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Driving Along Minding His Business, Melvin Kiser Ran into $2 Million—then He Did the Unthinkable

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Melvin Kiser, a Columbus, Ohio, telephone repairman, didn’t think that Lady Luck had his number. He’d never won the lottery—never won much of anything, in fact, except a $50 prize in a bingo game. Well, hold back the tears. Kiser has made up for his lifelong losing streak. Last month he found $57,670 on his way to work.

At about 9:30 a.m. on October 28, Kiser, 31, was driving his repair truck along I-71 in downtown Columbus when opportunity showed up in the slow lane. “I noticed this truck two cars in front of me,” he says. “Then I see its doors open and a bag fall out. The car ahead of me hits it, and the bag busts open. It was like a heavy snowfall”—except that the contents didn’t look anything like the flakes on Willard Scott’s weather map. For one thing, they were green. “Gee whiz!” thought Kiser. “I think it’s money.”

Yes, indeed. While the armored truck toddled on down the highway, a bank robber’s dream was fluttering in its wake as three more bags tumbled onto the road. An estimated $2 million in unmarked $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills—totally untraceable tender—wafted in front of disbelieving motorists like a mirage of riches. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe this is happening. It has to be a movie or something,’ ” says Kiser. And the truck? “Never even hit a brake light,” he adds. “Never even slowed down.”

David Yost, president of the family-owned Metropolitan Armored Car Inc., refuses to identify the two-man crew or to explain how they could have driven another mile before realizing that they were papering Columbus with currency. Residents of the Ohio capital, meanwhile, are captivated by another question: How do you react when a Great Ethical Dilemma turns up right on your doorstep? The topic of debate in Columbus—right up there with the sacking of Ohio State football coach Earle Bruce—is just what is a person morally obligated to do when caught in a green blizzard of tax-free paper money.

At first most of the motorists got down on their hands and knees—not to acknowledge divine beneficence but to hastily stuff their pants, shirts, pockets and bras with engravings of Hamilton, Jackson and Grant. Kiser remembers the “weird looks on [the recipients’] faces” as they poured out of their cars and snatched at the cash. “Money! Money! Grab you some while you can!” howled one. “It’s a gift from heaven!” proclaimed another. Within 20 minutes the armored truck had returned, the police had cordoned off the area, and the initial frenzy had dissipated. Some $500,000 was recovered at the scene, leaving perhaps $1.5 million in the care of about 100 enthusiastic volunteers.

Kiser reacted like almost everyone else who was there; he scooped up a torn bag of money and headed off. He lives with his fiancée, Vickie Burris, 31, and her 6-year-old daughter, Katie, on a newly purchased 40-acre farm, and as he pressed a shaking foot to the accelerator he was starting to think about a new tractor. When he called Vickie from his first job to tell her about his bonanza, he couldn’t stop laughing. “I thought it was some joke he had heard,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, what’s the punch line?’ He said, ‘I’m serious. I was thinking about keeping it, but I’m going to give it back to the police.’ ” Kiser was as good as his word, but when he dropped off his haul at the local precinct, police looked at him as if to say, “What? Are you nuts?” he recalls.

Meanwhile the money was starting to weigh heavily on the consciences of some who had taken it. And there was another consideration: At the time of the accident, an urban planner named Bruce Burns had stopped his car and taken pictures looking down from an overpass. When the film was turned over to the police, the potentially incriminating evidence began restoring sinners to the path of righteousness. “It’s funny how your conscience seems to bother you more when you think you might get caught,” notes Burns.

One of his photographs shows a man hopping into a vehicle with a bulging bag clenched in each fist. Although the man returned nearly $2,000 under pressure from his employers, investigators suspect he has more stashed away. They believe three or four people have most of the still-missing sum of about $1.4 million—among them, perhaps, the anonymous caller who told the local paper that he was keeping his money and leaving town. Goodbye, Columbus.

Metropolitan Armored Car is paying a 10 percent reward for returned cash, so Kiser’s honesty has earned him $5,767. Other booty hunters have taken no chances; they returned what they found anonymously, politely informing Metropolitan president Yost that a 10 percent finder’s fee had been skimmed from the top.

Though the company has vowed to prosecute anyone found keeping its money, observers see the threat as a hollow one. “Let’s face it,” says Franklin County prosecutor Michael Miller, “probably two-thirds of the jurors would think the guys should have kept the money.” Melvin Kiser wouldn’t agree. “I couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d kept it,” he says. This pleases his mother, Billie, but his father, Russell, isn’t so sure. “I thought I raised you better than that,” he deadpans. “I would have headed south so fast I’d have burned out two trucks.”