Found and Lost
Patrick Dunne wrapped his secret in a newspaper. The metal box could barely close.
"P. Dunne, Newspaper & Magazine Distributor," read the return address on the bulging envelopes stuffed inside. "1545 Superior Ave., N.E., Cleveland, Ohio." Into each envelope, he'd slipped neatly banded stacks of pristine $50 and $100 bills, never folded, never put in a wallet.
Dunne bundled the box in brown paper and tightened a thin wire around it. Then he unscrewed the medicine cabinet from the wall of his second-floor bathroom and pulled it out. Holding the wire, he lowered the dangling package into the gold tiled wall.
Once the medicine cabinet was screwed back in, no intruder could detect Dunne's makeshift safe. His only problem was how to get more money in it: $135,000 was all it could hold. He'd need a second box.
Back then, in 1938, anyone curious about Dunne's profession could've looked him up in the city directory, which would've told them he sold papers and magazines at his news agency downtown. They could've learned he lived on Edgewater Drive, the winding street of near-mansions a minute's walk from the Lake Erie bluff. But they couldn't have learned how Dunne had amassed his secret fortune. It was no one's business where the money in the wall had come from. And if no one knew about it, no one would ask.
Dunne knew a lot about discretion — and about loyalty. He was the silent partner of one of the most powerful, popular and mysterious men in Cleveland, a man whose smiling face and many friendships concealed business arrangements that would've evaporated in sunlight.
So the two men would've been appalled to see what became of the money in Dunne's wall six decades later, long after Dunne died, long after his house was sold, when someone at last tore down his walls and discovered his secret.
Dunne and his partner would've shaken their heads and quietly explained to the fortune-finders exactly what they'd done wrong.
On a Thursday in April 2006, Bob Kitts arrived at Amanda Reece's Edgewater Drive home for another day of work, sore from lugging 5-gallon jugs full of old plaster out of her bathroom the day before.
Demolishing a bathroom is fun — sledgehammering a wall, ripping pieces off with a pry bar — but this job was tough. Behind the tile, the plaster clung to a thick steel mesh. It did not want to come down.
Kitts picked up the metal bar and attacked the wall below the medicine cabinet, prying off shards of plaster. Then he stopped. A box, tightly wrapped in brown paper, was wedged behind the mesh.
He and his employee, Doug Breitmayer, pulled the box from the wall. This is probably some kids' toys, Kitts told himself as they tore off the paper. He was trying to suppress the ultimate contractor fantasy: taking down a wall and finding a fortune in cash.
Inside the brown wrapping, they found pages from a Plain Dealer dated Sept. 13, 1939, covering a green cash box. Kitts opened the lid: Yellowed envelopes as fat as bricks. These aren't toys! he thought. He ripped the edge off one just enough to glimpse the corner of a $50 bill.
The room started graying out. Kitts sat down on the bathtub to catch his breath. A few minutes later, he felt calm enough to call Amanda Reece.
"We found something," he told her, "and it's really important that you come home." "Why, what's so important?" "We found some money." "OK," she said. "I'm on my way."
It took Reece an hour to get home. Waiting for her, Kitts and Breitmayer looked back at the wall where they'd found the box. Their eyes fell on a wire hanging behind the plaster and mesh. They pulled on it to see what was hanging from it.
A second box tumbled out as tarnished razor blades, slipped through a slot in the medicine cabinet decades earlier, spilled everywhere. The box was just like the first, except its newspaper wrapping was dated Oct. 13, 1938, and it was packed with way more envelopes.
Kitts didn't open them until Reece got home. He didn't want her to suspect he'd taken anything.
The money, laid out in stacks, covered half of Amanda Reece's table. They looked different than any bills Kitts or his wife, Linda, had seen before. Some were stamped with the names of banks and cities: a lot from Cleveland, some from Peoria, Ill., one from a city in Florida they'd never heard of.
Daylight hadn't fallen on the cash in 67 years. In one story in the old newspapers, Eliot Ness, Cleveland's safety director, campaigned to get his boss, the mayor, re-elected. In another, Adolf Hitler held his arm out in a sig-heil salute for an inhuman 45 minutes at a Nazi congress in Nuremberg.
