Thursday, January 18, 2018

Who owns this treasure?

...Can you keep what you find?


PT II

 

HOW did a coin from an 1809 shipwreck off England end up in the possession of a Trinidadian soldier serving as the personal assistant to then-Lieutenant Raffique Shah during the 1970 mutiny at Teteron Barracks, Chaguaramas?

About the same improbable way it ended up in a hoard buried six feet under, near somebody's outhouse in a village near San Fernando for 20-odd years.

And none of this would have ever been told if two working-class men didn't reveal their secret, and agree to meet the only person alive to know the truth of their treasure.

Friends Kirk Pegus, 45, and Kevin Joseph, 48, had kept that secret half their lives.

In the early 90s, they were part of a gang of three, given the job of knocking down an old hillside house in San Fernando. The contractor paid each $300 to remove everything from the property.

So they “removed” the wooden cigar box they found sealed into a wall.

In the box were hundreds of coins from across the world, many from the 1800s. There were also stamps, military insignia, post cards, newspaper clippings, and the photograph of a woman taken a hundred years ago.

The friends divided up what they found.

Pegus and Joseph held on to most of it, considering it a long-term investment to liquidate sometime in the future.

A few months ago, they came to the Express asking if the coins and stamps could be valued and whether the cigar box of treasures and trifles could be traced to its source.

It took a while, but we found the site of the demolished house, at North Road, San Fernando, learned the name of the family that last lived there—the Mitchells—and began a search for the family.

There is only one surviving member. And we found him.

His name is Terrance Mitchell, a 77-year-old retired banker with Barclays/Republic, now living a comfortable life in Palmiste, south of San Fernando.

Terrance Mitchell grew up at that North Road house with his two brothers and their divorced mother who raised them.

Grandfather's box 

Also living at that house was maternal grandfather Frederick Adams, who was born in Trinidad, grew up in Anguilla, made a fortune in New York and Pennsylvania, then returned to the island, settling down on a Belmont hillside with a wife and four children until he became too frail to live alone.

We showed Mitchell a photograph of the box. He recognised it immediately. It's the one his grandfather stored his pipe, cigars and snuff.

 

The cigar box found during the demolition. Photo: Dexter Philip.

 All these years later and Mitchell still remembers the smell from that hand-made Jamaica Cigar Company box. The last time he saw it was somewhere back in the 50s.

He also remembers some of those coins and stamps. His grandfather was a stamp collector and would make it his business to purchase the first-issue stamps to add to the albums he kept.

Many of those coins were probably acquired in America, he said.

The post cards from Bermuda, Canada and New York that were found in the cigar box were mailed by his mother's employer Joseph Stauble, who owned the San Fernando bakery known to city folk for two generations. Stauble became a lifelong friend of the family.

Terrance Mitchell married the “China man's” daughter Bernadette Fong around the time of the country's Independence and moved out of the family home in 1963.

Papa Frederick Adams died in 1966. And as Mitchell recalled, his grandfather's collection would end up in the hands of his brother Ronald Mitchell.

Rebels of 1970 

And this is where Shah, the man who led the 1970 mutiny, makes an unlikely appearance.

It turns out that Ronald Mitchell enlisted in the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment in 1966 as a private—regimental number 3436.

Shah, who is now an Express columnist, told us last week: “(Ronald Mitchell) was a member of No. 6 Platoon which, as a lieutenant, I commanded on my return from two years' training at Sandhurst (London), from January 1967. A few months later he agreed to be my 'batman', the military term for an aide who takes care of officer's kit, ensuring the officer keeps his appointments among other duties.

Said Shah: “Mitch stayed on in that position until the mutiny in 1970, after which I was among close to 100 officers and other ranks charged with mutiny. Mitch was not among those charged. However, he was arrested by the police on the first day of the mutiny (April 21) when he was returning to Teteron driving my car. He was badly beaten by (then Senior Supt Randolph) Burroughs and his squad, but he was very tough and he challenged them to a fistfight.”

