9 Investigates: Criminals sneaking millions in cash through Charlotte airport

CHARLOTTE — Thousands of people will fly through Charlotte’s airport this week, with luggage full of Christmas gifts. But criminals are traveling, too -- packing their suitcases with cash connected to drugs, gangs and human trafficking.

Federal agents say finding that hidden cash is the first step to taking them down.

Wads of cash -- hundreds of thousands of dollars hidden in suitcases and buried underneath clothing or stashed in secret compartments.

“This was in someone’s sweatshirt,” said Chris Healy, a deputy special agent in charge with Homeland Security said when referencing photos of seized cash. “Deodorant -- Degree deodorant -- you’re looking at large currency amounts. Those are 100s. I want to say that’s $130,000.”

Healy told Channel 9 that every year, millions of dollars get funneled through Charlotte Douglas.

“We see anywhere between $3-$5 million,” he said. “They do it on their checked bags, in their carry-ons.”

Healy said the cash is tied to human trafficking organizations, narcotics organizations, and gangs -- and that the airport is used as a jumping-off point for a pipeline used by criminal organizations to bring in marijuana, meth and opioids from California, northern Mexico, Texas and South Florida.

Much of the cash carries residue from drugs, a scent that criminals try to hide from detection dogs with things like dryer sheets.

Channel 9 spent a morning recently with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, scanning luggage with their K-9. Within minutes, the dog alerted to this suitcase from Washington D.C., telling the officer twice that there could be drugs inside.

Discovering drugs and seizing cash is just the beginning, though. What comes next is often a long, tedious investigation to follow the money trail.

“That money is the only way we can really impact these organizations and take them down,” Healy said.

Agents told Channel 9 that while they often seize the money, they don’t often arrest the people carrying the cash right on the spot. They have to build a case and connect the cash to a crime.

A passenger can file a claim to fight that seizure in court to get the money back.

(WATCH BELOW: K-9 sniffs out 88 pounds of illegal ‘homemade sausages’ in luggage)