Whitfield County gets $821,000 from drug-money bust

A drug-money smuggling investigation last year led to the Whitfield County sheriff's office receiving more than $800,000 this week, Sheriff Scott Chitwood said.

The sheriff's office seized more than $2.2 million cash in September 2011 after a monthslong investigation into a Mexican drug cartel with connections to Dalton, Ga.

The money went through the federal forfeiture process and now -- a year later -- $821,000 has been awarded to the sheriff's office. Maj. John Gibson said this is the largest amount of cash the department has ever nabbed from one investigation.

"We have seizures on a regular basis, but the magnitude is pretty unusual," he said. "We have never seized that much money at one time."

Federal law stipulates law enforcement agencies can use seized money for capital projects, training or equipment, but it can't be used for salaries or raises, Whitfield County Administrator Mark Gibson said.

Mark Gibson is not related to John Gibson.

The sheriff's office most likely will use the money to buy vehicles, John Gibson said.

"We have a forfeiture fund that we work off of on a regular basis, and we use that money generally for patrol vehicles or unmarked vehicles," he said. "We also buy equipment and send officers to training that we normally couldn't afford."

The federal government divides seized money among the agencies involved in the bust and awards each a percentage based on how much work the agency did.

The Whitfield County Sheriff's Office initiated and led this investigation and received about 37 percent of the money. The Calhoun Police Department, Georgia State Patrol, the Sandy Springs Police Department and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency also assisted in the investigation.

Those agencies each received between 1 percent and 10 percent of the $2.2 million, John Gibson said. The federal government took the largest cut, he added.

"This case will bring about future arrests, not just here in Georgia but throughout the U.S.," he said. "It's not just a local issue, and that may be why the federal government decided to take such an unusually large chunk of the money."

The sheriff's office seized the money on Sept. 16, 2011, in Sandy Springs, Ga., after searching a privately owned bus. The officers found the cash hidden inside an air mattress and two 20-gallon air compressors.

The driver, Surizaday Cienfuegos, admitted she had been paid $5,000 to drive the bus to Mexico.

Mark Gibson said the find will give the sheriff's budget some breathing room.

"For a county of our size it's not every day one gets a close-to-$800,000 drug seizure," he said. "We're quite happy that the sheriff's office did a good job, and quite thankful our budget will reflect that."