Mitchell's six-year contract ended in 1972 and he did not seek a renewal, said Shah.

 

Raffique Shah and his batman Ronald Mitchell.

“Our friendship lasted a lifetime, literally. He was among the 'rebels of 1970' who attended an annual reunion camp every year until 2008. In 2009, he lost a five-year battle with cancer.”

Mitchell's brother Murray died a month later. They outlived their mother by two years.

By then, the Mitchell family property had been sold, vandalised and left vacant for at least 15 years. Ronald Mitchell died without telling anyone of the whereabouts or contents of that cigar box.

Then came along the demolition men Joseph and Pegus. The box fell out of a wall that they were pounding open, they said. When it spilled its contents, they took it as an offering from God.

 Finders, keepers? 

But is what they did legal? It's more complicated than it first appears.

We asked criminal and civil defence attorney Kevin Ratiram about the law regarding this discovery.

“Bottom line,” he said, “they are guilty of larceny, and are not legally entitled to keep the items. The house-owner can stake a claim to the items, and same can be recovered if the men are charged by the police and are convicted of larceny. There is no finders-keepers law that allows them to keep items, in these circumstances.”

The men found the items. Surely, at that time, they must have believed that the owner could be discovered. It is not necessary that the finder actually try to discover the owner. It is also not necessary that the owner actually be discovered. All that is required under section 3 (b) of the Larceny Act is that the finder must believe that the owner could be discovered. The finders must surely have believed that the owner could be discovered, by asking the person who hired them if he was the owner of the items, or, if he knew who the owner was.

As such, they cannot, in these circumstances, claim “finders, keepers”.

 

Some of these coins may be valuable to a collector. Photo: Dexter Philip.

Therefore, the necessary ingredients of what constitutes “stealing”, under Section 3 of the Larceny Act, appear to be present, said Ratiram.

Section 14 of the Larceny Act states: “Any person who steals in any dwelling house any chattel (which is property apart from land)...if the value of the property stolen amounts to $25... is liable to imprisonment for ten years.”

Therefore, said Ratiram, since the finders stole, in a dwelling house, chattel (which is what the items are), valued at more than $25, the ingredients of the offence created under this section appear to be present, and they can be charged by the police pursuant to this section of the Act.

But can someone be charged after two decades?

Said Ratiram: “Even if the owner is deceased, it makes no difference legally. The offence is still chargeable. However, it may be more difficult to prove the case at trial. Usually in cases of larceny/stealing, the owner will testify that he was in possession of the item at the time of the incident. Nevertheless, even where the owner is dead, another person, for example a relative, can testify that the deceased was the owner at the material time.”

'You may have it all' 

Two Saturdays ago, near former West Indies cricketer Sonny Ramadhin's statue at Palmiste Park, Joseph and Pegus met Terrance Mitchell.

They brought the cigar box and its contents and explained how they came upon it. Maybe Mitchell would offer a finder's fee, they suggested.

 

The finders finally meet the man who knows the history of what they discovered. Photo: Dexter Philip

Mitchell examined it all, remembering the Stauble post card he received when he was 14 years old, the stamps his grandfather owned, puzzling over the photograph of his grandfather's mystery woman Rose Marion Baker (dated 1912 in Brooklyn), and noting the age and worth of the coins that ended up with his soldier brother.

“This is nothing more than sentimental value to me,” Mitchell told the men. “The only value is in the memories it has brought back. Good memories. You may wish to share it with me, or you can have it all.”

And with that, Joseph and Pegus could do whatever they wanted with the treasure with a clear conscience.

They returned the cigar box to Mitchell, along with the post cards, and some of the coins and stamps. The rest of it they hope a collector may be interested in acquiring.

Who knows the value of the trove? Whatever it may be, its story is priceless.

NOTE: You can contact the writer at richard.charan@trinidadexpress if you want to find out more about the coins and stamps.