When Jesse Brody realized that the beat-up cabinet he scavenged from a dead man’s Morningside home contained a former jeweler’s small fortune — stacks of cash in envelopes, jewelry and lumps of gold tucked inside a bread bag hidden in an old dentistry cabinet — he just wanted to do the right thing.
It would be straightforward, he thought. Maybe he could meet the man’s children at a McDonald’s drive-thru and pass the precious cargo off like a bullion baton.
Not so fast.
In the 24 hours after the Miami Herald published Brody’s story — and his notice to all possible heirs of the late Rolando Periche Mojena — family members have sprouted from the woodwork. Brody, an adjunct professor at Florida International University and furniture store owner, has been sought out by Periche’s three children, an estranged brother, a niece and even a woman whose mother lived in another city and thought it might be hers.
“When I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ just reliving the whole thing again,” said the dead man’s daughter, Yvetta Acosta, a bookkeeper at a school in Port St. Lucie. “We spent days trying to clean out the house.”
“Everyone in my family has an annoying habit of stashing things away,” said the dead man’s niece, Francheska Periche, a paralegal in Miami whose father openly feuded with Periche, his brother. “We knew it was there somewhere. I read the article and I’m still in shock.”
“When my dad passed, my uncle wanted to take over everything,” said the dead man’s son, Richard Periche. “He has no rights. It doesn’t make sense.”
Brody, who said he “would like to stay out of any potential negative family dynamics,” quickly realized that handling a deceased man’s estate was not exactly in his job description, and that personally doling out an informal inheritance he has valued roughly at up to $30,000 could open him up to civil liability — or street justice.
“The last thing I want is for these people to mug me,” he said. “I don’t want anybody coming back to me, no disgruntled family members.”
So, five years after Periche died inside his home in the northeast Miami neighborhood, about four years since Brody got permission to take the man’s steel cabinet from a dilapidated garage — and days after he discovered the small fortune he’d left sitting at the back of his warehouse all this time — Brody lawyered up.
His legal team, comprised of his semi-retired cousin and the cousin’s legal partner, plans to file an “interpleader” action in Miami-Dade County Court. The legal document will let a judge decide the fate of the treasure. In such a case, a judge may appoint a curator or administrator to hold the property for safekeeping.
“He obviously just wants it to go into the right hands,” said attorney Michael Fasano, Brody’s cousin’s partner. “Those who may have a claim can come forward and prove their descendance.”
After trying for years to foist Periche’s dirty, lumbering dentistry cabinet on one of his other handy friends, Brody decided on Sunday that he’d finally get around to cleaning it up at his Miami Beach furniture store, CA Modern Home.
After pressure cleaning it with a former student and his current warehouse assistant, Brody discovered the hidden booty behind the drawers.
In a raisin bread bag he found a 1924 American Eagle gold coin, a few pounds of handcrafted gold jewelry and the instruments of a jeweler.
And in a neighboring shopping bag, there were Periche family photos, a Cuban passport and U.S. immigration pamphlets, and assorted envelopes filled with cash.
Acosta, Periche’s 47-year-old daughter, said she learned of the discovery while she was at work on Wednesday. Her little brother David, who found their father’s body in 2013, alerted her to the story.
When Periche died, David called her screaming. Seeing Brody’s story retraumatized her, she said.
“It was very emotional,” Acosta said. “I grew up in that house. All of my family is gone except for my brothers and two uncles.”
Acosta said her father was a jeweler who operated two shops in Miami at one point, and made a living creating jewelry, a trade he learned from his father, Ricardo.
Acosta said she believes the gold pieces Brody found were likely her father’s creations. In the months before his death, Acosta said, Periche became more religious. He loved fixing up classic cars and possibly used the dentistry cabinet to store old car parts or tools, she said. Maybe he hid his valuables because, as a Cuban immigrant, he was distrustful of government.
With both her parents cremated and stored in urns at her home in Port St. Lucie, where she moved in 2003, Acosta said she wants to bring back what belonged to her father.
“I understand that you hear these stories all the time,” she said. “My father did not have a will.”
Fasano said the next steps will be to see if Periche’s estate was settled through the county probate court and if he had a will. His children have said he did not have a will, which would mean his property would be passed along to them, since Periche’s wife is dead.
“Sometimes in probate court, you can see the worst in people,” he said. “Obviously it’s very easy to come forward.”
Francheska Periche, who says she still remembers seeing Rolando Periche’s body lying in that old house, said her father deserves a share of his brother’s final belongings.
“My father would really like that closure,” she said. “It would mean anything to my father to even get a piece of what remains of my uncle.”
Francheska Periche said she was surprised her uncle’s children had already learned of Brody’s discovery.
But Richard Periche, Yvetta’s brother, said he wasn’t surprised to learn his uncle, who had been estranged from the dead man, was back in the picture.
For Richard, a 49-year-old lighting technician, hearing about Brody’s discovery brought up nothing but sour memories. When his dad died, he said, Richard represented his dad’s assets as his uncle Rene tried to get a cut.
“It’s bad memories, man,” he said.
Bruce Stone, an adjunct faculty at the University of Miami’s Heckerling Graduate Program in Estate Planning, said it would be unwise for Brody to turn over the property to anyone without a court order protecting him, and that filing an interpleader action is the “appropriate legal remedy.”
“The good thing about an interpleader is you sort of wash your hands of the issue,” said Stone, a shareholder with Goldman Felcoski & Stern P.A. who is not involved in Brody’s case. “It should be resolved within a year.”
While Brody should be commended for his act of valor, Stone said most people would not have come forward:
“No good deed goes unpunished.”