Exclusive: Cash confiscated at airport

July 24, 2008 4:05:37 PM PDT
Federal agents seized $128,000 from a man who has proven to investigators he earned it legally. So why won't they give it back to him?It's an Eyewitness News Investigators' exclusive.

The man, Sam Baah, is pleading with federal agents to return his money, which was confiscated by customs agents while trying to board a plane. That was four months ago.

The money was taken due to a law that few travelers even know exists. When flying overseas with more than $10,000 in cash, passengers are supposed to report it to customs. If you don't and get caught, it could be years before you see your money again.

The Jersey City construction worker says he wasn't aware he was doing anything illegal when he tried to return home to Africa with his hard-earned cash. Now, his life savings are lost in a bureaucratic black hole.

Baah left Africa 20 years ago with $50 in his pocket. He believed if he worked hard in America, he could save enough money to build a home for his family in Ghana.

"This is my life's savings," he said. "I've been putting money away every week."

The Jersey City construction worker saved $128,000. Last March, with his money securely packed in his suitcase, Baah was boarding a flight from Newark to head back to Ghana to build his dream home. But custom agents stopped him.

"They handcuffed me, took me to the office," he said. "They counted the money, and then they said, 'Here, take $300 and go home, we'll get back to you."

Customs and Border Protection had seized the money because he had failed to fill out a form and declare the cash. Four months later, despite no charges being filed, the government still has his money.

"I will pay a fine for what I did," he said. "I don't want to, but I made a mistake. I will pay a fine."

Like Baah, Pedro Zapeta also came to America with a dream to earn enough money to build a home, in his case, for his family in Guatemala. He saved $59,000 working years washing dishes. Minutes before boarding the plane with his money, customs cuffed him and seized his cash. More than two years later, the government still has most of it.

"I didn't know I had to declare the money," Zapeta said.

Back in Jersey City, Baah also waits to get his money. He has provided customs with IRS tax documents, plus years of bank statements, deposit and withdraw slips that he says certifies the cash belongs to him. A 20-year dream of building his home lies dormant in the African dust. It's fate is now in the American government's hands.

"I'm just begging him," Baah said. "I deserve to have my money back, because I work hard for it."

Customs and Border Protection would not comment on this specific case, except to say that Baah's case is still under review.


STORY BY: The Investigators' Jim Hoffer