Living In Cin: Dirty Money

I fought the law. And I won. Sort of.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway.

Money laundering is a third-degree felony in the state of Ohio. The fine alone can reach double the dollars involved, which means I could get slammed for close to $200,000 at my sentencing. Penalties at the federal level—the money did cross state lines—include forfeiture of property. Meaning there goes my house.

Lucky for me, all those possibilities have expired. The statute of limitations for money laundering is only five years, and since my involvement goes back much further than that, I can now confess in comfort:

I was directly involved in the clandestine laundering of almost $100,000 in cash. One-dollar bills, to be exact. The money, stuffed inside 11 canvas sacks, was quietly delivered to my home just off Madison Road near O’Bryonville. My wife and our two children (ages 9 and 11) acted as accomplices. About 25 other people were paid to participate, staggering their shifts to keep the project going day and night at full speed. My wife actually directed the whole operation, although in a courtroom, she could legitimately point her finger at others—the ones who dragged our entire family into a crime of which we had no knowledge until it was too late.

If you already jumped to the conclusion that drugs played a part in this story, they did. So did men with loaded guns.

Our home became the world’s weirdest sweatshop, although we did provide complimentary fast food, pop, and beer. Some brought their own bottled beverages, while others were assigned to bring bottles of Tide detergent. The latter went into our basement washing machine—hot cycle—along with two pillowcases at a time, each containing a few hundred dollars. The washed pillowcases were shaken out into the dryer, allowing the bills to fly freely—cotton setting—for about 15 minutes. The dry money was then carried in laundry baskets up to our dining room, where a crew with irons—steam on—smoothed out each one. These April-fresh bills were then stacked into packets of 50, wrapped, and returned to their canvas sacks. Wash, dry, iron, stack, sack, repeat.

Let’s back up a little. I have not yet mentioned the very first step, which was the Honey Inspection. It was the most difficult and tedious step, and requires some explanation: Most of the project’s scheduling was done to ensure that every chair around our dining room table was always occupied, allowing the Honey Inspection to be continuous. In the table’s center, instead of the traditional large platter and roast turkey you might expect, there was a small mountain of dollar bills. Each seated person took several fistfuls from the mountain and carefully separated the dollars into two groups: the bills that were OK, and the bills that were stuck together with honey. The OK ones were sent straight to the stacking area. The stuck-together ones were diverted to the pillowcase brigade.

A smaller team performed this same step with smaller mountains at our living room coffee table. Yet another group was doing so in the kitchen, because time was short and there were many, many thousands of stuck-together bills. To be more specific, about two-thirds of the cash, approximately $60,000, was slathered with honey. The people expecting the money—surely you don’t think it belonged to us—were angry about the delay, and especially about the honey. Trust me, they were not people who screw around. They had given us a hard deadline to return it all by Friday afternoon at 5 p.m., or there would be, as they say in the movies, severe consequences. It was Wednesday, and this was no movie.

At this point, you undoubtedly have several questions. The most prominent is probably, When will you get to the drugs? But more pressing inquiries deserve attention first, such as: How did all that money get smeared with all that honey? How did it end up at your house? Who were the people not screwing around? When will you get to the guns?

Let’s back up a little more. The most basic question has not yet occurred to you, and since it never will, I shall provide it: Why would 10 people put on bathing suits, pour several gallons of honey all over their bodies, and then roll around in a kiddie pool filled with $1 bills? While this is not an intuitive question, the answer should be obvious: Because each person, upon standing up, gets to keep every dollar that stuck to them. That was the simple idea behind “Rollin’ In The Dough,” the latest, wackiest contest at Y-107, Nashville’s most popular radio station in the spring of 1988. On a seemingly innocuous Monday afternoon, many thousands listened as 10 winners took turns rollin’ in the cash and gettin’ sticky with it. And what a wonderful mess it was. Y-107 created another great on-air event, the winners went home with a total of $7,644, the bank that supplied the cash got it back (with a reimbursement for the winners’ takings), and everyone was happy. Until Tuesday morning, when the bank called the station; they were no longer happy. Inside their vault, something was literally dripping from the canvas sacks they received.

See, there are laws about this kind of stuff, and someone broke them. Defacing U.S. currency means more than just drawing a penis on George Washington’s nose. It also includes anything that renders the currency “unusable,” which this money clearly was. The bank, responding as required, contacted the U.S. Treasury Department. The honey had hit the fan.

