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ZEDELGEM, Belgium – On a Saturday evening two weeks ago in Zedelgem, townsfolk were disturbed by the wail of a siren and the shriek of tires, the din of a high-speed car chase that broke the tranquility of their sleepy city.
Suddenly, cash was flying through the air like confetti at carnival.
Dozens of people rushed out of homes or cars to grab a share of the accidental bounty: about 1 million euros ($1.3 million) in all. The small fortune had flown from a safe that cracked open when the fleeing robbers panicked and threw it out the window.
"It was," recalled Mayor Patrick Arnou, "a rainstorm of money." Everyone from kids to the elderly ran out to take part in the free-for-all.
Now, the cops want the money back, and the townspeople face a thorny dilemma: Play things badly, and you could face two years in jail. Keep a poker face, and the money could be yours to keep.
A veil of suspicion has fallen over the town: Neighbors watch neighbors as police go door to door, questioning townsfolk about what they did — and what they saw others do.
"People talk about nothing else any more in this town," said Arnou. "In the street itself, there is an atmosphere of bitterness."
Some Zedelgem inhabitants who missed the windfall said they understood the actions of their fellow townsfolk, but insisted the size of the cash pile should have made them think twice. "If it were a 20 euro note," said 77-year-old pensioner Hector Clarysse, "I'd pick it up, too, and join in."
But he added: "If you pick up so much money, you know it's not normal."
It all started when the robbers broke into a home in a neighboring town, and made off with the safe. The getaway car was soon identified; by chance a motorcycle police officer spotted it and gave chase.
When the cop and robbers hit Zedelgem's Ruddervoordsestraat, a street lined by simple red-brick row houses, the thieves tried to shake off the officer by throwing the safe in his way. As it careened down the asphalt, the box shot open: A cloud of bills — some worth as much as 500 euros — swirled through the air and drifted down.
Dozens of wide-eyed people flooded the street, grabbing handfuls of cash. Drivers got out of their cars, snatched money and sped away. One lady even came out of her house with a broom, Arnou said, and swept the money inside.
Police quickly returned and literally plucked cash from the hands of people who were too slow in stashing it away.
Arnou says authorities have secured nearly half of the million euros that were originally in the safe. But the rest of the cash has disappeared into the hands of those who happened to be on that street in Zedelgem. As for the robbers, they have still not been caught — as police attention was diverted by trying to retrieve the money.
A disheartened Arnou says his citizens should have known better. After all, he points out, the money belongs to innocent people who are now out of 1 million euros.
"What we have seen is beyond decency," said the mayor.
Once the adrenaline rush subsided, some people reached the same conclusion and handed back what they found. Late Wednesday, a couple drove from Antwerp, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) away, to hand over 16,200 euros they had picked up driving through town.
Arnou designated the mailbox outside city hall as a spot for people to hand over money — no questions asked. One contrite individual wrapped a big wad of money in an envelope and deposited it there.
Not a good idea.
Once word got out, thieves tried to unhinge the heavy stone letterbox over the weekend and make off with its contents. It didn't work and, the postbox stood there half-cracked for days — a sad testament to human greed. On Thursday, Arnou watched as workmen repaired the postbox and encased it deeper in concrete.
The case has triggered a passionate debate in Zedelgem.
"There is a major discussion between people who think it should be given back and those who say 'keep what you got,'" Arnou said. "We are talking about sharp debates and opinions are very divided."
But for local prosecutor Jean-Marie Berkvens, things could not be clearer: "Fraudulent concealment," he said, "carries a maximum jail penalty of two years."
At the Cartouche bar, across the street from the city hall postbox, bar owner Emely Derous has been moderating between people on both sides of the divide.
She says picking up the money is just human nature.
"Jokingly they say: I would have done it this way or that way to keep as much as possible," Derous said. "And yes, I might have done the same thing myself. I think everybody thinks that way."
Police wants them to change their minds.
In a letter sent around to townsfolk, police again asked for a return of the money and added: "If you have additional information regarding people who picked up money, pass it along to our services."
In those magical minutes that Saturday, it remains unclear whether anyone took out a camera or a mobile phone to capture the moment. And there's no CCTV on the street.
The lack of evidence only adds to the suspense for mayor Arnou. But the consequences promise to be serious.
"For now, police are still trying benign ways," he said. "Once everyone has had the chance to talk and it turns out they still have money, then the legal cases will come."