FBI returns property seized from rented safety deposit boxes in Beverly Hills
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – More than a half-dozen people whose valuables were seized by the FBI during a raid at U.S. Private Vaults in Beverly Hills have either gotten their property back or were assured that the contents of their safety deposit boxes will soon be returned, according to court documents obtained Thursday morning.
The federal government has remained silent about its case against U.S. Private Vaults, a Nevada-based company that operated on West Olympic Boulevard.
Agents from the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration served a search warrant at the business on March 22 and seized drugs, firearms and large amounts of gold bullion and cash, as well as other valuables, from about 396 rented boxes, according to an affidavit supporting a federal indictment.
U.S. Private Vaults is named in a criminal indictment that alleges three separate conspiracies to violate federal law, authorities said. The company’s owners have not been charged or named.
In a Los Angeles federal court filing late Wednesday, attorneys for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking the return of seized property from the government state that some property has been returned and authorities have promised to return the rest to the seven individuals named in the civil suit.
According to the document, the FBI has returned the contents of Los Angeles couple Paul and Jennifer Snitko’s box. Paul Snitko, a retired aerospace engineer who has held multiple security clearances, and his lawyer wife stored such prized possessions as flight logs and watches Snitko and his father earned from years of service at their jobs, according to the Institute for Justice, which filed the lawsuit.
Joseph Ruiz, a Los Angeles man who is unemployed following an injury, stored $57,000 in cash in his safety deposit box, including money that he received as proceeds of a settlement following his injury. According to the IJ, the FBI said it is returning the cash, but cannot do so immediately because the funds have been deposited into the bank. Ruiz submitted paperwork with bank routing information on Aug. 9 to facilitate a wire transfer, but the government has not yet wired the funds.
Tyler Gothier, a Placer County man who maintains a Los Angeles County address, placed silver and other personal property in his box. The IJ says the FBI has returned the contents to Gothier.
Jeni Verdon-Pearsons, who works at a nonprofit theater in Los Angeles, and husband Michael Storc, a transportation coordinator in the film industry, stored about $20,000 worth of silver in their box, which they purchased as an investment and were saving for retirement, according to court papers.
The IJ says that the couple have heard from the FBI that it would return their property. However, authorities have allegedly not made any further moves to return the silver, according to the filing.
Plaintiff Travis May, the founder and CEO of Cerritos-based telecommunications business TollFreeForwarding.com, stored both gold and about $63,000 in cash in his box, which he viewed as a rainy-day fund in case of emergencies, documents show.
While the FBI has returned the gold, authorities said the cash cannot immediately be returned because the money has been deposited into the bank, the IJ said. May submitted paperwork with bank routing information on Aug. 9 to facilitate a wire transfer, but the government has not yet wired the funds, according to the IJ.
Last month, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner directed the government to show cause as to why the government is holding the contents of Ruiz’s box, and the government responded that it would return the cash.
A raft of lawsuits has been filed by box holders seeking the return of their property, alleging the government overstepped constitutional protections in efforts to uncover illegal activity. About $86 million in cash and millions more in jewelry and other valuables were reportedly seized from the rented boxes, but specific criminal conduct has not been alleged against box holders.
In the indictment, Los Angeles prosecutors allege that U.S. Private Vaults adopted “business practices that attracted customers in possession of proceeds from criminal offenses, including drug trafficking” and other offenses.
U.S. Private Vault customers were not required to use their names to access their boxes. Instead, the company used iris scans and other means to keep customer identities secret.
A November scheduling conference has been set for the lawsuit, which was filed by the IJ on behalf of box holders. The complaint was filed as a proposed class action and, ultimately, seeks to secure relief on behalf of a broader class of U.S. Private Vaults box holders.
The warrant authorizing the raid on U.S. Private Vaults stated that it “does not authorize a criminal search or seizure of the contents of the safety deposit boxes,” according to Rob Johnson, IJ’s senior attorney.
The IJ maintains that despite the direction of the judge who signed the warrant, “the FBI opened every box in the vault and forced individuals to prove their own innocence to get their property back,” Johnson said.
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