Crime & Courts

He claimed diplomatic immunity. Feds at the Charlotte airport took his $250K anyway.

The cash was found in a black, carry-on suitcase at Charlotte Douglas International, wads of bills wrapped with multi-colored rubber bands, and stashed in a red plastic bag and a Nike shoe box.

In a court document, federal officials say the currency was shipped in denominations and packaged in a way that was “consistent with drug trafficking.”

But the money’s owner told law enforcement officers that the bills were for humanitarian purposes. Moreover, Robert Shumake said he was an ambassador who had diplomatic immunity from legal prosecution, the document says.

They took his $250K anyway.

Now the money — $252,140 to be exact — is at the center of tug-of-war that has surfaced in federal court.

In a filing this month, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte have asked the courts to turn over the currency to them for good.

Shumake, a Detroit businessman and the money’s erstwhile owner, has filed a similar claim to recover his cash.

In June, he told law officers who intercepted his money that it was to be used to help the needy in the Caribbean and Africa, and that as an ambassador for a group known as the International Human Rights Commission, he — and his money — were protected from prosecution, the document says.

Court documents show that Shumake has been involved in similar forfeiture court fights involving more than $300,000 seized at airports in Atlanta and Los Angeles.

In both cases, Shumake argued that the cash was for the nonprofit and that as one of the group’s ambassadors he was protected from the law.

The recent filing by the office of U.S. Attorney Andrew Murray of Charlotte paints Shumake in a different light. It claims the Michigan man currently is not a recognized ambassador for any organization, and that Shumake also has a criminal past.

Along with the forfeiture cases in Atlanta and Los Angeles, Shumake was charged in Michigan with obtaining money under false pretenses, the document says. He also was arrested on felony drug-trafficking charges in California involving the possession of more than $100,000 in cash, the document says.

Shumake could not be reached for comment. Calls to David Michael, the California-based attorney representing Shumake in the Charlotte case, were not returned.

In her filing earlier this year, Nicole Birch, Shumake’s attorney in the Atlanta airport matter, said that Shumake had been appointed as a diplomatic adviser for the Human Rights Commission for the “American and African Regions,” and that the seizure of $170,130 at the Atlanta airport had violated international law and the U.S. Constitution.

The sums of money in dispute meet the Department of Homeland Security’s definition of “bulk cash smuggling,” which customs officials say has become a popular way to illegally move amounts of $10,000 or more across borders or, with the use of airports, throughout the country.

In 2012-13, the most recent budget year available, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents say they arrested more than 520 individuals on money-smuggling charges and seized more than $59 million in bulk currency or monetary instruments.

The cash that was stopped in Charlotte in June, which included denominations from one dollar to 100, arrived at the airport on June 27, prosecutors say.

It was carried by a courier who said he had been hired by Shumake to get the cash to him in San Francisco, prosecutors say. When questioned, the courier produced a letter in which Shumake cited his ambassadorship and immunity, prosecutors say.

In two phone calls with airport officers that day, Shumake said the money had been raised the day before during a fund-raiser in his room at a posh Atlanta hotel at which “just two guys” had shown up to donate the entire amount, the new document says.

Federal prosecutors say neither Shumake nor his courier were licensed in North Carolina or anywhere else to transmit money.

On top of that, when an officer opened the plastic bag containing a sizable portion of the bills, he was met by a strong smell of marijuana, the document says. Later tests revealed that the suitcase, the money, the plastic bag and the shoe box all tested positive for traces of cocaine, prosecutors say.

According to the forfeiture motion filed in the Los Angeles case, the money seized at that airport there was “extremely dirty,” came in various denominations, and was wrapped in rubber bans with inconsistent bank labels — all signs of narcotic trafficking. A drug dog later found the scent of narcotics on the bills, the prosecutors’ motion says.

Earlier this year, Shumake was sentenced for defrauding a group of Michigan residents who hired him and his company for help in keeping their homes. The Michigan attorney general called his actions “despicable.”

Meanwhile, Shumake’s standing with the International Human Rights Commission seems to be a matter of debate.

While there are online reports that he is poised to become the group’s world chairman next year, a press release on the organization’s website says Shumake is not a member and has “never received authorization to represent” the group.

Michael Gordon has been the Observer’s legal affairs writer since 2013. He has been an editor and reporter at the paper since 1992, occasionally writing about schools, religion, politics and sports. He spent two summers as “Bikin Mike,” filing stories as he pedaled across the Carolinas.