Saturday, January 2, 2010

Broke and Broken Hearted

The Post-Dispatch learned of Rodney Dukes' efforts to discover whether his $1 million bill was real from federal court filings in late September. Reporter Todd C. Frankel spent more than two months following Dukes on his odyssey. As with any news story, Frankel avoided interfering with the course of events, so that the story could unfold as naturally as possible. All direct quotes were spoken in the presence of the reporter. Some scenes were drawn from Dukes' recollections and, when possible, checked with other sources.

One man's hunt for the truth behind a $1 million bill
Sunday, Dec. 13 2009
EAST ST. LOUIS — The shades were drawn against the morning sun, as though Rodney Dukes were trying to block out his doubt about the $1 million bill. The room was dark. It was hard to see the dishes in the sink, the unpaid bills on the table, the gray in his black hair. The TV was muted. The only sound was the occasional beep of a smoke alarm battery dying.Rodney often thought about the bill while sitting in the darkness of his daughter's place in the Villa Griffin public housing project. A million dollar note. A life-changing sum in a scrap of paper. A bill he had discovered five months earlier on the street — his ticket out, away from all this.At first, he was certain the bill was fake. Or stolen. Just another false promise in "this dead-ass, beat-down town." He hadn't held a steady job since working as a parking lot attendant six years ago. He and his wife recently lost their house. Now they were staying with his daughter. Rodney, a father of three, was a man close to bottom, a place where even dreaming of escape can feel like too much weight to bear. Better to let it go.But now he believed. He believed in the possibility of the $1 million bill. He allowed himself to think that luck might be smiling on him at long last, finally, after 51 years, tapping him on his worry-worn shoulders.He had set out to discover the truth of his find. Months trickled by. He kept searching. The answer seemed just out of reach. But he felt he was closing in. You could laugh it off as a quixotic quest — except for the way he went about it. No short cuts. No scams. He moved with deliberation, like a man aware of the stakes.And along the way, as he pressed and pressed, nearing despair, he found something else rare and unexpected.But first he needed to learn about the $1 million bill."I want to see if it's real. I really do," Rodney said in the dark room. "I've just got to hope that (it's) real."* * *He found it. Just ... found it. Like someone uncovering a Picasso in the basement. It was late May. He needed to call his wife. He didn't own a cell phone. He stopped at a pay phone and spotted what looked like money lying on the phone's metal table. A $20 bill? He looked around as he stood outside a Shell gas station in University City. Traffic did not stop. People pumping gas did not glance his way.He returned to the bill. He turned it over and over in his callused hands. He pulled a $10 bill from his wallet and compared.The $1 million note looked real. Crisp, like it never had been outside a bank. The greens and blacks and grays were just right. Rodney didn't recognize the stern, bearded man in the center portrait as 19th president, Rutherford B. Hayes. He figured there were enough obscure old men to go around. "1,000,000" was printed in the top corners. He noted what appeared to be the stamps of the U.S. Federal Reserve and Department of Treasury. Some words on the back were too small to make out.The bill was too perfect, its location too obvious. But for Rodney, that made perfect sense."Somebody wanted to give it to somebody. Who is going to sit a $1 million bill in a phone booth? Somebody put it there," Rodney recalled. "Unless it's not real. But you might find a twenty. A fifty. But a million dollars?"He put the bill in his pocket and headed home, forgetting all about the phone call.He didn't tell his wife. First, he needed to know more.The idea of a search suited Rodney, a high school dropout who retains a restless curiosity about the world. He is the type of person who tries piecing together how a new neighborhood gas station makes its money; who wants to know how the Internet is changing people's lives, yet rarely has sat at a computer; who slips several coins into a charity donation box at a fast-food place, then wonders aloud if his money really goes to a good cause.He wanted to know more about the bill. Still, his mind couldn't help but wander, to conjure up what it would feel like to be secure. More than secure. Rich. He would buy a place in Hazelwood. Nothing fancy. A fixer-upper in a nice subdivision. Someplace safe. He wanted to get his family out of the projects. No