Gay Lynn Diffenderffer had no idea that her husband was growing marijuana at their Baltimore County home, her attorney says, until state police investigating his mysterious disappearance discovered about 100 plants in a locked basement.
Two weeks later, investigators found Michael Diffenderffer, 52, dead in his car — an apparent suicide that meant he would never face the drug charges brought against him when the marijuana was found.
But that didn't close the book on his 2011 case.
Federal prosecutors soon sought court permission to seize the Diffenderffers' Colonial-style home in rural Baldwin, near historic Fork United Methodist Church. They alleged that the home, which has an assessed value of $223,000, had been used in the commission of a crime — even though no one had been convicted.
Targeting property is a common practice — federal authorities recovered almost $4.7 billion in criminal, civil and administrative cases in fiscal 2012. Law enforcement officials say it takes the profits out of crime while raising money for local, state and federal agencies.
"The reason we pursue the forfeiture is that we want to eliminate the fruits of criminal activity and deter the criminal activity, and pursuing the proceeds is an excellent way to do that," said Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland. His office brings such "civil forfeiture" cases only when evidence warrants it, he added.
Critics contend that the practice can hurt innocent people and that the financial incentives can distort police priorities.
Law enforcement agencies can use civil cases to seek assets independently of criminal prosecution, and sometimes the civil cases are successful even when prosecutions are not.
A Baltimore Sun review of 63 recent drug-related cases in Maryland showed that property was forfeited in 30 of them, even though court records showed no conviction.
That broadens the usefulness of the system, according to prosecutors. But in rare instances it can lead to situations such as Gay Lynn Diffenderffer's.
"Your spouse ends his life suddenly and within weeks you receive notice that the house you lived in for many, many years may be taken from you," said her attorney, Gerald Ruter. "It's kind of hard to envision a worse scenario than that."
Diffenderffer fought the government action with Ruter's help so she could keep the house, which has two white rocking chairs on the porch and a view over acres of fields. Property records show that the couple bought the home in 1996.
Michael Diffenderffer left his house on Oct. 5, 2011, after writing a note telling his wife he would be back for dinner. When he didn't return that night, she contacted police.
Two days later, officers came to search the property — and uncovered the growing operation of about 100 plants and 4 pounds of harvested pot.
A judge signed a warrant for Michael Diffenderffer's arrest. But on Oct. 21, 2011, West Virginia state troopers found his body in a 2005 Acura MDX parked at a private hunting club. Authorities in West Virginia would not release the cause of death, but Maryland State Police said two empty pill bottles were found in the car.
The Maryland State Police and the U.S. attorney's office sought court permission in early November to seize the house.
Through her attorney, Gay Lynn Diffenderffer started negotiating with prosecutors. The legal wrangling continued for more than a year. In a deal finalized in January, she agreed to sell other property and pay the government $150,000 in order to keep her home, court records show. In the agreement, she did not acknowledge that the government had grounds to take the house. She declined to comment for this article.
Rosenstein declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but said prosecutors have latitude in deciding how to use their powers to seize property. "Some cases are more sympathetic than others," he added.
Criminal and civil forfeiture is a major source of revenue for federal law enforcement in many states. The law allows authorities to seize assets during a criminal investigation and hold them while prosecuting the case.
Authorities may auction such property for cash. Proceeds are sent to the Justice Department or the Treasury Department.