Soon after taking over as state treasurer in 2015, Mike Frerichs went on a tour of the department’s vault.
There was a display case full of unclaimed property. One item in particular caught his attention: a Purple Heart.
Frerichs asked “Who does this belong to?”
The answer at that point was unknown. The most helpful clue was the box the medal came in.
“I said, ‘Let’s try to track down the owner of the box,’” Frerichs said.
That turned into what is now Operation Purple Heart, Frerichs’ effort to return the prized medals to their rightful owners and/or families.
Frerichs tasked one of the treasury employees to become a detective, tracking down the other Purple Hearts in the department’s possession.
So far, seven have been returned. As Veterans Day approaches Thursday, Frerichs is making a push to return the other 11 that have been found.
“They’re hard to return,” Frerichs said.
Where did the medals come from? Safe deposit boxes in Channahon, Chicago, Decatur, O’Fallon and Peoria.
“The name of the person who rented the box is not necessarily the person who received the medal,” Frerichs said.
“You get a lot of young men who come back from war who are 22, 25 years old.
“They don’t own a home, so they come back and give their Purple Heart to a family member, to a parent, to a sibling. ‘You keep this for safekeeping. I don’t want it to get stolen. I don’t want it to burn up in a fire.’”
The names of the recipients aren’t engraved on the medals, adding to the difficulty of the search.
“We only know the details of the seven Purple Hearts we returned because we found the owners and they told us,” Frerichs said.
“They’ve been really interesting stories, a wide range.”
With the remaining 11 medals, the department has run into dead ends.
The last names on the 11 medals have been identified and released to the public, along with the cities where the medals were found and on what date.
“If you’ve got a less common last name, the internet can help you pull up people,” Frerichs said.
“You can make calls and do leads. But you can’t start randomly calling people named Smith and say ‘Are you related to a veteran who one time lived in Oak Park?’”
Frerichs hopes word of mouth will help with the process.
And the public will ask some questions.
“Do I know any veterans who lived in these 10 communities in Illinois? Do I know anyone who banked in these communities? Do I know anyone whose children might have lived in those communities?”
Military organizations are part of Operation Purple Heart, with VFW and American Legion chapters pitching in.
Frerichs is reaching out to media affiliates in the communities with the idea of generating information.
“Hoping to jog some people’s memories,” he said.
“We’re getting some traction. People are calling into our office. We know that people are thinking and asking questions.”
The 11 Purple Hearts include the following last names, along with the location where they were found: Alexander (Channahon); Burns (Homewood); Cawthon (Portland, Ore.); Gorski (Darien); Isbell or Shayer (Chicago); Moore (Peoria); Smith (Oak Park); Steward or Vanhasselaere (Round Lake); Tuttle (Decatur); Wiest (O’Fallon) and Wilson (Chicago).
Frerichs’ focus is currently on the Purple Hearts, but the department also wants to return other military medals in its possession.
Only the recipients or their families are entitled to the medals.
Fraudulent claims are against the law.
“You can’t buy, you can’t steal honor or valor,” Frerichs said.
“It has to be earned.”
The medals will never be sold. And Frerichs wants them in the proper hands.
“We make this very public because we think it’s very important we get these medals back in the rightful owners’ hands,” he said.
When it comes to unclaimed property, Frerichs sees a spike in visits to the department’s website and a spike in fraudulent claims.
There are safeguards to ward off fraudulent claims.
The treasury department has unclaimed property stored in its vaults.
New items come in all the time.
When the department starts to run out of space, it will auction off unclaimed property.
After 10 years of being unable to track down the owner of coins or baseball cards, stamps, etc., the items go up for sale.
But the price is tracked in case the owner reaches out at a later date.
When Frerichs first took over as treasurer, one of his staff members left a claim form on his desk.
“They said ‘Treasurer, you are in charge of unclaimed property. Why don’t you start by claiming your own?’”
Frerichs had $25 a friend had sent him via PayPal years before.
He collected the money.
via The News-Gazette
November 11, 2021 at 11:01PM