Two Americans have accused the FBI of either losing or stealing their property after it was seized in what they describe as a “shady” process. The nonprofit law firm, Institute for Justice, filed two lawsuits on behalf of clients whose property was taken from their safety deposit boxes during an FBI raid on U.S. Private Vaults in March 2021. Don Mellein and Jeni Pearsons, both of whom had their property returned after winning their cases in court, discovered that some of their belongings were missing.
According to Joe Gay, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, the exact details of what happened to their property remain unknown. He stated, “All we know is that their property was in a box and safe before the FBI broke into the box. Once the FBI broke into the box, we honestly don’t know exactly what happened.” Gay further expressed that they have no way of knowing if the FBI lost the property or if someone within the agency pocketed it.
In the case of Don Mellein, a retired civil servant, his safety deposit box contained cash and 110 gold coins worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that he had invested in for his financial security. Jeni Pearsons and her husband Michael Storc similarly rented a security deposit box, storing around $20,000 in silver and $2,000 in cash as a financial safeguard.
Both Mellein and Pearsons were not charged with any crimes. The FBI had been investigating U.S. Private Vaults, which later shut down and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder drug money. After seizing their property along with that of 1,400 other customers, the FBI sent Mellein and Pearsons a notice stating their intention to keep the property through civil forfeiture, a process that the clients were unfamiliar with. Pearsons called the process disingenuous and shady, emphasizing its lack of transparency.
Pearsons enlisted the help of the Institute for Justice to fight for her property, while Mellein hired his own attorney and spent $40,000 to reclaim his items. When they went to the FBI’s Los Angeles office to claim their property, they discovered that some of their belongings were missing. Mellein received the cash from his box but none of his 110 gold coins. The FBI claimed to have no record of the missing coins as they weren’t listed on the property receipt for his box. Additionally, the FBI said that it had abandoned its initial plan to film the inventory process due to the rush of handling a large amount of property.
Despite their legal victories, Mellein and Pearsons are left questioning the FBI’s handling of their property. They suspect that either the raid was mishandled or that their belongings were deliberately taken. As of now, the FBI has not provided an explanation or responded to requests for comment on the matter.