By SUSAN CARROLL
HOUSTON CHRONICLE June 2, 2011
A well-dressed Mexican man checked into the ritzy Westin Oaks Hotel last week, bringing along with him a large, black rolling suitcase and a gym bag packed with nearly $1 million in cash.
For at least two days, the man came and went from the Galleria-area hotel room like any tourist, shopping in Houston's mega-mall, dining in local restaurants and even taking in a movie, authorities said.
All the while, federal agents watched him, acting on a tip that the man was tied into money laundering for a drug trafficking organization. As he went to check out May 26, federal agents confronted him in the hallway outside his room. They asked him to step into another hotel room where they'd coordinated their stakeout.
The man seemed "shocked" and complied, bags in tow, said Michael Booker, an assistant special agent in charge with the federal Homeland Security Investigations in Houston. He didn't act surprised to find the money in the bags, agents said, but he did play dumb rather well.
"He immediately said, 'I don't know anything about the money. It was given to me, and I was told to deliver it,'" Booker said.
And, offering agents little to go on, he walked away from the money and the hotel room. Booker said they didn't have enough to hold the man.
"Unfortunately, it's not illegal to carry around large sums of money," Booker said. "We do have laws on the books for bulk-cash smuggling, but you have to meet certain criteria."
Booker said agents suspect the money was laundered drug proceeds that were headed back to Mexico.
He said the man, who was in the U.S. on a valid visa, said the money was to be delivered to someone in Houston, but did not provide information on the drop-off. So HSI agents were left with the luggage, packed tight with $20 and $10 bills, totaling $995,020.
The cash will end up in the National Treasury Forfeiture Fund, which is used to support crime-fighting efforts, said Gregory Palmore, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman.
Booker said HSI agents were taken aback that the man was so casual carrying a million dollars. He had no locks on the luggage, and the cleaning staff came in and out of his room every day, Booker said.
"This was a well-dressed, clean-cut individual staying at a high-end hotel," Booker said. "You never would have suspected it."
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