and the cars go quickly. Most go to dealers or are headed for resale in Mexico.

Ms. BURGESS: (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).

SULLIVAN: The Dodge Magnum with bat wings goes for $20,500. A '99 Porsche with only 30,000 miles goes to a private collector for $33,000. Eddie Salazar(ph) bought the black Suburban. He plans to resell it.

Mr. EDDIE SALAZAR: There's a lot of people out there looking for cars like this, so somebody will buy it.

SULLIVAN: But replacing the torn up dash and floorboards is going to cut into his profits. And he needs to clean up that mess on the door, whatever it is. He also knows to give it a careful look over.

Mr. SALAZAR: It's a drug vehicle.

SULLIVAN: Can you tell when you open it?

Mr. SALAZAR: Yeah. Pretty much.

SULLIVAN: Do they ever have secret compartments that…

Mr. SALAZAR: Some of them do, you know, most of them. Like in the center console, and on the floors.

SULLIVAN: In 1999, a 77-year-old woman bought a Volkswagen Gulf at a Marshals auction in Kansas City. But it kept running out of gas even when the gauge said it was half full. When she took it into the shop, a mechanic discovered $82,000 stuffed into the gas tank. The woman was later allowed to keep the money. The story is almost legend around the Marshals headquarters in Crystal City, Virginia.

Here in a glass office complex just outside of D.C., the oldest law enforcement agency in the country has an entire staff devoted to selling the assets of criminals. The sales bring in more than $200 million a year. Cars. Boats.

Ms. KATHERINE DEOUDES (Chief, Asset Forfeiture Office, U.S. Marshals): Horse farms, ambulance companies that were bought with dirty money up in New York.

SULLIVAN: Katherine Deoudes is chief of the program.

Ms. DEOUDES: There was a shredder. one of the first businesses that I worked on was the Bicycle Club Casino in California.

SULLIVAN: The Marshals sell businesses too, but they usually have to run them for a while first. Federal trials can take years and the Marshals become the managers of casinos, bars, sports teams, and lots of strip clubs. That makes people like Len Briskman a jack-of-all-trades.

Mr. LEN BRISKMAN (Deputy Chief for Business Management, U.S. Marshals): Business is business. And we have a banana plantation in Puerto Rico that we're monitoring right now.

SULLIVAN: A banana plantation?

Mr. BRISKMAN: Yeah, a thousand-acre banana plantation.

SULLIVAN: He's also got a supermarket chain and, since June, a garbage company in Connecticut. That would be Jimmy Galante's garbage company. Galante has pleaded innocent to 72 counts of racketeering and extortion. Briskman says the garbage company was in real trouble when he first looked at the books, but now it's doing great.

Mr. BRISKMAN: We eliminated a lot of skimming that was going on in the business and it was paying a number of no-show employees. So we felt the first couple of months that we were there we ended up saving about $5.5 million to $6 million a year.

SULLIVAN: He's also gotten an inside look into the business. Briskman pulls out a recent memo from his desk and starts reading. It's from the receptionist at the garbage company's headquarters in Connecticut.

Mr. BRISKMAN: Good afternoon. I want to let you know that last Friday I received a threatening phone call for Jimmy.

Jimmy is Jimmy Galante, one of the indicted individuals.

The gentleman would not identify himself. He wanted me to get a message to Jimmy. The message was as follows: Tell Jimmy to keep his (bleep) mouth shut and things will go easier for him.

SULLIVAN: If Jimmy Galante is found not guilty, he'll get his trash company back. If he's convicted, the company will go to auction. If that happens, Len Briskman promises the highest bidder will get a well-run company that's making money legally.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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