Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Back in July, I wrote about a guy named Russell Ries, who had acquired a cigar box full of old snapshots, all of or pertaining to the same person, along with the person's military medals and some other personal effects. He purchased them from a flea market vendor, who had obtained them at an estate sale. The person in the photos was deceased, but Russell was thinking about tracking down the person's relatives and giving them the photos and other objects. (If you missed this entry or want to refresh your memory on the particulars, look here.)

Russell recently got in touch with me because there's been a new development, as follows (Russell doesn't want to disclose the name of the person shown in the photos, so I've changed it to John Doe, and have also changed the names of John Doe's children):

A few weeks ago I met a couple named Larry and Donna Conzett at the farmers' market where I work on Saturday mornings. After talking for awhile, I got to telling them about the photos in the cigar box and how I have a bunch of John Doe's military medals and other stuff too. It turns out that the Conzetts are passionate about genealogy and other historical research. ... Even better, they enjoy returning lost personal items to the families to which they belong. They generously offered to help me find out more about John Doe and help track down his relatives, so I sent them all the information I had on him. They've now given me the results of their research, and what they've discovered has left me dumbfounded.

The very last John Doe photo I posted on my Flickr account was one that shows John Doe's mother standing beside a grave site in a cemetery [which you can see at the top of this page — Paul]. The grave is for Joey, John Doe's second son. All along, I thought this was the saddest photo in the set and I wondered what caused Joey to pass away at such a young age. But now the Conzetts -- the researchers who offered to help me -- have discovered that Joey died of malnutrition brought on by child neglect at the age of two.

According to a bunch of newspaper articles the Conzetts found, John Doe and his wife (who was pregnant with their third child at the time) were charged with and convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Joey's death. They then appealed and were granted a new trial due to juror misconduct. That's as far as the information goes. I don't know what happened in the second trial, but I'm not really sure it matters, because the coverage of the first trial doesn't paint a very pretty picture. It all gives me a better guess about why John Doe's personal possessions were not kept by his family after his death. [Russell provided me with copies of the newspaper articles. They portray John Doe and his wife in an extremely unflattering and upsetting light. — Paul]

Another thing the Conzetts discovered is that John Doe's oldest son, Andy, is his only living relative and he happens to live here in the Nashville area -- where I live. [John Doe's family was not living anywhere near Tennessee when the manslaughter trial took place. — Paul] Based on what I now know, I very much doubt that Andy would want to have his father's possessions. Still, I'm wondering if I should locate him and offer them to him anyway. That way it would at least be his decision to reject the items, rather than some stranger (me) deciding for him.

How would you play this? Should I let sleeping dogs lie, or should I seek out Andy? (The fact that he just happens to live in the same place as me kind of seems like a sign...) If I am to approach him, how should I go about it?

For now I'm going to give this info time to settle in my brain, rather than take any action. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Wow. I sent Russell a lengthy response, the gist of which was basically "It's complicated." If it were me, I'd probably go ahead and contact Andy, because that's part of what I do as a journalist and storyteller -- I follow the rabbit hole, even if it leads in potentially uncomfortable directions. And as I mentioned to Russell (who readily agreed), there's no getting around the fact that this is now a tantalizingly juicy story, even if the juiciness is rooted in tragedy. It feels like a puzzle that wants to be solved, a mystery that wants to be resolved.

But it's certainly possible that Andy -- John Doe's son -- doesn't want any reminders of an unpleasant past, especially not from a stranger. So I can see a strong argument for not contacting him. Indeed, maybe Andy is the one who sold John Doe's belongings at the estate sale in the first place.

One of Russell's big motivators here is that he wants John Doe's military medals to have a proper home. Perhaps he should give them to a veterans' group and leave Andy out of it..?

I suggested to Russell that it might be good to ask for feedback and advice from the Permanent Record readership, so here we are. What do you think? Post your thoughts in the comments, or e-mail them to me and I'll pass them along to Russell. Thanks.


  1. Contact him. Russell is right: let Andy be the one to make the decision to reject the offer. Assuming acrimony between Andy and his father, and letting that assumption get in the way of a perfectly honorable intention, is a mistake. There may be no acrimony at all. I don't know how likely or unlikely that is, but there's one way to find out: contact him.

  2. Wow is right. The photo that was already sad is now downright depressing. Being a non-journalist and generally fearing uncomfortable situations, I would steer clear of Andy. I would hate to be the one responsible for dredging up memories as horrible as the ones that he must bear.

  3. Very, very likely that the family disposed of the medals and pictures through that estate sale. The photos may be just the kind of things they didn't want to go through and thus ended up with the sale agent.

    Still, Andy may not have been the one to get rid of them and he may want them.

    My suggestion is to contact Andy by mail in a letter that gives him Russell's phone/email contact info. And also let Andy know that if Russell doesn't hear from him the photos will be destroyed and the medals either destroyed or disposed of in a way that removes any connection to John Doe.

    Actually, something vague-ish like this may be better: "...and if I don't hear from you in a month or two I will dispose of these items in such a way that you will not hear of them again."

  4. I would contact Andy. He is basically entitled to the items, if he wants it he'll keep it, and if he doesn't, he'll either reject the offer or donate/sell them. Life isn't always about happy situations & endings, and he can take a sad situation & help other people from it.

    A museum or auction house would love have to have these items.

  5. I would also contact Andy. We don't know that he wouldn't want to have his father's possessions - even if the press reports were 100% true, maybe Andy would be glad to have anything from his parents that could possibly contain a positive association. Or maybe he'd like to dispose of them himself.

    Either way, having come this far I think Russell has to follow this through to the end. Contact Andy, and let him decide.

  6. WOW, Paul, this may be the most compelling PR find yet! I'm more on the macabre side, so this is totally fascinating to me. My mouth was literally gaping as I read the fate of Joey. Being that we're talking military medals, I think Andy should be contacted. If it were a pharmacy ledger or discarded power bill, I could see stopping with the satisfaction of identifying the owner. But as mentioned above, the medals very likely have meaning/value to third parties. With the proper amount of tact I think Andy could be informed of the find without much issue.

    You always preach about $200 polyester shirts on UW, but your PR finds are precisely why I'm a game worn collector. Love the unknown back story.