Man finds $140,000, then his conscience

Times Staff Writer

Last month, Eli Estrada found $140,000 cash in the street on his way to work.

The $20 bills were unmarked, bundled into wads of $20,000 and in a bag in the middle of Gridley Road in Cerritos.

The 40-year-old Highland Park man’s first thought was: “I’m rich.”

But he immediately decided to turn in his find. The money would go a long way, he thought, but keeping it would be wrong.

“That’s just your first reaction,” Estrada said, “but it’s not yours and you feel nervous and you feel like you did something wrong, even though you didn’t.”


It’s not that he didn’t need it.

About six months ago, Estrada opened a landscaping and artificial-grass business, Tuff Turf, and is in debt. He said his child support payments are tough to make and he supports his mother, who moved in with him last year after she lost her house to a fumbled refinancing plan and declared bankruptcy.

Estrada found the bag of money the morning of March 11. He and another Tuff Turf employee who was with him then drove to a landscaping job in Long Beach.

Being with the cash was “a weird feeling,” Estrada said. “It’s not like you would expect it, it’s surreal.”

By chance, Estrada’s Long Beach clients worked for police. Estrada told them he wanted to turn the money in, and they called the Long Beach Police Department.

Estrada said he was content with his decision, though admitted “it was hard to give up.”

Authorities said the money was lost by Brinks armored truck drivers.

Long Beach police spokeswoman Dina Zapalski said she had never heard of someone turning in so much cash.

“I’ve had people come to me with purses and wallets with cash in it and they’ll turn it in,” Zapalski said. “But not like this.”


Zapalski said officers were surprised that Estrada didn’t ask for a reward. Instead, he went right back to work.

Estrada’s mother, Rosa Estrada, said her son had always been nervous about doing something unethical or illegal. This time was no different even though “he needs the money,” she said.

“He was very nervous; he said he wouldn’t be able to sleep” if he didn’t turn it in, she said.

Brinks later gave Estrada $2,000 for turning in the money. His mother smiled and said, “They should have given him 10%.”