Kitts started counting, going off what was written on the bands holding the stacks together. At the back of one stack, he found a strange bill. That has an extra zero on it! he thought. It was a $1,000 bill with Grover Cleveland on the front. They scoured the stacks and found seven $500 bills adorned with William McKinley's stern face.
They added it all up: $22,000 in the first box, $135,000 in the second.
Kitts held up a stack of bills as he posed for a picture. His smile lit up his handsome face and dark eyes. Reece, her sandy-brown hair pulled back, knelt next to him by the cash-covered table. She smiled, too, a little more guardedly.
Up in the plaster-dirtied bathroom, Reece posed again on the tub's edge, holding three stacks of bills in one hand. Her other arm cradled a huge mess of browned paper and bundled cash that seemed ready to slide free and cascade to the floor. Her smile was tentative, a little stunned, like she didn't know what to do next.
Kitts says Reece's surprise led her to spontaneous generosity.
"Oh, this is great! We'll split it!" he recalls her saying.
They would later disagree about that — and many, many other things as well.
Linda Kitts wanted to call the news. She thought it'd be a cool story and maybe help their business. She imagined the hook: honest contractors finding money. But Reece shut that idea down. She didn't want people to know what they'd found.
The Kittses had no idea who the "P. Dunne" on the envelopes was, but they assumed he'd been up to something dirty. Hidden money was illegal money, they figured. They guessed he was a bootlegger. Kitts' father told him Prohibition-era smugglers had used a pier near Edgewater Drive to sneak Canadian booze onto shore.
That night, back at their Lakewood house, Linda imagined what her family might do with half of $157,000. Maybe they wouldn't have to struggle to pay Catholic school tuition for their two daughters. Maybe they could fly somewhere tropical for a vacation instead of road-tripping.
Her husband tried to act like the money didn't exist, just in case something went wrong, in case some distant relative of Dunne's came along and claimed it all.
The next morning, at 8 a.m., the Kittses returned to work on Reece's bathroom. They expected her to be at her office, a Fairview Park mortgage bank.
Instead, as the Kittses tell the story, they found Reece sitting at her table, in full view of the picture windows, with all the cash still laid out across it. Her hair was tattered, in disarray. She hadn't slept. She held a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. An ashtray filled with butts sat among the bundles. Money had cascaded from her wall like gold from a slot machine, but instead of feeling the ecstasy of a big win, Reece looked like she'd just learned a burdensome secret.
Reece didn't want the Kittses in the house. "I need a break," she told them. She asked them to come back another day.
The Kittses looked at the stacks of $50s and $100s scattered across the table and warned her to get them out of sight. "Amanda, you gotta get that money out of the house and into a safety deposit box," Linda Kitts told Reece several times on the way out.
Alone with the money, Reece was sick with anxiety. She called her boss at the mortgage bank. "He and his girlfriend came over and took it from me because it was freaking me out," Reece would later explain.
In June 1900, Patrick Dunne walked off the steamship Teutonic at Ellis Island carrying nothing but a tin box. Only 18, he'd left his home in Ireland to work on his older cousin Bridget's farm in Iowa. But he wasn't destined to be a farmer. Restless, he moved to Chicago to live with Frank Gannon, another cousin.
Gannon's oldest daughter, Mary, was only seven years younger than Dunne, and while living in the same house, they fell in love. Gannon, furious, kicked them both out, but he was a witness when they married in 1910 at ages 28 and 21.
Dunne got a job at the Chicago American, where he befriended a tough Chicago-born Irishman who'd sold newspapers since he was a kid: Arthur "Mickey" McBride. In 1911, during a strike against the American, McBride was named the paper's circulation manager. Two years later, the Cleveland News hired him away. Dunne followed McBride to Cleveland and joined his streetwise army of newsstanders, who waged a circulation war against the Cleveland Press.
Back then, big-city newsboys fought with bare fists for choice street corners, knocked over one another's newsstands, threw buckets of mud on paper bundles, even hijacked trucks. The Press' head of circulation, future bootlegger Tom McGinty, sent thugs to chase McBride's newsboys off the best corners. McBride hired tougher thugs to strike back, wielding lead pipes.
