Show Me The Money

<B>Vicki Mabrey</B> On Soldiers Who Stumbled Onto A Fortune in Iraq

"The treasure hunt was on. It was like a fever, and these guys caught the money fever," says Zucchino. "And people were running through the bushes and looking in old buildings, and turning over garbage dumps, looking everywhere."

And no one had the money fever more than the ultimate scroungers, Matt Novak and Jamal Mann. "Why can't it be us that find the money," says Mann. "I wanted the chance to get some."

He got the chance that night with Matt Novak and a small group of other soldiers. Less than a mile from base, they saw a building just like they'd heard about. They decided to break in, with Novak in the lead. Inside there were 50 more metal boxes, like the ones from earlier that day.

"The floor actually looked like it was made of them. They were jammed in there very tight," says Novak. "We all took turns [getting it open]. When it finally opened, money's all over."

Novak and the others had found another $200 million, in hundred dollar bills. What were people saying?

"Holy crap," says Novak. "Oh my God!"

A while later, the lieutenant went inside, along with First Sgt. Eric Wilson. Novak says both men outranked him, and neither one was taking charge.

"I'm like, 'Hey, first sergeant. Aren't you retiring soon?' Threw him a stack of bills," says Novak. "And then Mann starts having a conversation with him: 'Don't you have kids going to school?'"

Novak says that's when the power of the money took hold, starting with a comment from First Sgt. Wilson, a comment Wilson denies to this day.

"And he's like, 'If you're gonna do this, do it smartly. Take only the used bills. Get rid of the new bills in the boxes,'" says Novak. "And then … there was a moment that everything turned … evil. The air was thick…The looks had changed. You could see that everyone was just out for themselves."

"What do you mean, evil?" asks Mabrey.

"Have you ever been in a room with that much money?" asks Novak, adding that another soldier actually talked about killing someone to keep the discovery quiet.

"Did you think, 'This money belongs to somebody. We shouldn't take someone else's money,'" asks Mabrey.

"Who did it belong to?" asks Novak. "Who did it belong to, Saddam?"

Novak says money was everywhere. They were stuffing wads of cash in their pockets, and Novak and another soldier dumped a box into a nearby canal. Mann helped them dump another. They figured the scuba gear Novak scrounged earlier would come in handy to retrieve those two boxes with $8 million inside. And they stashed another $600,000 in loose bills in a palm tree.

When Maj. Rideout, who'd locked up the money from the previous find, showed up, he knew immediately that something was wrong.

"Well my God! You walked right across the street, you know, 20 feet away, in this palm tree, and there's a wad of cash stuck in the fork of a tree, you know," says Rideout. "Right there in plain-sight view. And it was like, 'OK, you know, we have a problem!'"