Cold cash: Couple finds money in refrigerator

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Mike DuPre'
Thursday, January 10, 2008
— Colleen Mesler broke down in tears as she talked about the money she found.

“It would be a very big help,” she said. “We’ve been waiting and waiting, and nobody’s called to claim it. Other people have found money and got to keep it.”

Colleen, 65, Janesville, was referring to the almost $12,000 in cash she found while cleaning the refrigerator in her apartment in early December.

Janesville police are holding and examining the cash—$100, $50 and $20 bills, many moldy and deteriorating—to determine if it is drug money, Deputy Police Chief David Moore said.

If the Meslers get the money, when is an open question.

The former tenants are defendants in cocaine-trafficking cases. The apartment where Colleen and her husband, Jim Mesler, 55, live has a new door because Janesville police broke through the old one when they executed a search warrant there in February 2007.

Cops found crack cocaine, marijuana, a scale and materials commonly used to package drugs for street sales.

Eventually, they found almost $1,100 on the person of one of the defendants, but they did not find any bills that corresponded to serial numbers recorded by police before a controlled drug purchase, according to court documents.

“If it is determined that the money is the proceeds from the sale of illegal drugs, then it would be contraband, and on behalf of Janesville taxpayers, we would seize that money,” Moore said. “We have not made that determination.”

But police are examining the bills to see if any have the serial numbers of the drug-buy money, and they are processing the bills to see if any carry the drug defendants’ fingerprints.

Janesville police—not the State Crime Laboratory—are conducting the physical scrutiny of the money, Moore said.

Janesville officers also are interviewing the defendants about the cash left in the refrigerator.

The former tenants were evicted shortly after they were arrested. The vacant apartment was cleaned before the Meslers moved in July 1.

But in early December, the fridge’s self-defrosting freezer wasn’t working right, so Colleen decided to clean the refrigerator.

“I pulled this tray out. It was wrapped in tin foil and plastic, but it was moldy,” Colleen said of the package she found.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you throw it out?’” Jim said. “I thought it was old meat, stale meat.”

“But it didn’t smell like bad meat,” Colleen said. “I pulled it apart and found $100 bills. I was more shocked. ‘I’m not throwing this away,’ I thought.”

The couple spent the afternoon separating the damp, moldy bills, warming some in the oven, then using tweezers to pry them apart.

Cash soon covered their small kitchen table.

“$8,340,” Jim said. “About $2,000 of it was torn up, or we couldn’t get the mold off it. I just went and looked in the mirror and thought, ‘Nothing like this happens to us.’”

Janesville police estimated the cash stash at $11,950, according to a court document that says the estimate was necessary because some bills were stuck together and some had deteriorated.

The Meslers took the money to M&I Bank, where they hoped to exchange moldy bills for crisp cash.

But bank personnel advised them to contact police.

“I’m an honest guy,” Jim said. “We both felt we had to turn it in.”

If they had it do over, they again would have turned in the money, the Meslers said.

“We want to do the right thing,” Colleen added.

“I found money before in Janesville, a $5 bill when I was 13,” Jim said.

He turned the money in to the owner of the old Alpine Restaurant, where he found the money, and after 90 days, the owner gave James the $5.

“I thought we would be able to keep it,” he said of the fridge find.

The bank initially held the money for the Meslers, and police obtained a search warrant to get the money from the bank.

The Meslers followed the procedures detailed in the Janesville Police Department’s found property policy, including placing an ad in a local newspaper that a sum of money had been found.

They received a few responses, but none identified the proper amount or location of the find.

“I know they (police) want to keep it, but as long as we can keep $8,340, I’ll be happy,” Jim said.

Asked why $8,340, he replied: “Because that’s the number that stuck in my head. I’m not greedy. I just want my $8,340. It was the clean money. It was what we had in good bills.”

The Meslers said they are not worried that the drug defendants or their cronies will come looking for the money because so much time has passed since the former tenants were evicted.

The couple said their income is well below the poverty level, and Jim was just informed that the Veterans Administration was cutting off his disability benefit because of an apparent overpayment.

Christmas for the couple “was bad,” Colleen said. “All we could afford was stocking-stuffers for ourselves.”

She shopped in resale stores to find gifts for her two adult children.

Asked what they would do with the cash if they get it, the Meslers said in unison: “Pay our bills.”

What to do if you find money

Janesville police have procedures in place for people who find money or other property.

“If you do not comply with the following rules, you may be subject to a civil lawsuit by the lawful owner of the property,” according to a document detailing the rules.

Property with a value of at least $25 but less than $100 has rules a little different than property valued at more than $100.

In either case, the finder may keep the property or money in his or her possession until the rightful owner comes forward or 90 days pass. If the rightful owner doesn’t come forward within 90 days of posting or publication of a notice that property was found, the finder gets to keep the property or money.

If the property has a value less than $100, the finder must notify police in writing within five days of finding it, and the police department will post a notice in two public places that the property or money was found.

If the property’s value is more than $100, the finder must notify police within 15 days, and the finder is responsible for publishing a Class 2 legal notice in a local newspaper.

If the property has a value of more than $100, the finder must obtain an appraisal of the property from the police department within two months.

If the lawful owner claims the property within the 90-day period, the finder must return the money or the property “in good repair” to the police department.

The finder may request a “reasonable fee” from the owner for the finder’s trouble, but getting any such fee from the owner is a private civil matter, in which police will not intervene.

Last updated: 2:37 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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