What would you do if a perfect stranger stopped by your house, gave you a bag containing a million dollars, said to you, "Take it, it's yours", and then walked away?
Did you know that a million dollars in U.S. currency weighs just ten kilograms? It's true. A freshly-minted $100 bill weighs in at slightly over a gram, and 100 of them is ten thousand dollars. 100 of those stacks, and there's your million.It’s not often that 10 kilograms - 22 lbs of anything can change your life. But on February 25th, 2014, that’s exactly what happened. Day 1: $1,000,000 As the man in the gray suit walks away, I shout after him “Hey, come back here. Who are you? What’s this all about?” He does not look back and quickens his pace. Between the choice of chasing down a stranger, or securing what appeared to be stacks of currency, I chose the currency. We can resolve the issue of his identity later, but a loose sack of cash is, well, a loose sack of cash. I look through the contents again. Bundles of US$100 bills, stacked a hundred bills deep, wrapped in standard $10,000 bank bands. A quick count revealed that there were precisely a hundred of those stacks in the bag, and spot-check riffle-counts of the $10k bands suggest that there are no short-stacks within. These were full bands of $10,000 apiece of non sequential USD$100 bills, and I was holding what appears to be a million even in cash. And it feels like just as many question are swirling in my head, as I feel my pulse pounding in my skull. Who was that guy? Why me? What is this all about? But the most urgent thoughts swim past the dizzying deluge of unanswerable questions. Fakes. It’s one thing to inadvertently be the recipient of counterfeit currency, as you’re reading this very sentence, a clerk at a retail store somewhere in your city just accepted a counterfeit bill and made change from the real money in the till. But to be in possession of a life-changing amount of counterfeit currency of the United States of America? Well, that’s sort of thing that can bring the full might and wrath of their law enforcement apparatus on your head. My emotions swing wildly between the elation of instantaneous wealth, and sheer terror that I was minutes away from being snatched from my home and corralled into a Federal holding cell, where I will grow old within its walls. Terror was the stronger of the two emotions, and I quickly went to work. First things first: the bag had to go. If there is a GPS tracking device embedded in its seams, it would take too long for me to root it out. Better to incinerate it, and make sure that whatever trail it was laying stops at a dead-end for its pursuers. I pour the stacks of bills into an empty duffle back from my garage, and lock the bag in my condo. There’s an abandoned marina just a mile from my home and I get in my car and drive straight to the docks, at the top of the posted speed limit. After pouring enough Kerosene on the bag to see the shimmering mist of petroleum evaporate above it, I lit a book of matches and threw it in the middle of the mass. A satisfying “Whoomph” lights up the fire, and I watch the edges of the bag curl and burn - sizzling in the midmorning sun. As the remnants of the bag’s embers swirl around the scorched mark on the docks, I drive back to my condo, pulse still pounding in my skull.I still haven’t figured out if the bills are real or not, but if this morning’s bag-drop was an attempt to pin a piece of deeply incriminating evidence bearing a tracking device … well that plan has been thwarted. Or delayed, at the very least. What do I do? What should I do? Call the authorities? Consider how it would sound: “Hi, Police? Somebody dropped a million dollars in cash at my home. I don’t know if it’s fake or not. Please help.” Would you believe such a ridiculous story? I wouldn't. Any reasonable law enforcement dispatcher would consider the caller legally insane, and I'd be arrested on the spot and sent to psychiatric care. If the money was real, it’d be seized and I'll never see it or spend it. If it was fake, they’d find a way to stick “possession of counterfeit currency” charge on me, and I'll be shoved into a Federal concrete box, draining the best years of my life away, only to be released when I can’t chew solid food any more. No. The only recourse is to handle this myself. I call an old college friend practicing criminal defense law in New York City: “Hey Roger, it’s Kai. How’ve you been?” “I'm cool. It's been a while. What’s up man.” “We should catch up soon in person. But I’m calling because I need something.” “Ok, shoot.” I swallow hard - it’s difficult