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Customer tries to cash bank check, ends up in jail

For 28-year-old Ikenna Njoku, what should have been a simple check deposit turned into  four days in jail and losing his car and job.
Image: Ikenna Njoku
Ikenna Njoku of Auburn, Wash., says he was mistakenly jailed for four days after he tried to cash a Chase cashier's check at a Chase bank branch. Tha bank has apologized.KING 5 News

For 28-year-old Ikenna Njoku, what should have been the simple act of cashing a check turned into four days in jail and the loss of his car and job.

A year ago Njoku, a construction worker, had just purchased his first home and qualified for a federal rebate for first-time home buyers on his tax return.

He says he requested to have the rebate deposited directly into his Chase bank account in Auburn, Wash., but when the IRS rebate arrived, he found out that Chase had closed his account because of overdrawn checks. The bank deducted $600 to cover what he owed and mailed Njoku a cashier's check of $8,463.21 to make up the difference.

When Njoku arrived at the bank to cash the Chase check, he says the teller immediately became suspicious.

“When I walked in, the teller looked me up and down and asked if I worked for Chase,” he said. “She asked me questions like where did I get the check from. I sat there for half an hour while they researched the check.”

Njoku got impatient and said he would run an errand and return.

When he returned the bank was closed, so he says he called Chase's customer service, who told him to return the next day. But when he did, bank officials insisted the check was fake. The police soon arrived to arrest Njoku on forgery charges. Njoku was held in jail four nights, even though Chase called the Auburn police detective handling the case and left a message saying the arrest was a mistake, according to Njoku's lawyer. But it was that detective's day off, so Njoku stayed in jail through the weekend.

"He had two forms of valid ID, a check issued by Chase, he walked in there during normal business hours. I don't see any valid basis for suspicion in the first place," said Felix Luna, Njoku’s lawyer. The Seattle attorney took on Njoku’s case about two months ago. The story was first reported last week by KING 5 News.

Njoku, who was born in Seattle and whose family is from Nigeria, says he was extremely embarrassed by the situation.

Njoku’s car, which he drove to the bank the day he was arrested, was towed and ultimately auctioned off because he couldn't pay the impound fees to get it back. Because he needed the car to get to his job, he lost the temporary construction job he had as well. Now Njoku uses his mother's car and gets construction work wherever he can find it.

Luna said he believes the bank may have violated federal laws prohibiting discrimination in banking transactions based on race or presumed national origin.

Even after admitting its mistake, the bank did not immediately reissue another cashier's check to Njoku or give him the more than $8,000 they were retaining, Luna said. It took about a month before Njoku received the money after the Auburn police department released the original cashier's check to him.

Despite repeated efforts to contact Chase, Njoku and his lawyer said they heard from the bank for the first time last week, more than a year after the June 2010 event. Luna said a Chase lawyer contacted him July 6, saying he would look into the case and be in touch.

Then on Monday, Chase issued a public statement apologizing to Njoku.

"We have resolved the situation amicably," said Chase spokeswoman Darcy Donahoe-Wilmot. "We deeply regret what happened to Mr. Njoku and have apologized to him. Chase has already changed its procedures in branches to avoid situations like this."

Njoku released a statement saying he was grateful to Chase for resolving the issue.

"They made an honest mistake with the check, and when the right people got involved, they acted quickly to make amends," he said.

Luna would not comment on whether any sort of financial settlement was made and said that Njoku is happy that it's over.

Njoku now holds an account with Wells Fargo. He said his main goal was for Chase to fix the way it does business.