Two Americans are alleging the FBI lost or stole their property after seizing it through a “shady” process.
“All we know is that their property was in a box and safe before the FBI broke into the box,” Joe Gay, an attorney with the nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice, told Fox News. “Once the FBI broke into the box, we honestly don’t know exactly what happened.”
“We don’t know if they lost it. We don’t know if somebody pocketed it and walked away,” he continued. “We have no way to know.”
The Institute for Justice filed two lawsuits Friday on behalf of clients who had property seized from their safety deposit boxes in a March 2021 FBI raid on U.S. Private Vaults, a Beverly Hills–based company. After prevailing in court, and the FBI agreeing to return their property, both Don Mellein and Jeni Pearsons discovered some of their property was missing and suspect the FBI’s haphazard raid or sticky fingers are to blame.
“There’s literally been no explanation,” Pearsons said. “I think you have to assume that it’s the simplest explanation, and I think, unfortunately, the simplest explanation is they took it or lost it.”
Mellein, a 79-year-old retired civil servant, kept cash and 110 gold coins worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in his box to safeguard his financial security. He invested in the precious metals with the proceeds after he and his wife sold their Malibu home in 2002.
Pearsons and her husband Michael Storc similarly rented a security deposit box in 2017 as a financial safeguard, storing around $20,000 in silver and $2,000 in cash.
Neither Mellein nor Pearson were charged with a crime.
The FBI had been investigating U.S. Private Vaults, which shut down following the raid and ultimately pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder drug money.
After the FBI seized their property along with 1,400 other customers, Mellein and Pearsons received a notice stating the FBI wanted to keep their property through a process known as civil forfeiture.
Pearsons teamed up with the Institute for Justice to fight for her property, while Mellein hired an attorney and spent $40,000 to reclaim his items. They both prevailed, but when they went to the agency’s Los Angeles office to claim their property, they realized some of their items were missing.
Mellein was given the cash from his box, but none of his 110 gold coins. The FBI seemed to have no record of the missing coins as they weren’t listed on the property receipt of his box’s contents. When pressed for a copy of the video inventory of the box, the FBI said that in its rush to process so much property, it had abandoned its initial plan to film the process, completing inventory paperwork instead, according to the Institute for Justice.
Mellein sued the government to force the return of the coins in August 2021. Months later, the government found and returned 47 of them but told Melleine he must dismiss his lawsuit and file a claim with the FBI in order to track down remaining 63.
In March 2023, after filing his claim, the FBI told Mellein it had investigated itself and that there was no evidence that it had done anything wrong or careless, according to the Institute for Justice.