Like a broken ATM spitting out cash, a couch bought for $20 at a
Eventually summed as $40,000, the cash was a windfall for the college student and two recent graduates who found it. But the trio is now drawing international praise for following their parents' advice to track down the owner and return the bills to the elderly widow who had starting stashing them away at her terminally ill husband's request.
The woman apparently had tucked away savings during the course of 30 years, reported the Little Rebellion, an online news outlet of the
The website said this week that Reese Werkhoven, 20, Cally Guasti, 22, and Lara Russo, 22, called the woman in March after finding her name on one of the envelopes. They met up with the woman, her daughter and a granddaughter. The daughter had given away the couch when her mother was hospitalized and bought her a new couch without realizing the treasure hidden in the old one's crevices.
A store manager at the Salvation Army in New Paltz told the Los Angeles Times that Werkhoven returned to the store after turning over the $40,000 to its presumed owner.
"He came back in and said, 'Remember me? You sold me a couch, well, I found 40K,'" said the store manager, Michelle D. "I didn't remember him really, but was like, really? Congrats!"
But then Werkhoven relayed that they had returned the money and accepted a reward of $1,000 to be split among themselves.
"We had a lot of moral discussions about the money," Russo told the Little Rebellion. "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."
Their parents had suggested not returning the money to its rightful owner if that person seemed like a bad person, say a drug dealer. That consideration has drawn anger from some online commenters, but many have cheered the roommates' morals.
"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 to the SUNY news website. "I could just tell right away that these were nice people."
SUNY New Paltz congratulated Werkhoven, a junior majoring in geology, and Russo, who graduated in 2013 with a degree in women's, gender and sexuality studies. Guasti attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
"We are proud of our students, and not just because of what they accomplish academically, but because of the exemplary people and citizens that they are," SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian said in a statement.
"I'd like to imagine anyone would do this," Werkhoven told WCBS-TV.