Moorhead waitress gets to keep $12,000 tip
After the story prompted national headlines, authorities here said Thursday that police will return to the waitress the $12,000 left behind in cash by a Fryn' Pan customer.
In a news conference Thursday afternoon, Assistant Clay County Attorney Michelle Lawson said the money could not be tied to a criminal investigation, and the waitress would get a check for the $12,000 later in the day.
Although Lawson said the national interest in the story did not affect the end result, she admitted that the overwhelming amount of calls and messages to the police department sped up the process.
"This was pushed forward more quickly than it would have normally been," she said. "Literally, the dispatch center and the courts were inundated with calls. You can't run your agency that way."
Stacy Knutson of Moorhead had contacted police after finding the bundled rolls of various denominations in a takeout container from a different restaurant while waiting tables at Fryn' Pan in Moorhead.
Police initially told her she could have the money if no one claimed it but later seized it, saying it was part of a drug investigation.
Craig Richie, Knutson's lawyer, said at the news conference he took the case for free having never seen a similar situation in nearly 40 years of practicing law. He said he client never lost faith about her apparent good fortune, and that her family will likely use the money to pay off bills.
"She believed that God would provide for her no matter what," he said. "Even throughout this process, she believed that the right thing would happen."
Knutson said she considered the $12,000 a tip when no one claimed it after 90 days. She filed a lawsuit last month to get the money back from authorities.
"I do know that the person gave me what was in that to-go bag," Knutson wrote in the lawsuit. "Thus as I understand it, it is mine." She had followed the diner to her car and tried to return the box but the lady said, "No, I am good; you keep it," the lawsuit said.
When Knutson went back into the kitchen and opened the box, she found wads of bills in the box. Authorities said a police dog detected a drug odor on the cash.
In February, the money was officially administratively forfeited as being associated with controlled substances, Lawson said.
But after police were unable to tie it to a specific crime, it became possible for the money to be returned to Knutson.
"That normally doesn't happen," Lawson said. "It's not normal for us to come up with $12,000 that we can tie to drugs, but we can't tie to any particular drug dealer or any particular
Once no leads were found and the investigation was considered inactive, Lawson said, the actual cash was deposited "some time ago" into an account.
On Thursday, Lawson and Richie signed a stipulation that allowed Clay County District Court Judge Galen Vaa to sign an order returning the money.
Lawson said the order was signed about 2 p.m., and Richie said the check would likely be delivered to Knutson later Wednesday.
Richie, who said Knutson had been overwhelmed by the attention over the past few days and opted not to attend the news conference, praised her integrity for contacting the police.
Lawson also thanked Knutson for turning in the money, citing public safety concerns involved whenever a person comes into possession of a large amount of cash in suspicious circumstances.
Despite the positive end result, Lawson said the process was tainted by the many negative messages directed at police after the story attracted wide notice.
"This fantastic police department has received more messages and more calls today that are negative and menacing and threatening," she said. "Shame on people for that."
After it was published on InForum.com Tuesday and in The Forum on Wednesday, the story was picked up a number of news outlets, such as ABC, CBS, Fox News, CNN, USA Today and the Washington Post.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535