Taking Stock

The family thought old receipts would mean big bucks. But money has proved elusive.

Finally, the family hired Sloan. In November 2002, he filed a lawsuit in Harris County Probate Court, asking for $2.15 million -- the price he estimates as the stocks' worth, over time, and with dividends reinvested. Even without the reinvestment, he notes, the proceeds should total more than $1.1 million.

To Sloan, a former banker, the case is simple. "If you put your valuable assets in a bank, it shouldn't matter if it's four days or 40 years, if it's you or your children. You ought to be able to walk into the bank and get your assets back."

To the bank, the premise is wildly incorrect. None of the companies in question has stock listed under Redwood or Jean Springfield's name. The couple must have sold the stocks years before, says Maureen Wharton, the bank's vice president and associate general counsel.

Scholz and her daughter, Satterwhite, have devoted thousands of hours -- and dollars -- to their quest.
Daniel Kramer
Scholz and her daughter, Satterwhite, have devoted thousands of hours -- and dollars -- to their quest.

As evidence, the bank offers records from Redwood's second divorce in 1974. The couple listed their split possessions for the court, sparing no detail: His ex-wife got the binoculars and birdcage, Redwood got half of the bar equipment and two fishing poles. There is no mention of the stocks in question. Under oath, Redwood Springfield listed his stock holdings -- and said nothing about the ones listed on the receipts.

The paper trail, Wharton argues, indicates that Redwood paid off his debt to Jean, then got the stocks out and sold them. Even if the couple didn't turn in the receipts, Wharton says, the bank would have procedures for returning their property: "We can't just say, 'You have no receipts? Gotcha! We're going to keep your stuff forever.'"

In court filings, the bank compares the receipts' discovery to that of a decades-old deposit slip: "The Estate wants to win this case simply because the heirs found 40-year-old receipts showing that the Springfields deposited stock certificates in the bank so long ago that nobody has records showing the stocks were withdrawn."

Indeed, Sloan admits that he can't explain what happened to the stocks. But he insists that because the receipts were never signed or returned, it's not his job. "We are not as concerned with a myriad of 40-year-old facts that may or may not conflict with each other," he says. "The burden needs to be -- and is, according to the case law -- on the bank: the last person supposed to be able to account for these valuable assets."

As arguments continue, Probate Judge Rory Robert Olson set a trial date for June.

The Springfield clan remains confident. Christians who pepper their conversation with references to God, they see their three-year journey as a series of divine directions.

When Satterwhite first sorted her grandmother's records, she was ready to give up, "but God kept me going." Then a random conversation led her to discover that an officer at the bank in the 1970s had embezzled some $1.8 million of bank property. The bank had challenged the officer's will, claiming that his assets were really its assets.

As Wharton points out, no one can connect the officer to the Springfield's account. But Sloan believes his theft proves a bigger point. If J.P. Morgan Chase isn't accountable for the Springfields' stock, he says, how could anyone have trust in any bank? Banks could simply transfer customers' assets to its name and destroy the evidence.

The family's hopes for a payoff may be naïveté; it may also be desperation. For the entire clan, Jean Burke Springfield's $2,000 baby carriage speaks to a standard of living long since past.

Satterwhite and her husband, Ray, own a small contracting business, but he fell from a 20-foot ladder and almost lost his leg. The business came close to dying, and for a while, nine people -- including Satterwhite's granddaughter -- lived in Scholz's modest four-bedroom house in northwest Houston. Meanwhile, Scholz's sister, Beverly Peacock, lost her customer service job and was forced to take work as a tollbooth operator. "I need new glasses, my husband needs new glasses, I need new teeth," she says.

Scholz thought the receipts would mean money for the family. "But now here I am with the carrot back in front of my head.

"I get so frustrated: 'Lord, why did you start me on this?'" Three years after they found that fated envelope, Scholz still believes that the answer has a long string of zeros.

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