It was an ethical dilemma straight from the textbooks: Imagine you and two of your friends find a small fortune of cash inside a crummy old couch you bought for cheap at a second-hand shop. Would you trace the money back to its owner, or would you keep it to spend on your heart’s deepest desires? A SUNY New Paltz student and two friends dealt with this dilemma first hand early March 2014.
Third-year geology student Reese Werkhoven, Mount Holyoke College graduate Cally Guasti and SUNY New Paltz graduate Lara Russo were getting cozy on their new couch for the first time, when Werkhoven ruffled himself a plastic envelope from under the couch’s patchy arm.
“I almost peed,” Werkhoven said. Inside the envelope was a wad of twenties that added up to $700.
“The most money I’d ever found in a couch was like fifty cents. Honestly, I’d be ecstatic to find just $5 in a couch.”
The group began a thorough excavation, maneuvering the couch in all directions so that every linty crevice could be probed to find more money.
“Just when we thought we pulled out the last envelope we’d find another $1,000 a few minutes later,” said Guasti.
Twenty minutes after sitting on an old musky couch, three college students were now miraculously standing on $40,000 in cash.
For a while, there were no notes, no names, or anything else that could have told them who the money belonged to. For all they knew the money was fair game.
Then there was a game changer. Russo found a woman’s name on one of the envelopes.
“We had a lot of moral discussions about the money,” Russo said. “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. However, there were a lot of gray areas we had to consider.”
Each of them called their parents for advice; their parents basically told them all the same thing:
Don’t spend the money. Don’t tell anyone about the money. Find the woman from the envelope. Find out if it’s her money.
Questions came into focus.
What if the money belonged to a homicidal drug dealer? What if it was all counterfeit? What if the person who owned the money was dead? Who should they trust to give it in their name? What if the person is just a really bad person?