Memory boxes

Unclaimed property staff reunites items with owners
Friday, June 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:58 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

The box holds two dozen love letters, a marriage certificate and pictures of two lovebirds in a typical ’70s style: Roger is proudly showing off a long moustache, sideburns and a tight-fitting white suit as Barbara glances at him as if under a spell.

Gloria Jett gets paid to go through safe-deposit boxes. The state’s Unclaimed Property division staff supervisor’s job is to find the Roger and Barbara and hundreds of other owners of safe-deposit box contents.

Some boxes were rented to people who have died, others were left behind with at least three years of unpaid rent. “It strikes me how people rent them out to safeguard their privacy but don’t realize it takes money every year, and when they can’t pay the rent anymore or forget about it, their property gets a little bit more out there and is turned back to us,” Jett says.

Every bit of useful information is collected by diving headfirst into the boxes’ content. “It’s hard not to get carried away with all the peculiar things you find in some of them,” staffer Lisa Wehmeyer says.

Every three years the storage shelves fill up and need to be emptied. This is what motivates the team of box detectives. “You always wonder what happened to (the owners) when you come across such romantic stories, and it just kills me to see all these memories being destroyed,” communication officer Suzanne Archer says.

Jett was the first to be on the special team, named in 2001. Then, in fact, she was the only member. Now she’s supervisor of a three-member staff. She likes to think of herself as “the Nancy Drew of unclaimed property,” but this is not her only nickname. “Especially around Christmas, we are called angels, Santa Claus and gifts from God,” she says.

The team, in collaboration with other office staffers, filed information from 800 abandoned safe-deposit boxes turned over to the state by banks during the past year.

Wehmeyer, Carrie Grellner and Karl Funk shuffle through piles of cardboard in the dim light of the basement of the Harry S. Truman government center in Jefferson City. A vintage-looking oil lamp, numerous pairs of scissors, coffee cups, coins, letters and photos are scattered on a dark brown wooden table.

Funk tries to gather information from the documents that could help identify owners. Grellner files every detail in a computer database.

The abandoned-box team is part of the larger Unclaimed Property division that has returned a nationwide record $100 million since 1993.

“We want to give every single penny back,” Archer says.

If an owner can’t be found, items of marketable value are sold at public auction after three years. The next auction will take place next fall. If the owner is later identified, the division can still reimburse the value of the item.

“The Internet has made our job much easier, and the information we need is just a click away now,” Jett says. Sometimes, the piles of documents, the Internet and the Yellow Pages don’t prove helpful. “Some troublesome ones engage us into thinking harder to consider all the possibilities of where they might be now and how to find connections,” she says.

To spread the word, state treasurer Nancy Farmer has promoted a search campaign through television, newspaper ads and events at local fairs. Some citizens have started to call the office spontaneously to check if it has anything for them.

“We want to return, besides valuable property, all these memories that shouldn’t be spared and that at some point of time were treasured,” Jett says.

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