Carl Nelson and Amy Sterner Nelson's pre-pandemic lives look a lot different than the ones they live now. There are the obvious ways, and then there are the not so obvious ways, like the fact that they sold their house and their car, liquidated their retirement funds, and moved their family of six from a comfortable West Seattle home to Amy's sister's basement after the FBI seized almost $1 million from them in May 2020.
"We went from living a life where we were both working full-time to provide for our four daughters to really figuring out how we were going to make it month to month," Amy tells me. "It's completely changed my belief in fairness."
The bureau took funds from nearly every corner of the Nelsons' world, including, for instance, the savings Amy racked up from her decade as a practicing attorney and her later efforts as head of The Riveter, the co-working start-up she founded. But the FBI never even suspected Amy of committing any crime. It was Carl they were investigating—a probe that has not resulted in a single charge against him almost two years later.
In April 2020, agents showed up at the Nelsons' home and informed them that Carl—a former real estate transaction manager for Amazon—was under investigation for allegedly depriving the tech behemoth of his "honest services." In plainer terms, they accused him of showing favor to certain developers and securing them deals in exchange for illegal kickbacks. "That never happened and is exactly why I've fought as long and hard as I have," he says. "It's that simple."
Whether or not the FBI has come to that conclusion is still a mystery; its years-long investigation into Carl's alleged fraud has not yielded an indictment. Yet no such thing was necessary for the federal government to wreck the Nelsons' lives, costing them their home, their community, their jobs, their girls' place in their Seattle school, and their security for the future.
Perhaps more vexing: The FBI has, in some sense, subtly conceded that it didn't need to do any of the above to complete their investigation or to hamstring any supposed criminal operation run by Carl. Last week, the government agreed to a settlement: Of the original approximately $892,000 it seized, it will return $525,000, while Amy and Carl forfeit about $109,000. (The remaining sum has been depleted by court fees.)
"It's hard," says Amy, who is trying to recoup some lost assets via a GoFundMe. "Not much has changed for us." She notes that Carl is still a defendant in a massive federal lawsuit against Amazon, and they accepted the deal so that they'd have money for attorneys' fees. She adds that "it feels like the beginning of some justice." In their case, justice looks like losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
They're not alone. There was the Indiana man whose car was seized. And the Kentucky man whose car was seized. And the Massachusetts woman whose car was seized. And the Louisiana man whose life savings were seized. And the Texas man whose life savings were seized. And the countless Californians whose money and random personal possessions were seized. Sometimes the money is returned—often only when a defendant manages to lawyer up for a civil suit. Sometimes only part of it is. Sometimes none of it is. "Civil forfeiture is quite common," says Dan Alban, an attorney at the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm that often litigates similar cases. "The fact that the government can do this can obviously ruin lives, and it can ruin lives without anyone being convicted of a crime, without anyone even being charged with a crime."
Alban calls civil forfeiture a "high-pressure tactic." It's one of many the government uses, paralyzing defendants and sometimes stripping them of any ability to stick up for themselves. This is something Amy knows first-hand now. "If you can't afford to defend yourself, let alone feed yourself," she says, "it becomes complicated."
It's also lucrative. State, local, and federal governments have seized $68.8 billion via civil forfeiture over the last 20 years, according to a recent report by IJ. "The vast majority of seizures and forfeitures…are driven by the profit incentive," says Alban. "In most states and at the federal level, police and prosecutors get to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds. So they just have a very strong incentive to go out and seize whatever they can and try to forfeit it so that they can supplement their budget." Those assets then find their way into police slush funds, where they may be spent on things like submachine guns, parking tickets, or cash withdrawals that no one seems to be able to explain. They're also sometimes used illegally on things like gym equipment and Fitbits.
The forfeiture isn't the only thing that the Nelsons feel they've lost, nor is it the only intimidation tactic they believe the government has used in an attempt to strong-arm Carl into buckling. During our conversation, the only time Amy cries is when recounting the months she spent waking up before sunrise, getting her four young daughters ready, and driving them for an hour each morning to a faraway park. The reason: In the case that the government made good on the criminal indictment it had threatened, Carl asked if he could turn himself in so his daughters wouldn't see the arrest. The FBI refused.
"Even talking to you now, Billy, now that we have our money back, now that the government has said, 'We don't believe these are the proceeds of a crime,'" says Amy, "I am frightened of retaliation. I am frightened of saying anything. Because this is incredibly scary."