Contractor, homeowner at odds over fortune found in bathroom walls
Contractor, homeowner battling over money discovered in walls.
December 12, 2007
Most folks are happy to reach into the pocket of a little-used jacket and find a long-forgotten $10 bill.
Multiply that feeling by 18,200 and you will understand how Lakewood home-improvement contractor Bob Kitts felt when he pulled a giant cache of Depression-era cash from the walls of an 83-year-old Cleveland home he was renovating.
As he was ripping plaster from bathroom-wall studs, Kitts found bundles of bills totaling $182,000 wrapped in pre-World War II Plain Dealer news pages and tucked into boxes. The money is in such good condition, and some of the bills are so rare and collectible, that one currency appraiser valued the treasure at up to $500,000, Kitts said.
But there's a hitch:
The walls from which Kitts pulled the money aren't his walls. The house isn't his house. Nobody knows for certain whose money it is.
Yet Kitts claims it as his own. He and his lawyer have dusted off an obscure, centuries-old legal doctrine called "treasure trove" - a common-law finders-keepers provision - that they believe gives him top claim to the wealth.
Kitts' lawyer has drafted a lawsuit that he hopes will force Amanda Reece to turn over the money she has kept, or at least share it.
Then again, he may not be a cent richer. Several court rulings have established precedent that undermines the applicability of the treasure-trove doctrine under these circumstances, said Reece's lawyer, John Chambers.
Reece would have accommodated Kitts, but the handyman got greedy, Chambers said. Now Reece has no intention of backing down in the face of what she considers a shakedown.
"In fact, I look forward to asserting our position," Chambers said in an interview last week.
It may be up to a judge to decide, said Heidi Robertson, a professor who teaches property law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. And that judge may have a challenge.
"It's certainly not a slam-dunk," Robertson said.
Kitts and Reece, classmates at Bay High School back in the 1980s, celebrated together one morning in May 2006. He was in his second day of gutting her bathroom when he found a box below the medicine cabinet. Inside it was $25,200 in pristine bills.
"I almost passed out," Kitts recalled. "It was the ultimate contractor fantasy. I've ripped out walls in my house, and all I ever found was steak bones."
He called Reece. She rushed home. Flushed with excitement, they found another steel box in the wall, tied to the end of a wire nailed to a stud. In it was more than $100,000, Kitts said.
"It was insane," he remembered. "She was in shock - she was a wreck."
They found two more boxes, filled with a mix of money and religious memorabilia.
Kitts took some of the currency for an appraisal and learned that many of the $10 bills were rare 1929-series Cleveland Federal Reserve bank notes, worth about $85 each. There also were $500 bills and one $1,000 bill.
They traced the home's Depression-era ownership to a businessman named Peter Dunne, Kitts said. The money bundles had "P. Dunne" written on them, but no sign of its origin. Dunne apparently died unmarried and childless, leaving behind a mystery - a fortune thatwould be worth an inflation-adjusted $2.7 million in today's money.
But the joy, friendship and contractual bonds of the former classmates dissolved like melting snow amid the heat of all that money. Now Kitts and Reece speak to each other only through their lawyers.
Kitts accuses Reece of greedily reneging on a promise to give him a 10 percent finder's fee. Reece's lawyer says Kitts rejected that and returned with a demand - 40 percent or he would file a lawsuit.
"He's trying to extort funds from me by putting it in the public domain," said Reece.
Now she worries that thieves will take crowbars to her brick home's plaster in search of more loot. Kitts already did that to other parts of Reece's home without her permission and found nothing, Chambers said.
Ohio and most other states have no specific statute governing what happens when someone finds a once-hidden treasure, so common-law principles dating to pre-Revolutionary Great Britain come into play, said Cleveland-Marshall's Robertson.
That common law has a fairly definitive "finders-keepers" bent to it.
That's true even when the finding is done on someone else's property, as long as the finder had permission to be there, courts have established.
That doesn't mean Kitts is clearly the winner. Unless the two sides settle, a judge or jury will need to decide whether he found money that was, in a legal sense, "lost" or "mislaid," Robertson and other lawyers say.
Kitts asserts he found lost money, and court rulings in Ohio establish that treasure trove's "finders keepers" law does indeed apply to something that was lost, if there's no reason to believe any owner will reappear to claim it.
But if it was absentmindedly mislaid on private property rather than lost, the owner of the property on which the discovery was made becomes the safekeeper of the lost goods, according to case law and legal texts.
In either case, the holder must make a good-faith effort to find the original owner or heirs before cashing in.
Kitts said it would be unfair for him to take everything.
"I don't want to do that - I don't agree with the law," he said. "But you've got to start somewhere.
"For such a happy, exciting adventure," he added, "I can't believe it just went to [ruin] like this."