more struggle. No more worrying about ever being flat broke again.But Rodney's old man knew better. He knew that money could be a curse, too. Maybe that's why Rodney went to him first with the $1 million bill. Rodney looked up to Willie Dukes, father of eight. Now 73 and retired from airport maintenance work, Willie Dukes spent his days helping his children and hanging out with other retired men in his North St. Louis neighborhood.Willie Dukes had money once, but it disappeared like the old North Side houses replaced by empty lots. When he was a teen, he had been good enough at poker to amass a small fortune. He remembers he had a dufflebag so stuffed with $20 bills he could sit on it like a chair. He drove a pink Cadillac. The money flowed until he joined the Army at the urging of his mother. She wanted better for her son.Willie Dukes never saw that kind of money again. But he learned a lesson: Manage what you have. Handle your money with care. "If you don't have a budget, it will go away."The old man worried over Rodney and the potential windfall. Rodney had struggled for so long. And the old man had other plans for his son. Willie Dukes recently had been eyeing an old pickup he wanted to buy for Rodney so they could go junking — collecting and reselling scrap metal. Yet Willie Dukes thought the bill looked real. He recalled a TV show about $1 million bills and how they were no longer in circulation. Maybe this was one that slipped out. It had happened before: A few 1933 double-eagle gold coins ended up with collectors despite never being released by the government. One sold for $7.6 million.He showed the bill to some of the other retirees, men whom Rodney trusted because they had been around. They agreed. It looked real. Willie Dukes told his son to see someone who knows money."Like with diamonds," Willie Dukes said, "you've got to go to the folks who know them."* * *So Rodney went to a bank — a U.S. Bank branch in downtown St. Louis. He wasn't trying to deposit the bill. He didn't even have an account there. He remembers the teller was stunned. She had never seen a $1 million bill before. "They were telling me there was nothing they could do with it," Rodney said.The teller suggested he try the Federal Reserve Bank, a few blocks away.Rodney walked into the stone fortress that is one of 12 banks controlling the nation's money supply. He passed through the automatic revolving door and into a wide lobby of soaring marble walls. The Reserve Bank's massive brass emblem sat on a wall above him. It looked like the one printed on U.S. currency. And on Rodney's $1 million bill.He was met by blue-uniformed security guards. He explained his mission. The guards told him the Federal Reserve dealt only with other banks. Then one guard pulled out a tattered manila folder and handed Rodney two pieces of paper.It was a printout from the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, detailing how it verifies and refunds damaged money. It was an opening he could try.Rodney decided first to put the bill through one more test. He stopped at a corner store the next day and asked the clerk if he could borrow a counterfeit money pen. The felt-tip marker, filled with an iodine solution, leaves behind a brown mark on the wood-based paper of most fakes. Real U.S. currency is printed on fiber.The clerk handed Rodney the pen. He swiped it down one end of the bill. A dark line trailed behind. Then he watched as it faded, along with his doubt.Rodney decided it was safe to tell his wife.She laughed. No way that bill was real. No way.But Rodney, he was starting to believe.And so a week later, in early June, he was at a post office in St. Louis. He was nervous. He was about to mail the $1 million bill to the bureau of engraving. He had studied the instructions for sending currency to its examiners in Washington. The bureau "will issue a written confirmation of receipt," his handout explained, for cases expected to take longer than four weeks to process. He took a deep breath. He mailed it off.Rodney left the post office with a registered mail receipt and tracking number, which would show the letter arrived in Washington at 1:55 p.m. on June 7.That was the last tangible proof of his dream.