WASHINGTON >> The offerings at the Down the Aisle bridal show in Atlanta appeared no different from what you would find in any bridal shop in America, except for the federal security guards who checked the customers for firearms, knives and explosives when they entered the building.
The racks were bursting with lace, tulle and taffeta, and the tables were lined with trinkets and bridal accessories. But the dresses were previously owned by an Alaskan drug dealer, and the runway models were federal employees.
The FBI seized the dresses, cake toppers and even children’s cummerbunds from a woman in Juneau who was convicted of smuggling heroin and methamphetamines into the state. Shipments would arrive at a beading supply store that she owned with her husband, and the proceeds would go toward the costs of her bridal shop, which was one street over.
The bridal show was part of an effort to find buyers for the 3,000-piece wedding collection that has been in the government’s possession for more than two years.
One of the primary functions of the General Services Administration is to find homes for property or forfeitures that the government can no longer use, by transferring supplies from one department to another, donating them to charity or putting them up for auction.
The money goes back to the Asset Forfeiture Program of the U.S. Marshals Service, which uses the funds to compensate victims or to share it with other law enforcement agencies that participated in seizures. The value of assets held by the agency is $2.2 billion, with the bridal lot from Alaska valued at nearly $500,000.
The agency has auctioned everything from Nike tennis shoes to convertible Ferraris seized after a crime – and even items that once belonged to the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski. But, said Dave Robbins, director of the Personal Property Management Office at the General Services Administration, this is different.
"I called to share it with some friends who used to work in the program," Robbins said, "and they said: ‘Wow. I never heard of anything like this before.’ So this is definitely one of the more interesting and unusual sales offerings and events."
The Marshals Service first tried to find buyers in Alaska, but the market was too small. The inventory was put on a barge to Seattle, then on a 38-hour truck ride to Atlanta, where a regional branch of the General Services Administration was tasked with figuring out what to do with it.
"You never quite know what kind of unusual things agencies have that they want us to work on for disposal," said Robbins, who has been at the agency for more than 15 years. "This is the first time we’ve had a major bridal asset seizure."
The items will be available for bidding through Thursday, and they can be viewed either by appointment at the bridal show or on the agency’s website.
Instead of just taking snapshots of the items and posting them online, the agency team decided to go one step further. They waded through the collection to curate the federal government’s first bridal boutique, complete with private viewings and a photo shoot with employees holding hands in make-believe matrimony.
The organizers wanted to make the show feel special for those who would be bidding on items for their big day in a drab government building. They converted a few large conference rooms into a network of wedding studios, designed to give potential buyers an upbeat shopping experience. The workers draped white cloth over conference tables and dressed up the walls with photographs of employees modeling the clothing.
"It was heartwarming to see that there was a lot of thought and effort put into repurposing these items," said Kristy Tubbs, who drove from Fredericksburg, Virginia, with her two daughters to view the lots and bid on them.
Tubbs, a marriage and financial counselor, was looking for items for some of the couples she works with. She bid on 16 full lots, which included mother-of-the-bride dresses, bridesmaid dresses, flower girl dresses, evening gowns and veils. She even bid on a diamond ring, something she was eyeing for herself.
"I want my husband to ask me to marry him again with that ring," she said. "I want to wear that dress to wash dishes."
She plans to give away some of the dresses to low-income couples or sell them at a steep discount. The items may come from a shady background, she said, but she is focusing on where they can go.
"There’s always a sunny side to something," she said. "When you walk in, you don’t see a crime or a victim. You see hope and joy and future and restoration."