Fighting for McBride in the war proved excellent basic training for many of Cleveland's most infamous gangsters, including Shondor Birns and future Mayfield Road Mob boss "Big Al" Pollizi.
Dunne chose a quieter path: He went into business for himself.
The week after Bob Kitts found Patrick Dunne's primitive safe, he and Linda finished demolishing Amanda Reece's bathroom. They stripped the room to the wooden frame and ripped out the bathtub, a mid-century model sealed tight against the wall.
They were cleaning up when Bob looked down at the wall behind the tub and saw two black boxes.
What's that? he thought.
They popped the boxes open. They were from Halle's department store, lined with silky blue felt and filled with loose money.
This cash had definitely gotten around: Lots of worn-down 10s and 20s, some rolled up. It was newer than the batch from under the medicine cabinet. Some bills had dates as late as 1959. Scattered among them were Catholic devotional items, including a card with Joseph and the baby Jesus on it and an image of the Virgin Mary on a red-lined oval; a few cartoons of stereotypical Chinese characters clipped from the funnies; and, typed on a page, a weird anti-Semitic parody of "The Marines' Hymn."
The new cash added up to $25,000.
Kitts called Reece and left a message with her assistant. "Tell her, Sometimes Tuesdays are a lot like Thursdays,' " he said.
"Are you kidding?" answered the assistant, who knew about the first batch.
Reece called back. Leave the money in the freezer, she told Kitts.
The house had given Reece a gift, as if it wanted her to stay. She had bought it with a boyfriend for $265,000 in 1996, and the four-bedroom, yellow brick house fit her success as a mortgage loan officer: She made $140,000 some years. But she and her boyfriend had broken up, and she also had to pay for upkeep on five rental homes she owned. By that spring, Reece was no longer sure she could afford the Edgewater house. She'd hired the Kittses to gut the bathroom so she could renovate it and put the house on the market.
The money changed that. "She did say, This is so great because now I can keep you guys employed here,' " Linda Kitts recalls. They could redo the downstairs bathroom, too, maybe the kitchen. They were excited: Renovating such a big house, 3,500 square feet, built in 1923, with an arching double staircase, could be a real step up for their business.
The Kittses liked working for Reece. They'd started to think of her as a friend, someone who trusted them. Not only were they about the same age — in their early 40s — they'd all gone to Bay High School in the early '80s, and Linda Kitts and Reece had known each other then. "So it was an automatic rapport that we had," Linda Kitts says.
But sometime within a few days of Bob Kitts finding the batches of money, exactly when is in dispute, Reece casually mentioned to him that she was going to give him 10 percent of the cash.
He was taken aback. He thought she'd promised him half. But he didn't let it show. He didn't want to upset her. He wanted to get that new work on her house.
With Reece's permission, Bob Kitts took a $10 and a $100 bill from the new batch to a coin collector for an appraisal. He figured they were so old, they might be worth more than face value. He was right. The collector said the $100 bill was valued at $145. The $10 bill, from 1929, with a bank's big stamp on it, was worth several times face value: $95. Kitts returned the bills to Reece, knowing his find was worth even more than they'd thought.
Kitts and his wife started telling friends, including his softball team and people whose houses they'd worked on, how he'd found the money. Their tale intrigued one client, a retired lawyer. He did some research and discovered a legal concept called "treasure trove," a part of English common law that said lost money belonged to whoever found it.
Once Kitts heard that, the thrill of the find, the happy buzz of overflowing surprise and abundance, gave way to disappointment. His mind returned to the promise he thought Reece had made him. Kitts decided to tell her he deserved more than 10 percent.
So around late May, Kitts and Breitmayer went to Reece's house. She let them in and told them she'd sold some of the cash, about $3,500. She put $300 out on the table for Kitts. He figured that was 10 percent of what she'd sold, part of the small share she planned to give him.
So Kitts told Reece about the treasure trove law. He told her he wanted more of the money. He asked her for 40 percent.
It didn't go over well.
Reece grabbed the $300 off the table. "She started going bonkers," Kitts says. She ordered him and Breitmayer to leave.