Let’s back up further still. How did this clearly ridiculous but officially serious incident in Nashville become the problem of a family in Cincinnati? The unhappy bank was not, as you might assume, located in Nashville. Y-107’s parent company was a Cincinnati-based corporation named Jacor, and it was a man by the name of Chris Weber, Jacor’s chief financial officer, who authorized Central Trust Bank to send the cash from Cincinnati to Nashville and back. Weber was now personally liable for the dripping sacks, and was informed that the Treasury had commenced an investigation.

Jacor’s corporate response was, Gosh, we’re really sorry, give us back the money and we’ll clean it. The U.S. Treasury’s response was, Gosh, we’re really sorry, but this money is now evidence that we’re keeping for the jury. Tense negotiations worthy of Yalta ensued, which somehow resulted in the following agreement: the cash would be made available to Jacor, but it had to be delivered back to Central Trust in 48 hours—not a minute later—completely clean. Or else.

Backing up one last time: In addition to operating radio stations around the country, Jacor owned Critical Mass Media, a market research company. Its offices on Erie Avenue employed 25 people, and its president was Carolyn Gilbert, my wife. On Wednesday morning, Carolyn answered the phone and was told to immediately suspend all of the company’s operations, because, well, there’s this situation…

After absorbing a story that sounded like a rejected pilot for a 1975 sitcom, Carolyn told everyone on duty to stop everything and reconvene at her house for new assignments and shifts. Soon after, a car with the still-dripping sacks pulled into our driveway. I was contacted at work and warned what to expect upon returning home, which included being drafted into the assembly line. The operation continued without pause from Wednesday through Friday. Everyone was sworn to secrecy: Just act normal, don’t break routine or attract attention. The kids went to school, I went to work. Critical Mass Media employees went to work, too, though they couldn’t tell anyone what or where that “work” was.

It is time now to discuss the guns and the drugs. I must confess that I may have oversold the topic of guns: A security guard sat a few feet from our front door, in a Hawaiian shirt, wearing a pistol. That’s it. When the time came for him to get some sleep, another guy with a gun showed up, which allows me to use the noun in its plural form. I apologize for the over-dramatization. The drugs, however, did almost blow our cover. On Thursday evening, the doorbell rang at a time that was not near a shift change, prompting the security guard to stand up. It was useless to pretend nobody was home; we were numerous and loud. Carolyn opened the door.

The young man probably first noticed the pile of money on the floor and the laundry basket beside it, overflowing with bills. To his left, he saw me with the living room coffee table team, separating good dollars from sticky ones. To his right was a guy in a Hawaiian shirt, standing and glaring, one hand resting on his holster. The young man likely failed to notice the three dollars on top of our living room piano. That was my son’s allowance, which he left there without realizing it would soon be swept into the final cleanup. Crime does not pay.

“I’m from the pharmacy,” the young man said meekly, holding out the small bag. Carolyn remembered now—she had called for a prescription delivery. (Yes, folks, that used to be a thing.) She handed him a tip, not bothering with the pretense of going to find her purse. The young man blurted out, “I swear, lady, I won’t say a word to anybody,” and bolted.
OK, I may have oversold the topic of drugs, too.

The deadline was met, the money returned and declared clean. Everybody cheered, nobody went to jail, and, to my son’s great dismay, Central Trust got three extra dollars out of the deal.

For future reference: performing this entire operation on $92,356 (the reimbursed winnings, mercifully, were spared) is a two-day job. The deadline was met, the money returned and declared clean. Everybody cheered, nobody went to jail, and, to my son’s great dismay, Central Trust got three extra dollars out of the deal. Y-107 enjoyed its era of popularity, but as most stations do, it eventually changed call letters and disappeared. In Cincinnati, Jacor Communications also went away, folded into corporate consolidation. Central Trust Bank, same fate: it’s now PNC. Carolyn and I broke up, too, but we’ve stayed friendly, and the whole family with new spouses gets together often. That little pharmacy in O’Bryonville, however, is still there. Never said a word to anybody.

And U.S. currency? That’s the longest-lasting of all. We all know what happens when a receipt you’ve left in your pocket runs through the laundry, but to our dead presidents, it’s merely a refreshing spa; what we call “paper money” is actually a sturdy blend of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen. Take my word, it will come out undamaged and April-fresh. Looks even better when you iron it.

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