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When a Lancaster County Sheriff's deputy stopped a brand-new Chevy Tahoe not long after the lunch hour along Interstate 80 on March 7, the Tahoe's radar detector caught the deputy's attention.

The gadget used to detect if a driver's speed is being monitored wasn't illegal.

But radar detectors also aren't common in rental vehicles taken on one-way trips, the deputy noted in a search warrant filed for Google records later, after he found $140,000 hidden in the spare tire.

Sheriff Terry Wagner said by the end of April, the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office Interdiction Task Force already had seized $1,041,080 in suspected drug money on I-80.

He said the task force, which works with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations Agency, has received national awards for its work.

Last year, it took $2,565,334 off the streets, according to an annual forfeiture report filed with the state auditor.

A big chunk of this year's money — 39% — came in just two stops eight days apart in March, including the one where Bee Hang, a California man, and his passenger, Christine Vue, were stopped for speeding about 5 miles west of Lincoln on their way to Denver and money was found in the spare tire.

Hang ended up ticketed for possession of drug paraphernalia. Vue wasn't charged.

But the sheriff's office stands to get up to 60% of the cash, seized through federal civil forfeiture laws because it is suspected to be drug proceeds.

In court records, sheriff's office investigators laid out the case for their suspicions. They say after the deputy noticed the radar detector, spotted a THC vapor pen in the SUV and got conflicting stories about where the two had been, a sergeant monitoring radio traffic did a Google search of the address in Hayfork, California, that Hang gave.

Investigators said it turned up aerial images of hundreds of marijuana plants being grown and cultivated.

While searching the Tahoe, a deputy noticed tool scrapes on the spare tire and found four large, vacuum-sealed packages of cash that added up to $140,000 hidden inside.

A search of Hang's and Vue's phones, done through a search warrant, showed evidence suggesting they were involved in the distribution of marijuana, investigators said.

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Wagner said it doesn't matter if it's money or drugs, it's all evidence of a crime.

"Possession of money with intent to purchase drugs is a crime like any other, and we investigate it like any other," he said in a recent interview.

Wagner said it's important that deputies don't just seize the cash and stop there but work to make a nexus to the drug trade, if one is there.

He said the task force's work has led to Drug Enforcement Administration searches in other states and the discovery of a marijuana distribution organization in Chicago and an operation in Omaha involving pounds of methamphetamine.

The Omaha case ended up being prosecuted federally.

"That was a really good case," Wagner said. "And if we had just seized the drugs and stopped there, we wouldn't have made that connection."

These were drugs headed to this area, he said. That isn't always the case.

He said when people ask how much law enforcement in Nebraska should care about a load of weed headed someplace else, he's quick to answer. It still impacts the drug trade as a whole, Wagner said.

In 2016, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to report property forfeiture seizures. According to this year's report released May 1, just 17 of 71 agencies seized property.

Each of the law enforcement agencies in Lancaster County — the sheriff's office, Lincoln Police, University Police and the State Patrol — were among those that did.

Lancaster County's biggest drug seizures

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

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