The Check Was in the Mail
R.D. Williams is an ordinary guy who runs a small machine shop that makes polished aluminum swords for theme parks and movie studios. His “earnings” last year were minus $12,000 and the year before that minus $14,000. Any day soon, R.D. always used to say, he was going to start making some real money. But he never expected it to come from Taco Bell.
The way R.D. tells it, he was in his shop the other day on a nondescript Paramount industrial strip when a guy from Airborne Express came to the door with a package accompanied by a separate envelope.
The package contained some pens used for computerized drawings that R.D. had ordered for $10 a set. He figured the envelope held paperwork for the order, so he didn’t open it right away. R.D. likes to do things in his own way at his own pace, the way he’s done it for the past 30 years as a machinist.
Only when he’d finished setting the pens in place did he open the envelope, which was addressed to him. It contained a check for $750,000.
At first glance, he thought it was for $750, but then realized there were too many zeros for that. A guy like R.D. doesn’t see a lot of zeros on checks, so it took a minute for it to sink in. When it finally did, R.D. panicked. The money wasn’t his, but the impact was. He was holding three-quarters of a million dollars in his hands. He never stopped feeling dazzled for the five days the check was in his possession.
Never once did he think about trying to cash it, though. He knows hackers who, utilizing computers, would take a check like that and put it in a Swiss account for 10% of the take, but R.D.'s not that kind of guy. When the immediate shock wore off, he began trying to get the money to its owner. It wasn’t easy.
The check was from Taco Bell and was payable to someone I’ll call James Perkins. That’s not his real name, but I’m not going to be the one to tell the world the name of a guy walking around with $750,000 in his pocket. A letter with the check indicated that Perkins had ended his relationship with Taco Bell and this was part of a refund that would ultimately total $2.6 million.
The first thing R.D. did was try to reach Perkins. He knew that calling Airborne Express was useless because no human would pick up the phone, and their answering machine wasn’t working right. He’d run into that trying to get his pens delivered.
But the James Perkins named on the check was out of business and not reachable, so R.D. telephoned Taco Bell and asked for the man who’d signed the check, one Robert Girvin, the company’s director of taxes.
At first the secretary said he was out to lunch, but by then R.D. was getting a little frantic. He said, “Lady, I’ve got his $750,000 check and I’ve got to talk to him.” She said he was gone for the day, call back tomorrow.
Meanwhile, R.D. kept looking at the check, afraid to let the damned thing out of his sight for fear it would get lost somewhere and he’d have to come up with the three quarters of a million to pay Perkins back.
As I indicated earlier, R.D. isn’t rolling in dough. He’s had his own business only four years and it’s not making money. His wife, Judy, is a teacher and pays the rent for their modest 1,300-square-foot Burbank home. They don’t exactly vacation on the French Riviera every summer.
During the five days he held the check, R.D. made a dozen telephone calls trying to return it. One was to a friend at the Paramount Police Department, who was out of town. That’s when he said to hell with it and dialed 911.
Unfortunately, trying to return a misdelivered check isn’t a function of emergency services. An operator suggested he call Airborne Express, but he’d already tried that without success.
R.D. held on to the check through a long, nervous weekend. His wife thought it was about the strangest thing they’d ever experienced. So did everyone else R.D. showed it to.
Finally, Girvin called back and had the check picked up, and the episode ended as quickly as it had begun. R.D. says he spent a lot of time and money making long-distance calls in an effort to return the check and didn’t even get a taco out of it. Girvin, who was feeling pretty tense about the whole thing when I talked to him, said he’d thanked him over the phone.
R.D., meanwhile, has gone back to making polished aluminum swords in his crowded little shop off Paramount Boulevard. I asked what he’d do with $750,000 if he had it. He said he’d buy a boat and he and Judy would sail off into the sunset. I hope they can do exactly that someday. An honest man deserves more than just a thank you over the telephone.