A Maryland woman goes on a years-long search to find who owns $10,000 in bonds she discovered inside a tea cart.
In 2014, Lisa Colmus went to an auction in Crumpton, Maryland.
She hoped to find a few deals on furniture. She found them and also found an envelope that would open the door to a life she knew nothing about.
This is the story of a tea cart, a lost envelope, a woman on a mission, and two world’s finally intersecting.
LISA & THE TEACART
Woman searches for owner of missing bonds
In the spring of 2014, Lisa Colmus and her husband stopped by an auction on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It was a weekly auction that Lisa and her husband had planned to stop by for weeks.
“It’s only on Wednesdays,” she said. “So we took a Wednesday off and we went there.”
When they got there, she and her husband split up. He found an exercise bike; Lisa noticed a small tea cart that she thought she could paint.
Lisa bid roughly $25 on the cart and won.
“I got the top side of it painted, let that dry, and flipped it over. And when I flipped it over, I saw an envelope,” she explained. “Four pins were just right in the edge and holding it on. It looked like it was pretty full of something."
Lisa was afraid to open it, so she called her husband over to help.
"So he came over and he opened it and he’s like, ‘what are these?’ And so we started looking through and they were savings bonds.”
The envelope was stuffed with 75 saving bonds, all from the 1970s. They were worth $25 each and had two names, a social security number, and an address in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Lisa said she ran to a computer.
“You can actually look treasury bonds up by their serial numbers. I could see they were at full maturity, and when I totaled it all up they were worth $10,000,” she said.
Lisa immediately called the Treasury Department. The person who took her call gave her an address and told her to mail them in.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sure they would even get them to the people they belong to. I decided to try a different avenue,” she said.
For the next two years, Lisa looked for the people listed on the bonds. She used White Pages, People Finder, Google. Name a website, and she probably tried it.
Lisa said she kept hitting walls. Instead of finding complete addresses or phone numbers, the websites would require a subscription. The public records she found showed the people listed on the bonds sold the house in Silver Spring a little over two years ago.
“I figured I would probably keep signing on and signing on and then never get there,” so she said she put the bonds away.
But a couple of months ago, Lisa met a woman who runs estate sales.
“I was telling her this story about this little cart that I found and what was underneath of it. She found it intriguing. She said, 'I think that’s an amazing story,'" Lisa recalled.
The woman encouraged her to find the owners, to pursue it hard, and maybe even go to a news channel.
That's where WUSA9 came in. Lisa called in July and asked if we could help.
When we met with her for the first time, the search yielded essentially the same information Lisa already found. Every recent public record tied the names on the bonds to one address– the house in Silver Spring on Monroe Street.
The house sold in 2014. There were no current numbers or addresses for the people who lived there.
It was dead end after dead end until we went to an obvious place– Google Maps.
As we scrolled through street view, we noticed a for sale sign in the photo. It had a phone number for a realtor named Carole Levin.
We wrote it down, and the next day made a phone call.
Lost and found: $10,000 worth of bonds
Carole Levin remembered selling the house on Monroe Street. She also remembered the last name of the couple who lived there. It also happened to be the last name on the bonds– Mathews.
Levin said she never really met the couple because they were elderly and had already moved out. She mostly dealt with their daughter.
We asked if she’d give us a number. She said no, but agreed to give our number to the daughter and asked her to call us.
Within 24 hours, the phone rang.
It was a woman named Brenda Athanas. She said her parents lived in a house on Monroe Street. When we asked for her parents' names, she was understandably hesitant.
"Umm, but first you need to tell me what’s going on,” Brenda said.
We filled in Brenda on most of the story, but didn’t tell her what the documents were, what we thought they were worth, who found them, or where.
We asked her to meet with us, and she agreed.
We drove to Brenda’s home, which was a few blocks away from the house on Monroe Street, and asked Lisa to meet us there.
We sat and talked with Brenda and asked about her family, but never fully introduced Lisa or showed her what we found. Brenda was happy to talk about her parents and her life.
“My Mom’s name is Betty Jean Collins, and when she got married it became Betty Jean Mathews," Brenda explained. "My Dad is Walter Mathews Sr.”
As she flipped through old family photos, she explained that both her parents were born in Silver Spring.
Her dad joined the U.S. Navy when he was 18 years old. A few years later he moved over to the Air Force. Brenda said they moved a lot.
“They moved him to Hawaii when my brother was two. I was born there. Then my sister was born there and three years later we moved to Missouri and Kansas and then to Colorado,” she said.
In 1968, they finally made it back to Maryland with four children in tow.
“My brother is Walter Jr. My younger brother is Wayne Steven, but we called him Buddy,” she said with a smile. “We all grew up and lived in that house.”
Like all families, the Mathews' life wasn’t picture perfect.
Brenda’s younger brother unexpectedly died in 1995. She said her own adult son reminds her of him.
“The way he laughs and smiles,” she said.
Brenda was more than happy to tell us about her family, but we went to her for a reason– to talk to her about the bonds.
We showed her a photo of the tea cart and asked if it looked familiar.
“It used to be gold,” she said.
DO YOU RECOGNIZE THESE?
After a three-day journey, find out who bought those bonds from the 1970's.
