In Cleveland, both a home owner, Amanda Reece, and contractor, Bob Kitts, have been left with little to show for the finding of a lifetime: $182,000 stuffed in a wall in a home in Cleveland. Due to their inability to agree on a division of the money, they ultimately attracted the attention of descendants of the previous owner — relatives who claimed and received some of the money. There are now some raw allegations of theft and double dealing. The case, however, raises some interesting questions of ownership over Dunne’s money.
The problems began in 2006 after Kitts tore open a the bathroom wall out of an 83-year-old home near Lake Erie in 2006. He found two green metal lock boxes suspended inside a wall by a rope below the medicine chest, hanging from a wire. Inside were white envelopes with the return address for “P. Dunne News Agency.” Reece is the former classmate of Kitts who hired him for the job. The two took pictures for the local media and then Reece offered to give him ten percent for his find. Then things got ugly. Kitts insisted on 40 percent — so much for old school chums.
With the media attention that followed the find and the disagreement, 21 descendants of businessman Patrick Dunne descended upon the town and sued for their cut. They were alerted largely to to the work of Larry Morrow and Ray Whitaker of Worldwide Finders Inc. who found nieces and nephews named in Gannon’s will. They are self-described forensic genealogists who reportedly hoped for a cut of the proceeds if the descendants win.
Everyone ended up in court paying lawyers. Reece testified that she is now on the brink of bankruptcy and that one of her properties was recently foreclosed by a bank.
It didn’t help Reece much, either. She testified in a deposition that she was considering bankruptcy and that a bank recently foreclosed on one of her properties. She also testified that much of the money was either spent or mysteriously missing. She said that she blow $14,000 on a trip to Hawaii and sold some of the rare late 1920s bills. She said $60,000 was stolen from the shoe box in her closet. She was unable to explain why she would keep $60,000 in a shoe box (even if she was not inclined to hang the money inside a wall, there are safe deposit boxes available). Notably, she stored the remaining $18,000 in a safety deposit box (which also strangely amounted to the original ten percent that she offered to Kitts). More importantly, she could not explain why she did not call police when someone walked off with much of her money. Kitts said that Reece accused him of the theft.
Kitts has lost a lot of business given the negative image of an contractor suing a client for discovered treasure. He insists that “I was not the bad guy that everybody made me out to be. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The entire case is a mess. First, while the court awarded Kitts a small share of the money, I am unable to explain why he was legally entitled to any of the money. The house and its contents were owned by Reece. The house has sold six times since Dunne’s sister in law passed away as the last family owner. He was contracted to perform services. He was not a treasure hunter permitted to claim any unexpected valuables inside the walls of a private residence. Second, I also do not understand why the descendants have a claim. This was long abandoned property that was sold with the house, in my view.
Part of the confusion may be the law of finders under common law. The case is in many ways similar to the seminal case of Hannah v. Peel. In Hannah, the plaintiff was a British soldier who was staying in the defendant’s house. While hanging black out curtains, the soldier found a valuable brooch in the crevice of a window that was unknown to the owners. When the police gave the family the brooch (the right decision in my view), the Court ordered the chattel given back to the soldier. The Court based its ruling on the highly technical claim that the brooch was not attached to the house. This was meant to distinguish the case from South Staffordshire Water Company v. Sharman where a workman who was hired to drain a pool discovered two gold rings at the pool’s bottom. The court held that the rings belonged to the landowners because it was part of the property.
Even under the highly technical distinction of finder’s law, this money was attached to the house by a rope and by being embedded in the wall of the home.
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