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At first glance, the envelope gave no clue to its importance. Buried at the bottom of a box of old paperwork, it was labeled only with a scrawled "keep."
When June Satterwhite found the envelope in 2001, her grandmother, who made the note, was dead. Jean Burke Springfield had died recently at age 93 after years of suffering from Alzheimer's disease. She left behind a safe crammed with enough aging records and photos to fill six big boxes. When her uncle asked who would sort through them, Satterwhite remembers, "There was dead silence."
With little enthusiasm, she volunteered. "They were just a mishmash," she says. "It was a nightmare."
Satterwhite spent days without finding anything valuable or even that interesting. By the sixth box, she just wanted to be done, and she worked feverishly through the night before reaching the envelope at 2 a.m.
Satterwhite read the instructions on the receipts: The bank would hand over the stock certificates only if given the receipts, and only if the receipts were signed by both Jean Burke Springfield and her ex-husband, Redwood.
Satterwhite, 37, had been trained as a bank teller almost 20 years before, but it took her a few minutes to realize the significance. If the stocks could be released only with signed receipts, and she had the unsigned receipts in her hands, the stocks must still be in the bank.
And that, she realized, meant a lot of money.
Satterwhite took the receipts to her mother, Shelley Scholz, the older of the two Springfield daughters. The resemblance between Satterwhite and her mother is striking. Both women have round, expressive faces and long, thick hair. Natural storytellers, both can't help but play up the drama of their tale.
Scholz, 58, claims that when she saw the receipts, she remembered, suddenly, her mother holding them. "She told me, 'These will be very important to you someday. Don't ever forget them.'" Scholz pauses, her eyes wide. So much for the lesson: "I hadn't thought of them one time since."
A series of mergers and sales had ended with the National Bank of Commerce's assets at J.P. Morgan Chase Bank.
"When we walked into that bank, I thought, 'Okay, we'll get these stocks today, and we'll be rich,'" Scholz says.
At least one bank employee seemed to agree, Satterwhite says. "She kept going, 'Oh, my goodness, you're going to be millionaires. You're really going to be millionaires.'"
From the moment of discovery, the family banked its dreams on a windfall. They spent hours planning their spending spree: new teeth for Scholz's sister, a new business for Satterwhite and her husband, money for Scholz's half-brother. They even drew up a formal agreement of how they would split it.
Getting the money became Satterwhite's full-time job. After the bank failed to produce the certificates, she spent countless hours on the phone, writing letters and researching on the Internet. Scholz and her husband supplied thousands of dollars for photocopies and legal fees, certain the investment would reap dividends.
The only problem: Almost three years have passed since Satterwhite found that envelope. No one is any closer to finding the stock certificates. And the family has yet to see a penny.
Jean Burke Springfield grew up wealthy. Her grandfather, J.C. Hooper, made enough money to win the family a spot in Texas's 1907 blue book. Jean's father, Howard Burke, was an editor at the Houston Chronicle. An early photo shows Jean in her own little horse-drawn carriage -- a christening gift listed in family records as costing $2,000.
Jean and her husband, a dashing inventor named Redwood Springfield, used some of her inheritance to start an industrial sales company. Today, GAYESCO boasts $7 million in annual sales, says its CEO, Howard Hilborn. But when Redwood sold his interest to his partner in 1972, only $18,000 changed hands, according to family records.
Jean and Redwood split up in 1960. Redwood would soon marry his secretary, his daughters say. That marriage ended, too. Then there was another. He drank, then drank some more. Jean -- always the serious one -- fretted about money and raised their two daughters.
During their divorce, the couple put the stock certificates in the bank. They were to be held as collateral against the $20,000 Redwood owed his ex-wife, according to records. In the testiness of a divorce, notes the family's lawyer, David Sloan, it made sense to require both parties' signatures on the receipt: "The only way around it was a court order." As far as Sloan can tell, no such order exists.
But as J.P. Morgan Chase Bank would tell Satterwhite 39 years later, it couldn't produce the stocks. It didn't have them.
The bank sent Satterwhite to Texas Unclaimed Property, which holds forgotten assets. No luck. Satterwhite then tried the companies in question. Two of them, she says, told her the stock numbers were still good, which meant they couldn't have been sold. Still, no stocks were listed under her grandparents' name. (Satterwhite could get no information from the other companies. She also has no written record confirming that any of the stock numbers are still current.) ChevronTexaco sent her stock certificates thought to be her grandfather's, but the social security number didn't match. They actually belonged to a Roy L. Springfield. Satterwhite, crestfallen, sent them back.