Judge orders more than $1M to be returned to exotic dancer

A federal judge in Nebraska ordered the government to return more than $1 million to a California exotic dancer who says she saved the money one dance at a time.

The ruling came in an opinion last week after federal authorities claimed at trial the money -- $1,074,900 -- was the product of illegal drug sales.

On March 3, 2012, Nebraska State Patrol Trooper Ryan Hayes pulled over a couple – Rajesh Dheri and his wife, Marina – on Interstate 80 near North Platte for driving 93 mph in a 75-mph zone.

Hayes questioned the couple as to where they were going. Dheri explained they had rented the Mercedes SUV in Los Angeles and were driving back home to New Jersey with various stops to visit friends and family.

Before he let the couple go, Hayes asked them if they had anything illegal in the car. The couple said no and agreed to let him search it. He found a duffel bag lined with dryer sheets and stuffed with rubber-banded bundles of $100 bills totaling $1,074,90, according to court documents.

Hayes detained the couple and brought them to Nebraska State Patrol where a drug dog indicated the “odor of controlled substances emanating from the currency," the official complaint said.

The Dehris said they were taking the money to New Jersey for their friends for a business deal involving a nightclub.

The U.S. Attorney’s office argued that both the amount of money and the way it was stored was indicative of drug trafficking.

Tara Mishra, the Dheri's friend, testified last month at a bench trial in Omaha that she earned the money as an exotic dancer and had given it to the couple to invest.

In his ruling, Judge Joseph F. Bataillon said the canine alert held little weight in the case because the government offered no statistical support to back it up.

"For all the court knows, there is a 90 percent chance that all money is drug tainted," the judge said, but the government "left too many unanswered questions and had a general failure of proof in this case."

The money, plus interest, was ordered to be returned to Mishra.