Lost and Found

Who knows what compelled the man--if indeed it was a man. Clues are few.
One day about ten years ago, someone walked into the First National Bank in Cortez and rented safe-deposit box number 509.

Inside it, he placed a battered 1979 Durango phone book, an empty 89-cent box of Tide and a Pringles can wrapped tightly in masking tape and containing only an unopened, extra-sensitive Guardian condom.

Then he vanished.

"You never know what you're going to find. It's like a mystery."
--Patty White, state director of unclaimed property.

In 1987 the Colorado Legislature passed a law making the state treasurer the custodian of unclaimed bank property: dormant checking and savings accounts, stocks and securities, gift certificates, money orders, insurance polices and safe-deposit boxes.

The money sits in holding accounts, earning $4 million a year in interest for the state. The contents of the abandoned safe-deposit boxes are transferred to the State Capitol, where today more than 12,000 envelopes clutter the treasury vaults.

Occasionally, if the property is worth enough or they have leads, state agents try to find the owners or their families. But some envelopes don't have names attached. Others hold no clues at all. It's impossible to track down every owner.

Instead, state agents rely on property owners to find them. Using advertising campaigns such as "The Great Colorado Payback," which lists people who have unclaimed property in Colorado banks, the state encourages people to scan lists in newspapers, on the Internet (www.Treasurer.State.Co.US) and at libraries.

If a match is found, heirs can use birth certificates, death certificates or other identification to claim property. So far, more than 200 people have claimed the contents of safe-deposit boxes. For other accounts, especially cash, the number stretches into the thousands.

Although there is no deadline to claim property, the state is running out of room for safe-deposit boxes. The unclaimed-property vault is already crammed; 2,000 more boxes will arrive next month.

This summer the treasurer's office will hold its first auction. While historical artifacts will be loaned to museums for safekeeping, valuables will be sold to the highest bidder, with proceeds going into a holding account for future claims. As for the non-valuables? They may be thrown away; that decision hasn't been made.

In the meantime, the property sits in storage, under the hum of fluorescent lights, waiting.

Box 1091.
An Austrian passport with a dried flower pressed between the pages.
A United States citizenship certificate dated November 10, 1900. The name: Ferdinand Chalada.

A patent for an exercise machine granted on November 24, 1903.
A leather wallet stamped "Compliments of John F. Rice Lumber & Building Material, Ouray, Colo."

Two hundred fifty dollars in gold coins. One hundred thirty dollars in bank notes.

A newspaper clipping: "Germans Held Air Supremacy to the Last."
A motto: "Because a man can make a big promise, it is no sign that he has a long memory."

White has been the state's director of unclaimed property for eleven years, since the program began. In that time, she has seen things that turn her stomach and break her heart.

She remembers two boxes in particular: one listed under a man's name, the other under a woman's. Each contained journals describing medical procedures. Each had graphic photographs of surgeries. Each listed the address of a hospital in Trinidad.

White got to thinking. Notes were written in a similar style. Photos seemed to have been taken with a similar camera. Faces even looked similar.

"We finally figured it out," she says. "The owner had a sex change. It was a before and after."

Snapshots of naked men and women. Letters from adulterous lovers. Names and addresses of illegitimate children.

"It's strange," she says. "By renting a box, people think they can keep others from knowing what they do. Like if they keep their past separate, it's gone."

White, 55, oversees the classification and storage of all items in the vault. She and two assistants sort through everything like archaeologists, separating antiques and personal papers according to value, keeping detailed logs, doing what they can to find owners.

Buffalo-head nickels. Rosary beads. Skeleton keys. Pearl earrings. Charm bracelets.

By the time they reach her office, artifacts are tarnished, dirty and worn smooth. Many are tucked inside velvet pouches, jewelry boxes and the soft folds of wallets.

Pistols. Shotgun shells. Knives. Pills, powders and capsules.
Banks have rules prohibiting the storage of contraband, but White has seen illegal items that could land their owners in prison.

"Once I found blank Social Security cards and blank driver's licenses from a county in Kentucky," she says. "We called the police right away."

Pencils. Grocery lists. Rubber bands.
"It's almost like people think they should have a security-deposit box and look around the room and say, 'Okay. Now, what should I put in there?'"

Blackmail letters. A tray of stolen jewelry. Applications for legal pardons. The journal of a man who thought he was Jesus.

"Oh, we get a lot of those," she says. "That, and letters from people who say the government owes them money."

An autographed copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf. The personal papers of a U.S. senator. The journal of one of Colorado's first black doctors.

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