CLEVELAND: In the end, a contractor who found $182,000 in Depression-era currency hidden in bathroom walls got just a few thousand dollars and, he feels, some vindication.
The discovery amounted to little more than grief for Bob Kitts, who couldn't agree on how to split the money with homeowner Amanda Reece.
It didn't help Reece's financial situation either. She testified in a deposition that she was considering bankruptcy and a bank recently foreclosed on one of her properties.
As for the 21 descendants of Patrick Dunne — a wealthy businessman who stashed money that was minted in a time of bank collapses and joblessness, only to have it divvied up decades later in a similar economic climate — they'll each get a fraction of the find.
"I called it the greed case," said attorney Gid Marcinkevicius, who represents the Dunne estate.
"If these two individuals had sat down and resolved their disputes and divided the money, the heirs would have had no knowledge of it. Because they were not able to sit down and divide it in a rational way they both lost."
Kitts would later call his discovery "the ultimate contractor fantasy."
He was tearing out the bathroom walls of an 83-year-old home near Lake Erie on spring day in 2006 when he discovered two green metal lockboxes suspended by a wire below the medicine chest. Inside were white envelopes with the return address for "P. Dunne News Agency."
"I ripped the corner off of one," Kitts said during a deposition in a lawsuit filed by Dunne's estate. "I saw a 50 and got a little dizzy."
He called Reece, who had hired him for a remodeling project, at work. She got there within 45 minutes.
They counted the cash, piled it on the dining room table and posed for photographs. Both grinned like lottery jackpot winners holding an oversized check.
But how to share? She offered 10 percent. He wanted 40 percent. From there things went sour.
A month after The Plain Dealer reported on the case in December 2007, Dunne's estate sued, claiming the rights to the money.
By then there was little left to claim.
Reece testified in a deposition that she spent about $14,000 on a trip to Hawaii with her mother and sold some of the rare late 1920s bills on eBay and to a coin dealer. She said about $60,000 was stolen from a shoe box in her closet, but testified that she never reported the theft to police.
Kitts said Reece accused him of stealing the money and that she began leaving him threatening phone messages. Marcinkevicius doesn't believe the money was stolen but said he couldn't prove otherwise.
After Reece dropped her claim to the remaining $25,230, Cuyahoga County Probate Magistrate Charles Brown last month gave Kitts 13.7 percent and the rest to Dunne's heirs.
If the currency is sold at an appraised value of $38,592, Kitts will get $5,287 and each of the 21 heirs will receive $1,586. Heir Mary Curtis, who testified in court about her uncle's wealth, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Brown reasoned $157,000 would belong to the heirs because it was found in envelopes bearing Dunne's name.
About $25,000 was found in cardboard boxes with no identification in another bathroom wall. Brown determined that that money would belong to the property owner, Reece, but since she dropped her claim Kitts should get the money because he found it.
Reece didn't keep the money from the two finds separate, so Brown decided to split the remaining $25,230 on a prorated basis.
Reece, a mortgage loan officer, testified in a deposition that she's buried in debt, in part because of the real estate meltdown. She's loaded with credit card debt, and properties she bought in 2003 and 2004, near the peak of the real estate boom, have lost value.
A bank foreclosed on a Cleveland house she owns with $60,750 due on a $62,300 mortgage that she took out a week after the money was found.
Reece's phone number has been disconnected, and her attorney Robert Lazzaro did not return a phone call seeking comment. There were no court records showing that Reece had filed for bankruptcy.
Kitts' contractor business finally has picked up again. He said he lost a lot of business because media reports on the case portrayed him as greedy.
He said he feels vindicated by the court's decision to give him a share.
"I was not the bad guy that everybody made me out to be," Kitts said in an interview. "I didn't do anything wrong."
He's often asked why he didn't keep his mouth shut and pocket the money. He simply answers that he wasn't raised that way.
"It was a neat experience, something that won't happen again," Kitts said. "In that regard, it was pretty fascinating; seeing that amount of money in front of you was breathtaking. In that regard, I don't regret it.
"The threats and all — that's the part that makes you wish it never happened."