to even say the words: “Who’s the best CrimDef lawyer you know in California, who defends against Federal charges?” A moment. His voice lowers noticeably. “Shit, man. You in some kind of trouble?” “I’m not sure yet.” I said, truthfully. “But I need someone experienced and smart ... someone who you’d hire, if you’re facing serious attention from the Feds." He lets out a long exhale. “Vincent King. Former rockstar DOJ prosecutor in D.C. Had a change of heart halfway through his rotation in Maryland, when he was securing Life sentences for “interstate drug transportation” charges on young Black kids who were busted muling for the cartels. Was offered a fast-track promotion straight to the U.S. Attorney’s office but went rogue. He set up independent shop in San Francisco, fighting Fed cases. Heavy hitter clients, but makes a point of refusing to represent anyone accused of murder or human trafficking. Intimate knowledge of Federal prosecutorial procedures and evidence-collection protocol. Smart. Methodical. Very expensive.” “Perfect.” “I did mention ‘very expensive?’” “You did.” “I’ll send his contact information now.” =================================“I’m sorry - Mr. King is in court all day and won’t be back in the office. His earliest appointment is tomorrow morning after a client meeting. Shall I book him for 11am for you?” “Yes, thank you Marta.” “We’ll see you tomorrow at 11 then.” I look at the digital clock in my kitchen - it reads 10:44am. Just me and a stack of bills which may or may not be fake, no formal legal representation for over 24 hours. It’s going to be a long day. Taking even a few of these bills to a bank to corroborate their authenticity is out of the question. If a bank officer confirms they are fraudulent, I’ll be arrested on the spot, and since I haven’t hired counsel, I’d be at the mercy of the Public Defender’s Office - the most overworked and underpaid division of the American Criminal Justice system. No, thank you. The next number I dial is an old friend, Robert Kendrick, sole proprietor of ‘Secher Nbiw - The Golden Path,’ a gold bullion dealer with a whimsical Dune reference in the name of his shop. I’ve known Robert for over a decade, his business deals in large amounts of (mostly) legal cash. By necessity, he has a high-end currency counter/ counterfeit detection device in his office, which can swiftly count and verify large sums of money with precision. “Bobby, it’s me.” “Hey, what’s up.” “Can I come to your office - like right now?” “Sure, what do you need?” “I, uh, came into some money. Long story, and I really don’t want to get too much into the details … but I’m wondering if you’d be willing to run the bills through your counter for me? I’m not 100% sure they’re real, and I’d like a discreet way of verifying them. If they are, I’m going to pick up some bullion as well.” “Sure man. Happy to help. How much money are we talking about?”“$60,000” I flinch at that - I hate lying to friends, but at this point, I have no idea who to trust. Though if you want to be technical about it, I did come across $60,000. I am just simply not telling Kendrick about the other $940,000 that accompanied the $60k in the satchel that dropped into my life just three hours ago. “Come on by.” I pull apart a few $10,000 currency bands and start plucking random $100 bills from the middle of every 10k stack to assemble a randomized sample of the entire million. 100 bills, wrap it up. 100 bills, wrap it up. 100 bills, wrap it up. Three bands, thirty thousand dollars, randomized and fully assembled to be tested for authenticity. “Half” of my alleged $60k windfall. The rest of the loose bills are refolded back so there remains 97 stacks of $10k racks, re-wrapped and properly sorted. In 30 minutes, I will figure out if I’m rich, or holding on to enough illicit contraband to send me to Federal Prison for the rest of my life. =============================The Golden Path, like most bullion dealers, work out of small, highly secured office covered by multiple layers of security. At any given moment, Robert may have several hundred thousand dollars in cash or gold, silver and platinum bullion on the premise, it pays to be careful. One of the few civilians in California with a Concealed Carry Weapons permit, Kendrick and I met on pistol gun range ten years ago, we bonded over shooting .45 ACP slugs down-range. He and I spent countless hours debating the relative merits of his preference for single-action 1911s, vs my bias toward double-action SIG-Sauer P220s. In the bullion business, you learn to know the boundaries of money-laundering laws, and know