* * *Four weeks passed. Five. And six. No word from Washington. Seven weeks. Rodney thought about calling the bureau, but his long-distance bill was already out of sight. Eight weeks. Nine. Then Rodney got an idea. He would ask a judge to demand a response from the bureau of engraving. In late August he walked into the federal courthouse in St. Louis and with the help of a clerk, Rodney filed a lawsuit by hand, writing that he wanted to "... request bill return or replace the currency, 1 million dollar bill...""Please!" he wrote.Three weeks passed. A district court judge dismissed Rodney's plea. The judge didn't see how the court could help. "The complaint is incoherent."Rodney figured the judge misunderstood. He filed again six days later. "Maybe with help from Honorable Judge may I ask for help. Unemploy(ed) and cannot afford long distance call."The judge waved him off. Rodney filed a third time. And was rejected.Now Rodney sat in the dark living room, the shades drawn tight.He stewed about the delay. He imagined the judge was afraid to demand that federal officials answer for his missing money. He suspected the bureau didn't believe a guy from East St. Louis could have found something so valuable. And he thought of one more possibility."Maybe there's something to it — it being a million dollars and all," he said. "They're making me think something good because it's taking so long."Now he planned to call the bureau. He dialed the number on a borrowed cell phone. He got a recording. The message warned it could take 12-14 weeks for a response. Rodney already had waited 17. A beep. Rodney spoke slowly."My name is Rodney. I'd like to receive a call back from you people." He recited the bill's serial number and his phone number. "Please return my call as soon as possible. Please. Thank you."* * *By the middle of October, Rodney worried that he would never see his bill again. But maybe he could find out if even the possibility of such a bill existed.He headed to the library. It was a dreary, cold Wednesday. He slipped on a black leather jacket and matching hat. After the library he was going to work for a guy. Wouldn't say doing what. "I need to earn some money, man," was all Rodney said.He walked out, past fresh plywood sheets covering windows and doors of neighboring apartments. Loose dogs roamed a grass lot across the street."I've got to get a house, get out of the projects, change things," Rodney said, walking to his car, a blue Volvo that a friend swung him a deal on. "Nothing good happens around here."He drove to the main library building in downtown St. Louis. He bounded up the library's wide stone steps in a hurried stride, the $1 million bill on his mind."Do you think it exists?" he asked suddenly, walking in the door.Inside, Rodney was pointed to the online library catalog. He stood above the keyboard. He fumbled with the mouse. He pecked at the keys with one hand. "I don't know how to use this," he said.Frustrated, Rodney walked over to a library worker."I'm trying to find something out about a million-dollar bill," he said."You're looking for what now?""A million-dollar bill. To see if it's ever been made."He was passed off to another researcher, who walked to another computer. Rodney stood over his shoulder. The librarian typed "million dollar bills" into Google. He clicked on a story link, "Georgia Man Tries to Deposit One Million Dollar Bill." The librarian silently scanned the article. Rodney noticed a photo of the suspect note, President Grover Cleveland on the front."Mine didn't look like that," Rodney said, relieved.The librarian surfed through several other pages before announcing he couldn't find any evidence that a $1 million bill had ever been produced. A $10,000 bill, briefly. Even a rare $100,000 bill. Then the librarian searched for "million dollar bill" on the bureau of engraving's website."Hmmm," the librarian said. "It's not matching anything.""But you can't say for sure, can you?" Rodney countered.No, the librarian allowed. He pulled out a World Book reference volume. He walked back to the computer and called up Google. "Has a million dollar bill ever been issued," he typed.The search results were the same: No mention of a $1 million bill."So it never really answered your question either, though," Rodney said."Yes, no," the librarian said, flustered. "It never directly said no."Rodney started to persist, but he sensed the librarian was done. He thanked him, slipped back on his leather hat and walked into the hallway."I don't know, man. I don't know. I'm not going to doubt the man," Rodney said outside. "But he's not going to undoubt me, either."It was cold. He needed to head to work."I'm not no fool," he said now, raising his voice. "I'm not no fool."