This story was produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom by Louisville Public Media. For more, visit KyCIR.org.
The puppies were bred from a prized pair of American pit bull terriers, promising the attributes that buyers would pay thousands for: a chiseled and strong build, a cool and confident temperament and a deep red color.
In October 2019, Haley Vogen wrapped a bundle of $11,000 in cash with cellophane and tape, stuffed it in a pair of Nike shoes and shipped the box from a UPS store on Dixie Highway to San Ysidro, California, where she said the breeder was located. After the puppies were born, Vogen, an aspiring dog breeder from Jeffersonville, Indiana, planned to drive cross country to retrieve the first and second picks of the litter.
The money never made it. Court records show that a Jefferson County Sheriff’s detective seized the cash, alleging it was drug money after a K-9 dog named Nala sniffed the package, indicated the odor of narcotics and stopped Vogen’s puppy purchase.
Vogen, 25, hired an attorney and fought to prove the money was legally obtained, but the cost was too much. She agreed to forfeit all but $1,000, which she split with the attorney.
“I’m pissed,” Vogen said. “I don’t have any priors, there wasn’t any drugs in that package, they didn’t have any evidence to take that money. They just did it.”
In Kentucky, the state’s asset forfeiture law gives law enforcement broad authority to take money if it’s presumed to be tied to or even near drugs. Law enforcement keeps up to 85%, with the rest going to prosecutors.
Cases like Vogen’s have become big business in recent years for the Jefferson County Sheriff. Since 2019, the agency has seized more than $3.2 million, according to public records obtained by KyCIR through an open records request.
This is not by accident; the sheriff’s office has added a drug-sniffing dog to its narcotics team, where seasoned investigators working with federal task forces are honing in on asset forfeiture work, said Lt. Col. Carl Yates, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.
Sheriff John Aubrey, a Democrat who was first elected in 1999, has publicly praised the use of civil asset forfeiture. During a trip to the White House in 2017, he and other sheriffs met with then-president Donald Trump to discuss the tactic.
“How simple could anything be,” Trump said. “I love it.”
While the Louisville Metro Police Department and other suburban departments handle most of the policing throughout the county, the sheriff’s office is primarily tasked with collecting taxes, serving court papers, overseeing evictions and providing court security. But seizures by the sheriff’s office have increased dramatically — from $25,000 in 2015 to $1.5 million in the 2021 fiscal year.
Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial practice in which agencies file civil lawsuits when they suspect money is tied to narcotics and can be awarded the seized cash without ever proving it was tied to drug dealing. From 2015-18, the sheriff’s office reported just 11 civil forfeitures to the state.
Over the next three years, though, the agency conducted nearly 60 civil forfeitures, often searching packages traveling through Louisville’s UPS Worldport shipping hub and finding cash.
Kentucky law enforcement agencies reported seizing more than $11.6 million in fiscal year 2020, according to a KyCIR analysis of statewide data. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s office seizures were fourth-highest statewide.
The sheriff’s office staffs eight deputies on its criminal interdiction unit, which is largely responsible for narcotics investigations and the rise in asset forfeiture cases, said Lt. Col. Carl Yates, a spokesperson for the agency.
“It’s just hard work and commitment to look for this stuff,” Yates said.
The amount of “illegal money” that flows through Louisville is staggering, Yates said, noting the agency has also seized more than 1,700 pounds of drugs this year — nearly double last year’s haul. The recent increase in cash seized by the sheriff’s office represents just a fraction of the cash in circulation, Yates said.
“We just can’t get it all,” he said.
The Jefferson County Sheriff is funded primarily with the fees associated with the collection of property taxes, executing evictions, inspecting vehicles, providing court security and serving court papers.
“But no fee collection covers the cost of actually doing it,” Yates said.
Seized funds, he said, are a tremendous asset.
The potential to generate revenue is a major problem, said Michael Greenberg, a law and liberty fellow at the Institute for Justice.
Civil forfeiture is made even more troublesome, he said, with the low standard of evidence that’s required for law enforcement to seize property.
“For police to keep your stuff they should have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt – the same proof to find you guilty of the crime,” Greenberg said. “That is the American presumption of evidence.”
Many Factors Can Make Packages ‘Suspicious’
A review of the sheriff’s asset forfeiture cases closed in court this year shows the deputies are often taking cash from UPS packages — like Vogen’s — and they often do it at the shipping giant’s Worldport hub on Grade Lane. The sheriff’s office is part of a task force with LMPD and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that searches through packages after getting search warrants from local judges.
Officials with the Office of Homeland Security and LMPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Jim Mayer, a spokesperson for UPS, refused to provide any details about law enforcement agencies that work at UPS Worldport, or what types of oversight is in place to hold the agencies accountable.
