New Paltz Students Find $40K in a Couch

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Lara Russo with the cash found stashed in the couch
Lara Russo with the cash found stashed in the couch
Reese Werkhoven with the cash found stashed in the couch.
Reese Werkhoven with the cash found stashed in the couch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was an ethical dilemma straight from the textbooks: Imagine you and two of your friends find a small fortune of cash inside a crummy old couch you bought for cheap at a second-hand shop.  Would you trace the money back to its owner, or would you keep it to spend on your heart’s deepest desires? A SUNY New Paltz student and two friends dealt with this dilemma firsthand early March 2014.

Third-year geology student Reese Werkhoven, Mount Holyoke College graduate Cally Guasti, and SUNY New Paltz graduate Lara Russo were getting cozy on their new couch for the first time when Werkhoven found a plastic envelope under the couch’s patchy arm.

“I almost peed,” Werkhoven said. Inside the envelope was a wad of twenties that added up to $700.

“The most money I’d ever found in a couch was like fifty cents. Honestly, I’d be ecstatic to find just $5 in a couch.”

The group began a thorough excavation, maneuvering the couch in all directions so that every linty crevice could be probed to find more money.

“Just when we thought we pulled out the last envelope we’d find another $1,000 a few minutes later,” said Guasti.

Twenty minutes after sitting on an old, musky couch, three college students were now miraculously standing on $40,000 in cash.

For a while, there were no notes, no names, or anything else that could have told them who the money belonged to. For all they knew the money was fair game.

 ~

Then there was a game changer.  Russo found a woman’s name on one of the envelopes.

“We had a lot of moral discussions about the money,” Russo said. “We all agreed that we had to bring the money back to whoever it belonged to… it’s their money– we didn’t earn it. However, there were a lot of gray areas we had to consider.”

Each of them called their parents for advice;. Their parents basically told them all the same thing:

Don’t spend the money. Don’t tell anyone about the money. Find the woman from the envelope. Find out if it’s her money.

Questions came into focus.

What if the money had belonged to a homicidal drug dealer? What if it was all counterfeit? What if the person who owned the money was dead? Who should they trust to give it to in their name? What if the person is just a really bad person?

Russo pondered the last question on the phone with her mother. “My mom said that I have a good moral compass, and if I don’t think that someone is a good person, or deserving of the money, then I’m not obligated to give it to them. This really threw me off. Where do you draw the line? It’s all very subjective.”

The possibilities were endless and the group seemingly discussed them all that night. Though they weren’t banking on it, there was still a chance they’d be able to keep some or all of the money.

“I would have bought my mom a new car,” Werkhoven said. “What she drives is a piece of junk, and I really wanted to surprise her with a brand-new car.”

Other items high on the wish lists: paying back student loans and traveling the world.

 

Keeping the big secret

The next morning, Russo and Guasti were at work, Werkhoven was at class, and all of them had a huge secret they couldn’t share with anyone.

Then around 11 a.m., Werkhoven’s mom called and told him that she found the woman’s name in the phone book. After work Werkhoven gave the woman a call.

He asked the woman her name and told her he had just bought a couch from Salvation Army.

She immediately replied, “Oh, I left a lot of money in that couch.”

Werkhoven promised her that he and his housemates would be able to return the money at any time, but he was a little taken aback by her shortness with him on the phone.

 

Returning the money

In the late afternoon, Werkhoven, Guasti and Russo were in the car headed to the woman’s house in the Hudson Valley.

“About halfway to her house we stopped the car and had a serious discussion…what if she’s a really bad person? What can we do at this point if we meet her and decide we don’t want to give her the money?”

Not having a plan of exit, they rolled up the long driveway past three “beware of dog” signs and several mounted cameras.

It was a rustic home in a rough neighborhood. The porch was grey and chipping paint. The front door creaked open slowly, Werkhoven remembered.

“I think the part of this whole experience that cleared away my prior thoughts and worries was when I saw the woman’s daughter and granddaughter greet us at the door,” Werkhoven said. “I could just tell right away that these were nice people.”

“When we handed the money back to the woman, she told us that she felt like her husband was present in the room with us,” Guasti said.

In an interview, the woman, who asked not to be identified, explained how her money was lost.

Her husband had had a heart condition and knew his time was limited. Before he died, he gave her money each week to put away for when he passed.  For 30 years she stored her savings inside an old couch in the television room where she slept.  When her husband passed away, she remained working as a florist and continued to store her money in the couch until she had an operation on her back and went to a rehabilitation center for several months.

Upon the doctor’s advice, the woman’s daughter and son-in-law replaced the couch she slept on with a full-size bed.

The couch ended up at the Salvation Army store in New Paltz and was bought for $20 by three genuinely good young people who had the strength and wherewithal to make a commendable moral decision.

“We almost didn’t pick that couch,” Russo said. “It’s pretty ugly and smells, but it was the only couch that fit the right dimensions for our living room.”

The woman gave $1,000 to Guasti, Russo and Werkhoven  as a reward for returning the $40,000.

