To weary waitress Stacy Knutson, the $12,000 rolled up in a takeout box and left by a customer at her Moorhead restaurant table last year wasn't just a tip.

It was a miracle.

Unfortunately, she had little time to rejoice before police seized the cash, claiming it was drug money. On Thursday, Knutson was blessed yet again when the authorities had a change of heart and returned the money she was counting on to help pay her family's mounting medical bills.

"I never ever lost faith," Knutson said on Thursday night, minutes before she was handed her check.

The saga began in November. Knutson, 43, was a couple of hours into her normal graveyard shift at the 24-hour Fryn' Pan in Moorhead when she noticed a takeout box that a customer had left at her table.

Knutson followed the woman to her car to give it back, but the customer told her, "No, I am good, you keep it." After taking the box back inside, Knutson realized that it was too heavy to contain just leftovers, so she opened it and was shocked to find wads of cash rolled up in rubber bands.

Despite the fact that her family "desperately needed the money," Knutson decided to notify police. Officers told her to wait 90 days in case someone claimed the money, but authorities later decided to hold the cash longer because they said it smelled strongly of marijuana and a drug dog detected a residue of narcotics on it.

An offer of a $1,000 reward

Police offered to give Knutson a $1,000 reward for turning in the money, but she filed a lawsuit last month seeking all the cash. "As Christians we believe that there are angels among us, and I do not doubt this can be a testament to that," Knutson said in the suit. "It is a complete miracle to see our prayers answered, but then difficult to face the reality of the struggle it is to obtain it from the Moorhead Police Department."

Attorney Craig Richie said Thursday he had planned to argue that almost all paper money in circulation has drug residue on it.

Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson said that from the moment Knutson's lawsuit became national news this week, "everyone in this department was getting unbelievable numbers of phone calls, blasting us, even wishing me and my family would die."

But Jacobson protested that police were just following procedure. "We knew public opinion would not be in our favor, and we got some black eyes," he continued. "But we think this result is awesome. It's wonderful for her."

Interim County Attorney Michelle W. Lawson said that in order to calm the chaos and let the police department get back to business, she asked a judge to authorize the department to release the cash immediately. "Unfortunately, this came across as a case of government corruption, but it's really a story about a citizen doing the right thing and the police doing the right thing," Lawson said.

Knutson, who hadn't been able to sleep for the past couple of days, said she was thankful that everything was resolved. Money has been tight, she said. Within the past year, her family has made several trips to the hospital, including when she fractured her knee last May and had to be off the job for more than a month and when her husband was hurt at work. Knutson currently is making ends meet by working two part-time jobs, in addition to her full-time gig at the Fryn' Pan.

The decision to give her the money also drew instant rave reviews from community members. "It couldn't have happened to a more appropriate person," said the Rev. Jeff Seaver, a pastor of Knutson's church, Triumph Lutheran Brethren. He said Knutson often helps provide child care at church services. "She hasn't had it easy ... She works really hard," he said.  

"This is a woman with five kids who has been a waitress for 18 years," Richie said. "She and her family were praying and asked God's intervention to touch these people's hearts, and that's what happened. It was about God providing for her."

Knutson was back waiting tables Thursday night. 612-269-0504 612-673-4495