Sheriff deputies rely on intelligence to determine when they search a package, Yates said, but he declined to elaborate.
“For obvious reasons we aren’t going to talk about intel or investigative leads,” he said.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office does not use body cameras, so they don’t generally mention video evidence when requesting warrants from the local court. Instead, the evidence they cite can be limited only to an indication from a K-9 dog and a suspicion about how the money is packaged or where it’s addressed.
Among factors the sheriff’s detectives consider suspicious: expedited shipping, excess tape, person-to-person packages and addresses from drug “source states” like California, Colorado, Texas, Florida and Nevada, according to search warrant affidavits filed with the Jefferson Circuit Court Clerk.
Sometimes the packages are just passing through Louisville en route to somewhere else. In late June, a sheriff detective obtained a search warrant for a three-pound package headed from Philadelphia to West Covina, California, which the detective called a known drug dealing city in his affidavit. The K-9, Nala, also alerted deputies to the odor of drugs.
The detective reported finding an undisclosed amount of cash, along with scraps of plastic and cardboard, but no drugs. The agency seized the cash.
Yates said it’s up to the courts to decide if a seizure is legitimate or not. Under state law, people who want their money returned must prove that it’s not tied to drug dealing. Yet few people do mount a fight in court, according to a review of online court records.
Yates reckons this is because they’re drug dealers.
“They’re not going to come to court,” he said.
But, in fact, records show some people who lost money to a sheriff’s office seizure never find out about the hearing.
When law enforcement seizes cash from a package, a specially appointed third-party attorney is tasked with alerting them that they’re named in a legal action via certified mail.
In nearly half of the 31 cases closed this year, letters were addressed to a postal retail store — like the UPS Store on Bardstown Road or Dixie Highway, or a postal annex in Tennessee. Documents don’t explain whether the recipient held a mailing address there, or it was simply where the package originated.
In some cases, the mail was returned to the sender, but no follow up was conducted.
In July 2020, the sheriff had seized $7,000 from a package a Louisville man shipped to California. A certified letter sent to the Dixie Highway UPS Store was returned to sender. The attorney claimed to have “made a diligent effort to locate and inform” the defendant by searching public records and “using general internet search capabilities,” but didn’t send another letter, according to court records. Three months later, a judge ordered the cash to be forfeited.
In another case, a letter about a $14,000 seizure went to the same UPS Store on Dixie Highway and was returned, according to court documents. Staff had written “this person does not have a box here.” Still, the appointed attorney believed the woman had been given “adequate notice of the nature and pendency of the instant action” and did nothing more to attempt to locate the woman. Five months later, a judge ordered the cash be forfeited.
Seizure A Roadblock To New Career
The state’s asset forfeiture laws don’t require people to be convicted or even accused of a crime in order to lose their money.
A November 2019 report from KyCIR found seized cash plays an outsized role in plea bargaining — with prosecutors offering favorable deals for reduced charges if people agree to forfeit cash.
Even though the Jefferson County Sheriff’s detective alleged in court that Haley Vogen’s cash was the product of drug dealing, she was not charged with a crime and has no history of drug offenses.
Vogen is a dancer at a strip club in south Louisville, and makes most of her money through cash tips. She said she doesn’t keep much of it in a bank, but she also doesn’t deal drugs.
Watching her 1-year-old pitbull, Kali, romp in the grass and roll in the mud, she said her future outside of dancing was tied to dogs like Kali, and the puppies she tried to buy in 2019.
She explained in an affidavit that her seized money was legally earned through hard work, and the $11,000 in the package was intended to be an investment in her future.
She’s trying to transition from dancing to dog breeding — a goal of hers since she was a child, when she helped her mother breed Golden Retrievers. A litter of red-nosed pit bulls can yield more than $50,000, she said.
But fighting to get the money back became too costly, on top of the loss. She agreed to a settlement with a prosecutor that she’d get $1,000 back. She had to split it with her lawyer.
A spokesperson for the Jefferson County Attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Law enforcement agencies are free to spend forfeited money on anything with a “direct law enforcement purpose,” according to state law.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s office has not yet provided records requested last week that would show how forfeited funds are used.
Some agencies use forfeiture funds to cover K-9 expenses. And Yates, who partly credits the addition of a new K-9 with the increase in seizures, said the dogs are quite expensive.
But they sometimes miss the mark.
In May, a detective flagged a two-pound box headed from Shively to La Mesa, California. A deputy said the K-9 — the same one that a detective said sniffed out drugs in the box that Haley Vogen had shipped — indicated the odor of drugs, and a judge signed the search warrant to open the box.
But inside, there were no drugs — only chicken wings.
Contact Jacob Ryan at (502) 814.6559 or [email protected]