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.
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.
"There are definitely items of historical value," White says. "It's kind of a shame to see them sitting here."
A ticket to an ice cream social. A wedding ring. A birthday card.
"It's like looking into someone's life," she adds. "Sometimes you feel like an intruder."
A letter dated February 22, 1906.
"I'm sorry to write you this letter, but it might as well be known to you now as later that I do not love you, and therefore do not care to live with you any longer. I know that you will feel badly, but I can not help it.
"I tried for six years to learn to love you well enough to marry you and I am glad now that we were never married. As we have never lived as man and wife in Colorado, we may as well separate now and let the past be forgotten.
"You must remember that we have not been as man and wife together since we first came here, and as there is not an agreement between us, you can do anything.
"I will close hoping that you will have a bright future and soon forget about me.
"Miss Mabel L. Clark"
A letter dated February 27, 1906.
"Mr. Jack Blevin:
"Now what in the world did you make an application for a divorce for? Are you crazy, or what ails you? You know that we were never married, and what are you suing for? You claim we were married in New York. Now you know that is a lye. I suppose you are doing this to ruin our good name or our folks name. So I would advise you to let the matter drop. Goodbye.
"Mabel L. Clark"
A letter dated June 8, 1908.
"Mr. J.E. Blevin:
"I thought I would write you a few lines to let you know that Mabel is dead and buried. It is a sad blow to me. I can tell you I always thought a great deal of Mabel, although she did not always use me right. But she is my daughter.
"As I understand it she died very suddenly. The doctor's certificate says hart disease was the cause of the death. Now I did not know that she was sick until I received that letter. Now if you know anything about it, kindly let me know if she had been ailing before this. This letter is rather short but I cannot write anymore at present.
"Respectfully yours, HM Clark"
An undated letter.
"Owing to the notoriety you have had, I do not care to rent to you any more. Mrs. Gatis."
Opening a safe-deposit box is easier than cashing a check. Walk up to a teller, fill out a form and pay a deposit. A customer is assigned a box number, given a key and charged a monthly rent ranging from $20 to $80, depending upon box size.
Then he is escorted to a private vault room, usually in the rear of the bank. Bank guards stand nearby, but their backs are turned. The owner places items inside the box and locks the lock. The property stays put until it is claimed by its owner.
If a safe-deposit box's rent goes unpaid for five years, the box is drilled open and its contents shipped to the state. Before that happens, though, a bank tries to find the owner.
So when a bank's boxes and envelopes arrive at the unclaimed-property vaults, they are already a puzzle.
A canvas bag weighing several pounds and containing hundreds of gold, silver, nickel and copper pieces. A Roman coin inscribed "Diva Faustina." A coin dated 1754 and inscribed "Hispaniarum rex Ferdinandus." An Italian five-lire piece stamped 1811. A Prussian coin marked 1819. A Spanish coin dated 1867. A Mexican peso from 1871. A gold medallion dated 1876.
The owner: Unknown.
There were five brothers in all, White recalls. Two appeared to be housepainters, one was married, one could have been a student and another seemed slightly retarded. The youngest did most of the talking.
Their parents had divorced when they were young. Their mother was seriously ill and had been for some time. They didn't remember much about their father. He had served in the Vietnam War and afterward was sentenced to prison. He hung himself in his cell with a sheet.
The brothers saw his name on a Great Payback newspaper list. They were excited. Their father had always said he would leave them something.
All five visited the treasurer's office to claim their father's safe-deposit box. Inside was a small scroll written in Vietnamese or Chinese. It could have been a museum-quality antique or a gift-shop souvenir. They couldn't tell.
White felt sorry for them. They looked like they could have used some money.
The brothers were polite. The scroll had belonged to their father. That was enough.
A pair of diamond earrings wrapped in cotton and tucked inside a sewing kit.
A $1,000 bond from the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Co. dated 1892.
A Lumberman's insurance policy.
A patent for regulating the weight or resistance of the action on a piano.
A receipt for the purchase of sheet music and pianos.
A pocket calendar with a brown lock of hair inside and the words "Lester's curl."
An address book dated April 21, 1907, with notes written on the pages:
"My Dear Grandson Lester:
"I hope you will appreciate what we have left you, and that you will think of the poor old man once in a while with good feelings. It is not a great quantity but there is enough money to give you a start. Now take good care of your money and use it to the best advantage for you know how hard it is to get. I don't forget.
"My advice to you is not to draw it all out at once. Only enough for your present use. And don't carry it around, and don't show it to eney one, and don't say how much you have left, for there is always someone on the lookout to rob you. And don't you show your bank book to eney one in this town or eney other.
"Now keep a still tongue and lay as little as possible outside. God bless you and your wife and give you both a long happy life. Say you both will think of the poor old people that loved you so."
"L.A. & E. Bennett. Goodbye"
"My last wish to you is to take good care of your money and don't squander it away, for we have bin years earning it. Study every dollar before you let it go out of your hands for this is your last chance. Make every dollar count. Don't be extravagant. You git all I have got, and may it do you a good deal of good.
"Now settle down and don't be wandering around. Doctor yourself up and live as long as you can."
"E. Bennett. Destroy this book when done with it."
White completes an inventory of another envelope. Her assistants double-check the contents.
A five-dollar bill. A pocket watch. A gold locket shaped like a butterfly. A note: "Found by Harry."
It's hard to work in the vault and not imagine who these people were, she says, not construct entire lives from the piles of forgotten photos, love letters and keepsakes. There are so many.
"You wonder what happened to them," she says. "You really do."
Contact Harrison Fletcher at his online address, firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 303-293-3553.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.