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The $15,000 Santa Clara River mystery

Community: Local man’s afternoon find leads him on a multiyear investigation in search of an owner —

Posted: March 6, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 6, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Rick Steinbruecker displays $15,000 of savings bonds Friday at the Santa Clara River in Canyon Country. Steinbruecker found the savings bonds, along with the paper history of a California family, in a file cabinet on the riverbed five years ago. The find is one of many the man has made in the river.

 

At the end of a hard-bitten road of cracked asphalt, through a rusting iron fence that opens onto the dusty banks of the Santa Clara River, lies a mystery.

It began one day five years ago, when Rick Steinbruecker drove his Jeep to the end of this industrial street named after the river and made the discovery that puzzles him to this day.

In his daily dog-walking ritual through paths less traveled around the Santa Clarita Valley, the now-retired Steinbruecker inevitably finds things.

He once found a hot tub that could barely fit on his truck.

He’s found hundreds of perfectly useful tools, including a chain saw that started with a single pull.

One time, he found more than 40 shopping carts dumped in the wash of the Santa Clara River, one cart buried in silt so deep only its handle poked through the surface.

But one day five years ago, the sinewy man with the neatly trimmed white beard found a discarded four-drawer metal filing cabinet; all its drawers were empty — except one.

In it, he found the paper history of a California family — Social Security cards, legal papers, photographs of people he didn’t know and of landscapes he didn’t recognize, and $15,000 in crisp U.S. savings bonds.

It was no mystery to whom the bonds belonged: Names were typed on the $50 certificates.

His mission to return the bonds to their rightful owners, however, has kept Steinbruecker busy for five years.

“I noticed this filing cabinet and one whole drawer was full of stuff — tax forms, pictures — so I thought I would take it home and throw it in the recycling barrel,” he said.

“I brought it home, opened a couple of envelopes and lo and behold, I looked at these,” he said, holding up the bonds.
“They looked pretty real. I don’t know if they’re good or not.  I can’t believe someone threw these all away.”

Recycling man
If you have occasion to meet Rick Steinbruecker, a number of names might come to mind to describe him: salvager, scavenger, junk collector, hoarder. But none quite fits.

He lives in a big, tidy, uncluttered house off Whites Canyon Road in Canyon Country.

And while he’s collected thousands of perfectly fine pieces of merchandise that could be resold  — they’re all stacked neatly in a small pile inside his garage —  he’s not interested in money.

He doesn’t sell the items on eBay.

Twice a year, he has a yard sale. But that’s it.

How fine is his merchandise?

An antique wooden grandfather-type clock hangs on the wall of his house by the garage door.

“Did you find this?” a reporter asks.

“Yep.”

Among the discovered items earmarked for his garage sale: a red toolbox filled with at least 50 perfectly functional, unrusted functional tools; a fishing tackle box, again filled with equipment.

Why does he do it?

Every day he walks his dog Willy. During his walk, he gets his exercise he says, and, since he doesn’t like to travel the same route twice, he covers a lot of new wilderness and finds a lot of interesting things.

He picks things up as he goes and recycles what he can.

On Friday, when he revisited the place where he found the savings bond treasure, he found a perfectly good brake pad.

He said he was going to do what he normally does with found metal and leave it at an intersection for metal haulers to collect.

$15,000 treasure
Steinbruecker found the bond-laden filing cabinet on the other side of the gate at the end of Santa Clara Street.

It looked as though someone had simply backed a pickup truck onto the lip of the wash — under the shadow of hydroelectric towers that follow the second Los Angeles Aqueduct as it cuts through the Santa Clarita Valley north to south — and simply kicked it off the back of the truck.

The bonds, all issued in the “Series E” group made available by the United States government, bear the names of the Royce family: Wilbur Royce, his wife, Joan, and their son Kenneth Royce.

Their Social Security numbers were attached to documents that accompanied the bonds.
Military papers bore the patriarch’s name.

Steinbruecker tracked Wilbur Royce and his family to Santa Barbara, he said, to a house on the coast.

“I got some addresses, so I went up to Santa Barbara to look at these addresses. They had this huge piece of property on the ocean. One I couldn’t get to because they must have sold the property — it was all beachfront property,” he said. “I have paperwork that they were trying to sell it. It was in a guarded community.”

A neighbor said the name Royce sounded familiar, but no one he talked to knew with certainty anything about the family.

Steinbruecker returned to the Santa Clarita Valley and filed the bonds in a kitchen drawer. That was about three years ago.

He reopened his own unsolved mystery recently as he cleaned his kitchen and, once again, held the envelope that contained a small fortune.

He picked up the investigation where he had left it.

This time, he went to the office of U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita. The congressman’s
assistants said they would follow up.

“I never heard anything back from them,” he said. “Then a friend of mine is a private detective, and he said he would look into it, but he never got back to me, either. My next thing was to send them to the Federal Reserve and say, ‘Here
you are.’”

Then it occurred to Steinbruecker that he might reach the Royce family if the story of his discovery was published in the newspaper.

With the help of The Signal, Steinbruecker learned a little more about the Royce family, thanks to genealogy websites.
The Royce Family

Wilbur Royce, was born Wilbur Dare Royce on Jan. 13, 1926.

According to his military records found online, he completed four years of high school, and when he turned 18, enlisted in the United States military on March 17, 1944, in Spokane, Wash.

Around the same time, he obtained a Social Security card.

Joan Royce was born Joan Margaret Mertz on March 4, 1928, in Wisconsin, according to public documents available
online that matched the Social Security card found with the savings bonds.

The same documents also show that her mother was born Violet E. Clumpner, also from Wisconsin — a name also on papers found by Steinbruecker.

Joan Mertz was just a 2-year-old when she lived in Tacoma, Wash. She, like her husband, obtained her Social Security card in Washington before 1951.

After she met Wilbur Royce, the two were married and, in 1984, lived in the coastal town of Cambria about 15 miles north of San Luis Obispo.

A couple of years later, they moved to Santa Barbara.

The streets they lived on in that city included: Main Street, Montecito Street and Palm Avenue.

Joan Royce died in Santa Barbara on Sept. 28, 1996.

Her husband died a couple of years later on Dec. 11, 1998.

Steinbruecker has now narrowed his search to find the couple’s only son, Kenneth Dare Royce.

“So I went on Google, I figured he was around here so I looked in the  phonebook,” he said. “Nothing.”

Next of kin
Kenneth Dare Royce was born in Marin County on Feb. 28, 1961.

Online search sites indicate he may have lived in Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara, and for a brief time in Canyon Country.

Only two listings for Royce appear in Santa Clarita Valley telephone books over the last decade.

“I’ve never heard of him,” said a woman in Canyon Country whose name is Royce.

The second number has been discontinued.

One of the online phone listings for the Canyon Country man is for Kenneth Dare Royce Sr., age 50, which matches the age of Joan and Wilbur’s son.

Steinbrueker’s search now includes Kenneth Dare Royce Jr.

An online genealogy site lists a Kenneth Dare Royce born in Santa Barbara on Jan. 7, 1993. Only a handful of “Ken Royce” hits come up on Internet searches.

Phone calls made to those people in San Mateo, Huntington Beach and Sebastopol proved not to be Kenneth Dare Royce — junior or senior.

One local bank manager said the bonds would likely go to the executor of the couple’s estate, and if there was no executor, the final arbiter would be bankers at the Federal Reserve.

For now, Steinbruecker is going to keep looking for Kenneth Dare Royce.

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