Brenda’s parents left Maryland two years ago because her mom, Betty, has Alzheimer’s.
“I noticed that she would repeat stuff. She would say something and about 30 minutes later she would say the same thing over again," she recalled.
Brenda said she essentially tricked her mom into seeing a doctor, and the diagnosis was what she expected– dementia.
“They put her on medication and everything,” she said.
Brenda tried to help when she could, but she said it became too much for her dad.
“She just got so bad that he was having a hard time with her,” Brenda said.
He decided he needed more permanent, consistent help. So Betty and Walter Mathews moved to South Carolina to live with their oldest son in March 2014.
For as long as Betty lived in the house on Monroe Street, Brenda said she hid things.
“My sister and sister-in-law, their job when they [packed to move] was to dissect her bedroom," she recalled. "Look under everything, over everything, every nook and cranny, look in her bedroom. They found $3,000 in just her bedroom, under her rug, under her drawers, her clothes, her closet. It was cash!”
So the fact that a stack of fully matured bonds was tacked under a tea cart wasn't so crazy after all.
Brenda laughed and said, “who looks on the bottom of a tea cart?”
We interjected and pointed to the woman sitting quietly at the other end of the table– Lisa.
Lisa moved closer and told Brenda everything about the auction, her search, and what she found. Then she reached in her bag and pulled out the envelope.
Brenda looked at the names and noticed something we hadn’t.
“This is my younger brother,” she said pointing to the bonds.
Confused, Lisa asked Brenda if her dad and brother have the same name. Brenda said no and explained her dad is Walter Mathews and her younger brother, the name on the bonds, is Wayne.
“That’s the brother who passed away?” we asked.
“Yeah,” Brenda said. “He was 35, got murdered in West Virginia.”
MURDER IN WEST VIRGINIA
Whose money is this?
Brenda’s younger brother, Wayne, the one they called Buddy, didn’t make it to 40. His life was cut short in Martinsburg, West Virginia at a motorcycle shop he owned.
“There was one guy who didn’t have all of his marbles. My brother was working on his bike and he owed my brother several thousand dollars. He didn’t have the money, so my brother said 'well you can’t take it ‘cause you owe me so many thousands of dollars," Brenda said. "He ended up shooting and killing my brother in the garage.”
She still has all of the reports and newspaper clippings with the face of her brother’s killer.
“It was horrible on my mom and dad,” she said. “My mom has dementia and Alzheimer’s now, maybe that had a part of her getting that because she could just never get over losing him.”
The bonds Lisa found can only go to Wayne Mathews or Betty Mathews. Wayne is dead, and Betty doesn’t remember her family.
“She knows my dad’s face, but she doesn’t know his name. She doesn’t remember anybody’s name. She’s still alert, but she’s just not there anymore,” Brenda said.
Betty now lives in an Alzheimer's home with around-the-clock care. Her husband has power of attorney, and the bonds, worth nearly $10,000, could be a big deal.
The home Betty lives in costs $5,000 a month, and Brenda says the cost of care is going up.
“Once she can’t do certain things, like feed herself and go to the bathroom by herself, they’re going to put her in another home," Brenda said. "She won’t be able to stay here anymore.”
Brenda has been holding on to a motorcycle she inherited from her late brother.
“My son wants it, but I won’t let him have it,” Brenda said as she began to cry. "Because if my dad needs the money I’m going to sell the bike and give the money to my dad.”
As for us, our goal never changed. We wanted to help Lisa hand the bonds to the rightful owner.
So, with Brenda’s blessing, we boarded a plane to South Carolina.
At the end of the journey, the lost bonds get returned to their rightful owner.
According to the most recent census, 502 people live in Campobello, South Carolina. One of those residents is Walter Mathews.
He knew he was meeting someone from the news, but didn't really know why. Brenda told him we were doing a story on veterans.
We quickly said hello and introduced Lisa because this was a moment for her, a moment she had spent two years waiting for.
"I found something that belongs to your family, and I wanted to give it to you if that's okay,” Lisa said to Walter.
She opened the envelope and pulled out the stack of bonds. Walter noticed his wife’s name and then his son’s.
"My goodness,” he said. “Where did you find those things?"
Lisa told him everything and put the bonds in his hands, finally giving them to their rightful owner.
"I had no idea what was inside,” she added. “The whole time, Mr. Mathews, I've just been really hoping that it was somebody who needed it and could really use it. So I'm real grateful that was you."
They hugged, and then he told us everything.
He served in three wars– World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Then he told us about his home life, a life that’s gotten tougher in the past couple of years.
Walter showed us a photo he took with his wife on the patio at her Alzheimer’s home a few weeks ago.
"I go [visit her] three times a week,” he said. “Maybe on Saturday so it'd be four times in a week. We're going tomorrow.”
“Does she enjoy your company?” Lisa asked.
Walter said whenever he walks in the room to visit Betty, an excited and surprised expression comes across her face.
"That makes my day,” Walter said as he broke down in tears.
As quickly as we came, it seemed it was time to leave, but something stayed behind– a stack of papers that connected two people, from two completely different worlds.
Or, “a random lady who bought a tea cart,” as Lisa called herself, with a member of the greatest generation.