msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/4/2005 4:51:45 PM ET 2005-02-04T21:51:45

Police hit pay dirt Friday, digging up 3.6 million nickels that disappeared in December along with a trucker who was supposed to deliver them to the Federal Reserve Bank in New Orleans.

Authorities found the $180,000 in coins buried in a 4-foot-deep hole in the property behind a suburban Miami home. The nickels, still stored in their Federal Reserve bags, were in a wooden box covered with a plastic tarp.

A joint task force of Miami-Dade County police, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and other agencies were searching the property for marijuana plants, the Miami Herald reported on its Web site. Officers first found a cooler filled with nickels, the Herald reported, and, remembering the case of the missing coins, brought in metal detectors.

The detectors revealed the stash of nickels in the back yard. Authorities believe the box contained substantially all the nickels — almost 23 tons.

Investigators are still searching for the trucker, Angel Ricardo Mendoza, who disappeared after picking up the coins Dec. 17 at a Federal Reserve facility in New Jersey and setting out on the 1,100-mile trip. His rig was found empty Dec. 21 at a truck stop in Fort Pierce, Fla.

Miami-Dade police said Mendoza is a suspect in the case and is believed to be out of the country.

Detectives searching a smaller house behind the main residence discovered 88 plants believed to marijuana, Miami-Dade police said. Residents were being questioned Friday, an FBI spokeswoman said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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