 

 

 

Hobie Ramin

26 thoughts on “New Paltz Students Find $40K in a Couch

  1. It’s a good thing that the kids returned the money but I’m troubled by the dilemma of “what if the person isn’t nice”. Who has the right to make that decision? If the money belongs to her, then it is hers – whether or not she is nice, poor, rich, smart or stupid. It is hers – plain and simple.

  2. bullcrap! saving money in a couch, how long did it take her to come up with that explanation
    don’t get me wrong, the money is hers, whether she came upon the money in good or bad deeds
    but I don’t buy the whole “we used our smelly couch as a safe deposit box for 30 years” how much is one of those firesafe lockboxes at Home Cheapo $20
    this story sounds like something out of a Scooby Doo episode

  3. What a cheapo! She should of given each of the students $1,000.00. It didn’t sound like she made any effort to find the couch. It’s not difficult to pick up a phone book or look on a smart phone for phone numbers to Salvation Army stores in the area.

  4. We’d love to interview the students on the air. Please email me if you have contact information for them. Boris, 101.5 WPDH in Poughkeepsie: boris@wpdh.com

  5. This is one wild story. My college kids have bought all their furniture at 2nd hand stores. I would hope that if this had happened to them, they would have handled it in exactly the same way! I understand the dilemma they faced wondering what to do if she was a bad person. Afterall, you wouldn’t want to hand all that money over to a drug dealer. I can’t believe she used her old couch for a piggy bank for all those years. Pretty weird thing to do, but some people don’t trust banks… Can you imagine, coming home to find all your hidden money accidentally tossed out? Lucky they donated instead of it being hauled off to who know where to some landfill. She is very lucky to ever see her money again. I would think she could have given a more generous reward, but that’s old ladies for you. She may not have been a drug dealer, but I bet this money was hidden from Uncle Sam too!!

  6. Quite the moral dilemma – I found this quote interesting:

    “About halfway to her house we stopped the car and had a serious discussion…what if she’s a really bad person? What can we do at this point if we meet her and decide we don’t want to give her the money?”

    Unfortunately, the money didn’t belong to the students – whether she was a saint or a nasty old woman. Keeping something that isn’t yours is essentially stealing, and stealing isn’t mitigated by whether you like the person you steal from or dislike them. I’m glad they did the right thing – and not the morally relative thing, because right is right and wrong is wrong. Unfortunately, we live in a world today where right is right about, oh, 60% of the time and depends on a whole lot of things. (I mean, what if the old woman had given money to prop 8? What if she had once worked for Donald Sterling? What if she had once turned in an illegal alien? What if she was a Republican? All sorts of reasons not to return her money.)

  7. @ Dina & Tess, it happens! When we had to move my grandmother out of her apartment to a nursing home, we found close to $30.000. under rugs, folded up in clothing in dressers,closets etc.. She lived in Jersey City and was afraid to go outside …. No direct deposit at that time…

  8. foolish kids. not commendable at all. it is immoral to keep that much money in your couch. finders keepers, losers weepers. must be nice not to need money….

  9. @Serio, Found money isn’t stolen money. And it didn’t sound to me like liking or disliking the rightful owner ever entered into the equation. They continued on even after the woman was curt.

    While returning it to its rightful owner is USUALLY the right thing to do, if I knew the money was ill-gotten gain— essentially stolen from someone else as most drug money is— I wouldn’t have recommended returning it to them either.

  10. I’m confused….if she didn’t trust banks…..why the deposit slip for a BANK ACCOUNT?

  11. Moral compass???

    Wait until they find out the costs of cohabitation before marriage. They’re gonna wish they had $40,000.

  12. The moron old lady never thought to ask her kids where they donated her couch to??

  13. the woman was 91 years old I remember my ex-husbands uncle hid money in the mattress and under the rug because he didn’t trust banks where do people get off calling the woman names I commend the kids I can understand how they would have a hard time giving the money back but they did the right thing.

  14. If I’d bought a second-hand couch from a thrift store and found this kind of money I would consider it a divine providence. Finding money and keeping it is not a sign of dishonesty as it could well be a way in which the person who finds it is being blessed.

  15. They did the right thing. Now days you get next to nothing for interest at a bank. They had the information of the owner and they did the right thing. I would love to donate to them getting a decent couch. I can’t even fathom paying $20 for a couch.

  16. How come this got leaked to the news media and public if the elderly woman wishes to remain anonymous? The students decided to tell this story to the world?

  17. I was extremely delighted when I first saw the headline on the BBC’s website. I then followed the story to this site. You guys have shown a great sense of morality. In Ghana we would say “ayikoo” to wit; “you have done well.”

  18. Good for them. They did more good than the Salvation Army would have done.

  19. Well done to those students. It’s nice to see there are still some honest people left in this world. Other people may have just kept the money & not said anything.

  20. Cha….. why does everything have to attack somebody as homophobe? Have you no more to say about a situation than to bring in your racist and anti-Christian comments? It amazes me how folks like you that want tolerance from everybody else are the most intolerant.I won’t defend the Salvation Army,but would like to ask you what your gay community has contributed to society to help others?

  21. I don’t want to be nasty, but I think $1000 is a wee bit too little for such an act. Anything between 3K to 9K would have been in order. Just saying 🙂

  22. well done to those three student and the parent ur guys do the right thing .

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