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Man Takes a Million-Dollar Phone Call Sitting Down

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles Heidbrink was sitting in his favorite chair watching television this week when the telephone rang and he learned he was on his way to Easy Street.

The call came from a private detective who had spent more than a month looking for any relatives of the late Robert James Harding, who left an estate worth between $3 million and $5 million.

Heidbrink, 75, had not spoken to his first cousin since 1952, he said.

“I picked up the phone and he asked if I was Charles,” Heidbrink said. “I was leery at first because I knew this was no friend of mine, who usually call me Chuck. I thought he was trying to sell me something.”

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After he hung up, Heidbrink turned to his wife, Donna, and said, “You’ll never guess what that was all about.”

Harding, who never married and had no children, was 79 when he died. He had made his fortune by investing profits from a car dealership into real estate, bonds and stocks. His body was found by police at his home in Michigan on Thanksgiving Day.

Heidbrink, who retired 12 years ago as a food distributor, lives in a gated community and golfs at least twice a week. If he does inherit the money, Heidbrink said, he will buy new golf clubs to replace his 20-year-old set, remodel the kitchen for his wife and spend more money with his three grandchildren, ages 4 to 11.

“And it would be nice to go to Hong Kong before the Chinese take over,” he said.

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In the next two weeks, Heidbrink will fly to Michigan to attend a hearing to establish his relationship as Harding’s first cousin, said Curt Benson, a Grand Rapids attorney who will represent Heidbrink.

Because Harding had no apparent heirs at his death, his estate seemed destined to go to the state of Michigan. Already, the state had plans to turn 325 acres Harding owned near Muskegon River, a popular fishing destination, into a state park, said Robert J. Burris, the private detective who called Heidbrink.

“Well, a longtime friend of his--and she doesn’t want me to use her name in all of this--was appalled by all of this and hired me to find his relatives,” Burris said. “She was afraid that they wouldn’t make any efforts to find his heirs.”

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Heidbrink’s father was a younger brother of Harding’s mother. The two young cousins spent a year in grammar school together when their families lived in St. Louis. In the 1930s, Heidbrink said, he visited his cousin in Grand Rapids regularly.

“He had it made by 1950,” he said. “It didn’t surprise me that he had that kind of money at all. What surprised me was that he never married.”

Heidbrink last saw his cousin in 1952, when Harding drove to California in a light blue Cadillac to “chase a girl he went to school with.” After that, several attempts to find his cousin through the phone book failed, he said.

Once in the 1970s Heidbrink told his son, Bill, who was then attending a college in Michigan, to look up Harding. Later, he also urged a friend who was visiting Grand Rapids to find him, but to no avail because Harding’s phone number was unlisted.

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Benson said he plans to use birth certificates, family photos and intimate details of Harding’s life that Heidbrink was able to relate to prove kinship.

“He won’t have any problems proving that he is Harding’s cousin,” Benson said.

But even after that, it could take two years before Heidbrink receives any money, Benson said.

First, a reasonable effort to find other heirs must be made. Two other cousins, Bob Danelson and Dorothy Asdel, have not been located. Also, Burris said 12 people have called him claiming that they might be a relative of Harding, and each of those claims must be investigated.

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After the list of heirs is determined, Benson will take an inventory of the estate, which include stocks, bonds, cash and real estate. Debts and taxes also must be paid before money and properties can be distributed, he said.

“This is a very unusual case,” Benson said. “It’s not strange that people die without leaving a will, but it is strange when they have this much money.”

Harding’s friend who hired Burris is not claiming any of the estate, but Heidbrink said he would repay her the money she spent to hire the investigator if he inherits the estate.

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Burris said he was first told that Harding had relatives in Missouri. When he came up empty there, he looked in California because someone had tipped him that Harding’s cousins were in Santa Monica.

“I had exhausted my fees, but you see, I thought that I would get the greatest pleasure out of calling cousins so-and-so and telling them that I’ve got a few million for them,” Burris said.

Earlier this month, he compiled a list of 12 Heidbrinks in California. Charles Heidbrink, Burris said, “was the first person I called.” This, Heidbrink said, “is better than winning the lottery.”


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