Kitts called Reece that night to apologize. When he hung up, he thought he'd calmed her down, thought everything was fine.
In March 1934, Patrick Dunne, his wife and her 19-year-old sister, Agatha, moved from Lakewood to their new house on one of Cleveland's most prestigious streets, Edgewater Drive. Dunne didn't buy the house in his own name. The deed listed Mary, a homemaker, as the buyer.
Dunne had left the News years earlier to start his own business, distributing magazines from his news agency building on Superior Avenue. He took in an important tenant. Mickey McBride moved into an office in Dunne's building when he resigned from the News in 1930.
McBride had bought some Lakewood apartment buildings and a construction company while at the News — "Nobody ever got rich on a salary," he explained — and he was thinking bigger. When labor violence and court battles threatened a local taxicab company, Zone Cab, McBride was intrigued. The taxi business didn't look any tougher than newspaper circulation. He bought a majority stake of Zone in 1931.
"From the moment McBride took over, order began to appear out of chaos," the Cleveland Press once wrote. "Mickey McBride had what the cab situation needed. The cab drivers' strike was ended immediately. Court troubles began to fade." In 1934, McBride also took over Yellow Cab, creating a 40-year taxi monopoly in Cleveland. Dunne joined him as a silent partner.
McBride got into a profitable new business in 1939: He became head of the Continental Press Service, which transmitted horse-racing results across the country. Everyone knew the biggest customers for race results were bookies.
"I've made a lot of money, yes," McBride told the Press in 1947. "I've worked hard — and I've been lucky. But I'm not in anything kinky. I don't need to be."
When the U.S. Senate Crime Investigating Committee called McBride to testify in 1951, he denied any involvement in illegal gambling. "I never have been in a bookmaking joint in 25 years," he said. "Naturally, the news eventually went to the bookies," McBride allowed, but they got it from his clients, local news services. "I have nothing to do with selling to any bookmakers," McBride insisted.
Dunne joined Continental's payroll at $200 a week. By 1951, he was the Ohio distributor of the Daily Racing Form, the horse-racing newspaper. He even owned part of Thistledown Racetrack, his family says.
He may also have profited from gambling in other ways. His business sat two blocks from The Plain Dealer, and in the '60s, a newsroom rumor had it that the Dunne News Agency was a horse-racing front. Dunne's relatives have passed down a similar story: An online family history describes Dunne as "gaining wealth through bookmaking."
"There's always been talk of that," confirms Mary Jane Curtis, his great-niece.
By the end of 2006, Amanda Reece's fears and Bob Kitts' frustrations ignited, turning their business relationship to ashes, obscuring the details of their feud in a smoky haze so deep even a magistrate and several lawyers couldn't sort them out.
The money consumed Reece. "It put her in an exhausting state: what to do with it, how to settle it with Kitts," says her lawyer, Skip Lazzaro. "She didn't know what to do."
In August 2006, a doctor diagnosed Reece with manic depression. Around the same month, she later said, she took the money out of her safety deposit box so she and a friend could count it. Then, instead of returning it to the bank, she put it in two shoeboxes in her closet.
Testifying in a deposition more than a year later, Reece couldn't explain all of her actions that August. She said her mental illness had clouded her judgment.
"Why would you have it at home with you?" one lawyer asked her.
"I have no rational explanation for that," she answered.
On Labor Day weekend, Reece testified, she looked in the closet and saw that one of the two shoeboxes was gone. It had held $60,000 worth of $50 bills. She rushed out onto Edgewater Drive, crying, to tell her neighbors.
At first, Reece's suspicions fell on someone close to her ex-boyfriend, but a private investigator she hired turned up nothing. Her thoughts turned to the Kittses.
"I called her in September," recalls Bob Kitts. "She starts screaming at me, accusing me of breaking into her house and robbing her. And I go, How could I have robbed you? You had all the money in a safety deposit box!' "
"I'll burn it before I let you see a dime," Kitts claims Reece told him.
But later that fall, Reece called him. It wasn't to apologize, Kitts recalls. "She was basically saying, You and your family better not turn your back,' or something like that, or watch your back,' " he recalls. The Kittses say they were so scared they gave up on pursuing the money for almost a year.