how to walk right up to the edge without triggering reporting thresholds. Drop US$10,000 in cash or more at a car dealership, bank or bullion dealer in a single day’s transaction, and the U.S. authorities gets very interested in the source of your funds. By law, these business that receive such sums of cash must fill out invasive forms to tie the transaction to you and your Social Security Number. Keep cash transactions below US$10,000, and you can avoid much of that intense scrutiny. “Welcome back man. I haven’t seen you in a while.” A discreet man, Kendrick does not inquire further about the source of the cash. In the business of buying and selling gold bullion, you learn to comply with the letter of the law, while avoiding conversational topics that can jeopardize one’s own plausible deniability. While his clientele is mostly legitimate, I’m certain the most lucrative of his customers are criminals - and he smart enough to know not to ask the sort of questions that open up a line of liability for him. So long as the proper theatrics of anti-money-laundering protocols are observed, everyone is technically in the clear. I hand him the three $10k stacks and he pulls the bands off them and puts the entire block in his high-speed currency counter. After a second, the machine spools up and the digital counter swiftly runs from zero to three hundred. Thirty thousand dollars. “It’s real.” It’s real. His words hang in the air for a moment, and it takes a moment for them to sink in. One million dollars. Genuine currency of the United States of America, the most recognized and accepted form of money in the world - denominated in crisp, non-sequential bills. I hold my face as neutral as possible, but my excitement made me slightly dizzy, and I am glad I was sitting down. “What’s the spot price of Gold today?” Kendrick’s eyes drift to his laptop computer, where the current day’s commodities prices were fed to him via a live stream. “$1334 Ask, $1335 Bid.” I nodded my understanding.Precious metals bullion trade in troy ounces, and prices are quoted on a per troy oz basis, depending on the specific type of bullion (bars, coins, make), there are different markups from the quoted price. Depending on the specific form, Gold is typically marked up by USD$20 to $60 over the day’s quoted Bid price, and sells for $5~10 over the Ask. “What do you have in inventory right now for gold?” “The usual. South African Kugerrands. American Eagles. Canadian Maples. Oh, I do have a lovely Credit Suisse 5oz bar that somebody just sold to me, and I’m happy to let it go for $25/oz over spot.” I quickly did the mental math calculation. With the hard-cap spending limit of $10,000 before I trigger any mandatory anti-money-laundering paperwork, $1335/oz works out to about seven troy ounces of bullion I can buy, without forcing Robert to fill out invasive forms about me and my identity. “I’ll take the 5oz Credit Suisse bar, and two American Gold Eagles.” Kendrick pulls out a calculator and taps in the numbers, “So five troy ounces at 25 over spot plus Eagles at $50 over spot works out to nine thousand six hundred and -“ “Take ten grand and keep the change.” I interrupt. “I will be back for more.” He raises his eyebrow, but says nothing. “Thank you. I’ll be right back.” He counts back $20,000 and hands it to me, taking the $10,000 in the back room of his office and returning with the 5oz Swiss bar and two heavy 1oz American Eagles, along with a receipt for US$9675. I pause for a moment and hand him back one of the $10,000 stacks. “I know the limit is $10k in transactions per day. Consider this pre-payment for a purchase tomorrow. Your call, on a mix of anything up that totals up to $9500. Keep the rest for you and Katie.” A barely-perceptible smile flickers across his face, then his face was clear again. “Sure thing.” There’s nothing like the feeling of holding physical gold - the density, color and heft of the metal is like no other substance on earth, and it is no wonder that since its discovery, every culture on Earth treated gold with awe and respect. With 18 hours left before I can understand my legal options, there’s only two things I know for certain: 1. The money is real. 2. At least one person knows exactly where I live, and where the money was dropped off. I need to get mobile. I need to get mobile and off the grid ASAP.... to be continuedIf you'd like to be the first to get updates to this story, please add me kai chang 張敦楷 (kaichang) on Twitter. Part 2 (of 10) is being written right now, will be announced on Twitter. 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