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Westmoreland

California firm files lawsuit to recover $367K seized from truck on Turnpike in Westmoreland County

Paul Peirce
| Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, 2:57 p.m.
The New Stanton interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
The New Stanton interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

A California-based engineering company wants $367,000 state troopers in New Stanton seized in January from a truck traveling the Pennsylvania Turnpike returned as soon as possible.

SJS Engineering of Valencia, Calif., filed a federal lawsuit in Pittsburgh this week asking a judge to order the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to return the cash seized from a contracted courier on Jan. 23 by the state police turnpike detail along the turnpike near New Stanton.

SJS hired former acting Pennsylvania Attorney General Bruce Castor Jr. to serve as its lawyer. He is a partner in a private practice in Montgomery County.

Castor indicated in the 10-page lawsuit that he hasn't received an explanation for why the cash hasn't been returned by Homeland Security officials, who assumed jurisdiction in the case.

Though SJS officials do not know the exact reason the trucked was stopped, the lawsuit states that it is believed that troopers pulled over the 2018 Chevrolet Silverado as part of a drug “interdiction effort” and because “two ethnically appearing Hispanic males fit whatever criteria” was being used.

The cash was not in a hidden compartment but in a box in the main compartment of the cab “along with the IRS and shipping documents,” according to the lawsuit.

Police detained the two men in the truck and seized the truck. No criminal charges were filed, and troopers released the men “without restriction” — and with the truck returned to their possession, court documents show.

The lawsuit contends troopers released the men and the truck after employees of the courier, Barragan Logistics, provided completed IRS forms for cash payments over $10,000 and business documents showing the cash was headed to PPT Research in Allentown to pay for a large compressor-vacuum pump unit to be used for a project in California.

Court documents indicate the machinery cost $474,000, with the balance to be paid upon delivery at the project site in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., 325 miles north of Los Angeles.

It is unclear why the company hired the courier service to deliver $367,000 in cash to Allentown.

“The two men returned to California without having completed their contract to deliver payment to PPT Research for the purchase of equipment,” the lawsuit states.

SJS maintains in its complaint that it is not a large company, and a $376,000 capital investment “in a piece of manufacturing equipment to boost its production abilities represents a substantial proportion of its total cash reserves. Respondents' cavalier attitude concerning petitioner losing the use of that property while not gaining the benefit of the equipment it was to purchase is manifestly unreasonable.”

Castor first sought return of the money from Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck, court documents show.

“I did not know anything about it until (Castor) called our office a few weeks ago,” Peck said Wednesday. “I contacted a sergeant with the state police New Stanton turnpike detail, and he told me that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had assumed jurisdiction.

“I called Castor back and informed him it was no longer our case,” Peck said.

Castor said in court documents that Brianna Tetrault, a special agent with Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was in charge of the investigation.

Neither Castor nor ICE Public Affairs Officer Adrian Smith in Philadelphia returned calls seeking comment.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860, ppeirce@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.

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