Reece and her lawyer suggest the story of the threat isn't true. "She's not that type of person," Lazzaro says. "Exactly," echoes Reece, who laughed when told of Kitts' account, but declined to comment further for any part of this story.
Convinced Reece had threatened their family, the Kittses' anger at her grew. She's not going to get away with this! Linda Kitts remembers thinking.
So in July 2007, 15 months after finding the cash, Bob Kitts hired attorney Patrick Farrell to tell Reece he wanted 40 percent.
Reece barely budged. She wouldn't give him 10 percent anymore. She offered $1,000 or $1,500, the Kittses recall, then $2,000. Farrell and Kitts threatened to take the story to the press if Reece wouldn't make a deal. She refused.
"He never backed down from 40 percent," Reece testified, "so why reason with a lunatic?"
So Kitts contacted The Plain Dealer. The newspaper's story about the dispute ran Dec. 12, 2007. Two men in the Euclid firm Worldwide Finders Inc., which finds distant relatives of people who've died, read the article with special interest. It took them a few hours of digging in directories and death notices to find some of Patrick Dunne's great-nieces and great-nephews.
The 1940s were kind to Patrick Dunne. Home movies show him sunning himself at bowl games in California and a racetrack in Coral Gables, Fla., where his friend Mickey McBride was a major real estate developer.
In 1945, McBride and Dunne became partners in another business venture. McBride founded the Cleveland Browns, the beloved dynasty that forged Cleveland's bond with football by winning five straight championships from 1946 to 1950, just as the sport's popularity exploded. Dunne took a 10 percent share of the team.
Mary Jane Curtis, now 73, remembers traveling from Indiana to Cleveland in the fall when she was a teen to visit her Aunt Mame, Aunt Ag and Uncle Pat. On football Sundays, Dunne would take her and her parents to Cleveland Stadium, where they'd sit behind the home team bench.
Curtis could tell her uncle was quite wealthy. He was generous: He'd sent her dolls at Christmastime. One year, he gave her brothers a giant horse-racing game. The boys pushed colored horses across a 10-foot board with sticks, like shuffleboard.
Curtis' Aunt Mame and Aunt Ag shopped at Halle's and wore mink coats. Her Uncle Pat was always wearing a three-piece suit and hat — a panama in summer. He smoked fragrant Cuban cigars.
"He talked a lot about football, but really, he was a very private man, a very reserved person," Curtis says. She once took a picture of her uncle sitting in a recliner in his home on Edgewater. In it, Dunne, his once-dark hair turned white, looks up from a newspaper, startled to be photographed.
McBride and Dunne sold off the Browns in 1953, but Dunne remained a football fan. For the rest of his life, he bought Notre Dame season tickets and traveled to Indiana on fall weekends for the games.
He kept working at his news agency. Customers would see him hanging out with friends, not saying much, chomping on unlit cigars.
A sheriff's deputy showed up at Amanda Reece's door with a restraining order, commanding her to turn over the cash. Soon, the lawyers for Bob Kitts and Patrick Dunne's heirs took possession of the money — or rather, what was left of it.
Reece handed over $25,230 in old bills. The rest of it was gone, she told the court: stolen and spent.
Reece was broke. On Valentine's Day 2008, as Kitts listened tensely across the room, Reece gave a deposition, describing her landslide of financial ruin.
What her house's walls gave her, the housing market's crash took away. Her rental properties' values had tanked. Tenants had skipped out, stopped paying rent, trashed one home. The mortgage bank where she'd worked had closed. Her income had dropped from $140,000 to $50,000. She was readying a bankruptcy petition.
Reece said she'd spent $20,000 of the cash. Before the housing crash, she'd spent at least $12,000 to take her mother to Hawaii. Her mother had sold $54,600 of the old money on eBay, netting $63,600, much less than the multiples of face value Kitts had hoped for. The thief had taken $60,000. Reece said she had no idea who'd done it: A half-dozen people knew the house, knew her dogs and could've gotten in.