* * *One morning a week later at Villa Griffin, Rodney pulled a small chicken pot pie from the oven. He wrapped it in tin foil and prepared to head out. On the kitchen table was a phone bill with a red slip of paper and the stark words "Disconnection notice" peeking through the cellophane window.Next to it was a letter from the bureau of engraving.The letter had arrived two days earlier. Registered mail. A manager in the Mutilated Currency Division announced case No. 9-11579 was closed: "Your note(s) were thoroughly examined and determined to be play money, not genuine United States currency. Therefore, it has no monetary value and cannot be redeemed."The letter ended with a condolence: "I apologize that my reply is not favorable."No explanation for why it had taken so long. And the letter was addressed to "Rooney Dukes." At that, Rodney shook his head. Suffocating, that's what he had been doing. Suffocating while this played out. And they didn't even care to know his name.But Rodney had his answer. He had that much.His wife laughed. She knew, just knew all along. "I told you that wasn't real," she said, no longer laughing.He figured she didn't understand. He had to try. At least, he wasn't so far down that he couldn't imagine his way out. The bill was fake, yes. But his faith in that bill was real. He wasn't ready to surrender his dream. The search had awakened something inside him. It was like believing in something false allowed him to feel something real."I'll make something happen," he said now.He felt his luck was out there. He just had to find it. His life's path was not set. Recently, he had been thinking about going back to driving trucks. He knew a guy who was getting 75 cents, even a $1 a mile. He had driven short-haul routes before. He had his commercial drivers license. Maybe he could do that. And his old man's offer of a pickup and a chance to go junking — that was out there, too.First, though, he had some unfinished business. Because tucked inside that letter from D.C. was his $1 million bill.* * *The bureau of engraving shed no light on the bill's origins for Rodney. Turns out that for years a California-based evangelical ministry — Way of the Master, perhaps best known for its late-night TV ads with "Growing Pains" sitcom actor Kirk Cameron — has been distributing fake $1 million bills with religious tracts on the reverse. A tract was on Rodney's bill asking, "Will you go to heaven when you die?" Except the type was so small, it was nearly unreadable.Some people see the fake bills as a good bait-and-switch for spreading religion. Online, people brag about leaving the bills in public places. You can buy 100 of them for $5. But the bills are a sore spot for the Treasury. Several years ago the Secret Service seized thousands of the bills claiming they too closely resembled real money. A judge overruled the agency because a true $1 million bill had never been produced. It wasn't counterfeit. Still, people across the country sometimes try to deposit the bills at banks or use them in liquor stores, trying to make a quick score, pull one over.But Rodney knew none of this.Now, he was going to try one last place. He wanted to see if even a fake bill had a price.With his car in the shop needing $400 in repairs, he got a ride into St. Louis. Along the way, he talked about a guy who gave him five can't-miss numbers for the lottery. "He's been working with the numbers for two, three months. He's an old hand," Rodney said. "Said they were his best five. I could use some money right now — get out of this hole I'm in."Thirty minutes later he was at Midwest Money, a coin shop in South St. Louis. His old man had recommended he come here months back. Now Rodney was there, a $1 million bill in his pocket.The store bustled behind a buzz-in security door. Silver coins clinked through an automatic counter. Workers examined bracelets and necklaces for customers looking to cash in on the soaring price of gold. Glass cases filled with paper bills stood just inside the door.Rodney bent down to look. A 1914 series $5 bill, selling for $70. Lincoln looked shrunken."This can't be real. Heck, no," he said quietly.He noticed a $1 Elvis Presley novelty note going for $5. He walked round and round the displays, fascinated. Mostly $1 notes, different designs. He pulled the $1 million bill from his leather jacket's inside pocket. It looked just as it did five months earlier, except for three deep creases from Rodney's repeatedly unfolding the bill to look at it. He laid the bill on the display glass. "Whoever printed it printed a helluva bill," he said.A worker broke free from another customer and asked Rodney if she could help. He showed her the $1 million bill, his eyes cast down."Okay, I'll have to ask about this," she said, taking the bill and walking to another worker. She returned seconds later."Yeah, this isn't real," she said.Rodney managed a slight smile and slipped the bill in his pocket."It's not real," he said. "Okay, thank you."He walked outside. The late morning sun glared down. The promise of driving trucks or collecting scrap metal could wait one more day. Right now, he needed a ride to the gas station. He carried $10 in his pocket and the lucky numbers on his mind, still struggling to imagine a world without $1 million bills.

1 comment: