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.
Inside were eight trust receipts. The date: 1962. The holder: the National Bank of Commerce, Houston. Each receipt was for shares of different stocks: General Motors, Standard Oil, Texaco.
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.
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.
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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