The heirs' lawsuit demanded the full value of the cash from the wall. But she didn't have the money. So, in March, Reece renounced her claim to the last of the cash, and the heirs' lawyer, Gid Marcinkevicius, agreed to drop her from the case. "She was basically uncollectible," he says.
Reece says she still lives in the Cleveland area, but that's about all she'll say. She's made it a personal policy not to comment for any stories about her dispute with Kitts.
Her former neighbor, Ed Kramer, says Reece worked part time on a mortgage loan modification program for his nonprofit, Housing Advocates Inc., from the fall after the money was found until last year.
"Amanda really did have a commitment to helping people," he says. "It was a shame that this whole thing happened.
"She saved a lot of people's homes."
Reece lost the house on Edgewater Drive. She deeded it to the bank to avoid foreclosure the day after she filed for bankruptcy. Frank Foti, chief engineer for 100.7 WMMS in its heyday, owns it now. He says he met Reece at a block party last summer.
"Everyone's wondering if we're going to tear walls down," he told her.
"I'll save you the time," he says Reece told him. "The walls were X-rayed."
Bob Kitts, who'd joined the lawsuit as a third party, kept fighting, claiming he deserved the cash. Dunne meant to leave the money to be found, his lawyer argued. Why would he have sealed the second batch behind the bathtub with the religious artifacts if not to create a time capsule?
By then, The Plain Dealer article had sparked international news coverage about the treasure behind the bathroom tiles. Clevelanders debated who ought to get the money: What right does a contractor have to anything he finds in a client's house? Or was Kitts an honest man who'd gotten no reward for his honesty?
But the final resolution was the last thing most people thought would happen. After a trial in September 2008, Magistrate Charles Brown, doing his best imitation of a wise judge of old, split up the money.
The first batch belonged to the heirs, he ruled. Since it had been stuffed in "P. Dunne News Agency" envelopes, it clearly belonged to Dunne, and now to his estate. But the second batch had no one's name on it and had been totally blocked off behind the bathtub. Because Reece, the homeowner, had abandoned her claim, Brown ruled that Kitts, the finder, was next in line.
Brown divided up the remaining $25,230 in proportion to the size of the original batches: 86 percent to the heirs, 14 percent to Kitts. The heirs' attorney would sell it to collectors and distribute the proceeds.
Kitts got the religious artifacts and the Chinese cartoons. His share of the money finally arrived this November: about $2,700 for his lawyer, $2,700 for him. He and his wife used it to pay off their 2000 Chevy conversion van.
Money is tight. The Kittses have had to take their daughters out of Catholic school. They managed a ski trip this winter, but they still haven't been anywhere tropical.
"I'm definitely less trusting of people," Kitts says. "I get most everything in writing now."
Other contractors tell Kitts he shouldn't have called Reece, that he should've put the money in his van and driven it away. He disagrees. "I can sleep at night. I don't have to hide something. I'd do it again."
Nor does he regret asking Reece for more than 10 percent. "Her initial offer was to split it," he insists. "My starting counter offer was 40 percent."
Skip Lazzaro, Reece's lawyer, says everyone should've kept their mouths shut. "If I was her attorney from the first day, nobody would have found out about this," he says.
"I had another client that found money in walls," Lazzaro adds. That cache was a lot smaller than Dunne's, but still thousands of dollars. "The only ones that know are her, her husband, her father and me. Nobody knows. Nobody's ever going to know."
Cleveland, the country's sixth largest city in 1930, was home to many Patrick Dunnes, many fortunes built on loyalty and discretion. When cash from black markets and gray-area vices changed hands, everyone knew the rules: A good partner is worth everything. Preserve your business relationships at all costs. Stay cool under pressure. Keep the money secret so no one tries to take it away.
So Cleveland could be home to more Amanda Reeces and Bob Kittses, people suddenly confronted by old, tarnished treasure, people who don't know the old rules.
"There was a high density of bootleggers and a high density of gamblers in this area," Lazzaro says. "They obtained money in different ways and didn't want people to know about it." After the Depression's bank failures, people hoarded cash behind secret doors, under stairs and behind plaster.
"There's money in walls in this area!" Lazzaro says. "Believe me!"
12:00 AM EST
April 22, 2010