BOISE - Former Coeur d’Alene gold and coin dealer Robert Leon Mertens is serving a 37-year term in federal prison for drug trafficking, firearms violations and money laundering - he’s been behind bars since 2004 - but his case brought good news to law enforcement agencies in Idaho on Wednesday.
That’s because after seven years, all appeals and asset forfeiture proceedings in the case have been completed, so the Idaho State Police got a check for $456,446 and the Coeur d’Alene Police Department for $18,630 as their shares.
Mertens was convicted in 2004 on 11 federal charges, including selling cocaine, marijuana and heroin at locations including a Sagle flea market, and laundering the money through his Coeur d’Alene business, Northwest Coin and Jewelry.
His upscale homes in Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint were seized, along with other assets determined to have been acquired with drug money, including $1.2 million in gold and silver coins and precious metals. Federal authorities took that stash by armored truck to Southern California and auctioned it off as part of the asset forfeiture process, drawing interest from collectors around the world.
“The investigation, prosecution and conviction of Robert Mertens was a success on many levels,” U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy J. Olson said Wednesday. “A drug trafficker who was harming Idahoans was removed from the community and received a lengthy prison sentence; through the financial investigation and forfeiture proceedings he was stripped of his ill-gotten gains, and through today’s equitable sharing of the proceeds of the forfeiture, we are able to financially reimburse and reinvigorate our state and local law enforcement partners.”
The Coeur d’Alene Police plan to use their share of the forfeited assets to boost future drug-enforcement efforts, said Sgt. Christie Wood.
For the ISP, which is facing a big budget crunch, the long-awaited payment will be enough to replace aging radios for its investigations division; the current system is more than 20 years old. “It’ll be extremely helpful,” said Col. Jerry Russell, ISP director. Still awaiting funding: radio replacements for the patrol division, which would cost $2.3 million, and for which there’s still no funding source. But Russell said getting the investigations radios is “certainly a good start,” and said, “It couldn’t come at a better time.”
Mertens repeatedly claimed he was a victim of “corrupt” government officials and prosecutors, and advanced various conspiracy theories to explain his crimes.
A federal jury found that from 1995 to 2003, he regularly sold drugs from his Coeur d’Alene business, his homes in Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, and a flea market in Sagle. Sometimes he traded drugs for guns or jewelry.
He also was convicted of federal firearms violations, including being a felon in possession of guns and brandishing a firearm during a drug trafficking crime.