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Plumber Finds $600,000 Buried In Bathroom Wall At Lakewood Church

Could the plumber have claimed "finders keepers"?

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Lakewood Church in Houston is a huge megachurch. Joel Osteen's ministry is housed in the former arena for the Houston Rockets.

In 2014, thieves stole nearly $600,000 from the church. To date, that crime has remained unsolved.

Now, a plumber discovered nearly $600,000 that was buried in a bathroom wall at the church!

A plumber says he found money in a wall while he was doing work at the church on Nov. 10, 2021. The news came to light during the radio morning show at 100.3 The Bull.

"It was just unbelievable!" Morning Show Host for the Morning Bullpen George Lindsey said. "The things he was telling us that they found in the walls."

Lindsey was shocked when he listened to viewers Thursday morning, but says this one caller really took the segment over the edge.

"There was a loose toilet in the wall, and we removed the tile," the caller said. "We went to go remove the toilet, and I moved some insulation away and about 500 envelopes fell out of the wall, and I was like 'Oh wow!'"

The caller said the envelopes were full of cash and checks.

"I went ahead and contacted the maintenance supervisor that was there, and I turned it all in," he added.

This plumber was a good person, and handed the money to the church. But could the plumber have kept the money, citing the doctrine of finders keepers? I think the answer is no.

Here, a relevant precedent is South Staffordshire Water Co. v. Sharman (1896). The Water Company hired Sharman to clean out a muddy pool of water. Sharman found two rings buried in the mud at the bottom of the pool. The company sued Sharman to recover the rings. Lord Russell wrote the opinion for the Queen's Bench. The Water Company was "the freeholder of the locus in quo." That is, South Staffordshire owned the pool. Therefore, Lord Russell reasoned, the Water Company had "the right to forbid anybody coming on their land or in any way interfering with it." Lord Russell held that the Water Company had "control" of "whatever might be in the pool." Specifically, "the possession of land carries with it . . . possession of everything which is attached to or under that land." In this case, the "rings embedded in the mud of the pool" were "attached to or under that land." Thus, the rings belonged to the owner of the land, the Water Company. It made no difference that the Water Company was unaware of the rings.

I think the church was the owner of the "locus in quo." The plumber was a licensee, who could only enter the property for a specific purpose, approved by the church. Taking any actions beyond the scope of that permission would have been a trespass. And the envelopes of cash were quite literally buried inside of a wall. Not exactly the same as a ring buried in the mud, but close enough for the common law.

Update: The New York Times reports that the money found was in fact the pilfered donations from 2014. The money was full insured, so I suspect the church may now have to reimburse the insurance company. The plumber admitted that he never considered taking the money:

During the call, the plumber noted that there was a $25,000 reward offered, saying with a laugh, "I need some compensation." He said he never thought about pocketing any of the envelopes.

"I'm an honest man," he said.

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  1. Left unconsidered by this post is what Joel Osteen was doing stuffing $600,000 in a wall of his church.

    1. Also unconsidered is whether anybody with half a brain would think that one is allowed to go on someone else's property and legally help themselves to anything they might find there.

      Next time I invite Josh B over for dinner, I'll be sure to count my spoons when he leaves.

    2. That was my first thought, too. But I swiftly gave up on it. Why would he bother with such a subterfuge, when he openly lives high off the hog, and undoubtedly has adequate private savings for his retirement?

      And the checks would all be worthless at this point anyway.

      Probably a crime of opportunity, and the thief had second thoughts, and never came back for the loot. But wasn't honest enough to take the risk of telling them where to find it.

    3. The plumber was a good person. And hence, the doctrine of 'nullum bonum impunitum' applies...

  2. If he's a plumber, maybe he doesn't need extra money? Some plumbers do OK in their jobs.

    1. (Even if he needed it, I'm not saying he would take it, of course. He's not the government, after all)

    2. The church doesn't need extra money either, but it never stopped them.

      1. Yes, the government raising revenue at gunpoint through taxation and a church raising money through voluntary contributions are direct analogs, spot on.

        1. I'm pretty sure Dilan is comparing the church to the plumber, not replying to the second comment about the government.

      2. The church doesn't need extra money either, but it never stopped them.

        Neither does Moderna. Or Abbott. Or Fauci. Isn't this fun?

        1. None of those folks got caught with money stuffed in their walls.

          1. The police chief in Detroit got caught with sacks of money stuffed into his ceiling. But it was just overflow from the evidence room, he claimed.

            A jury eventually didn't buy that explanation.

            1. I remember the Congressman who had the money stuffed in his refrigerator!

              In no way am I saying that the Osteen situation is unique. I support your efforts to come up with proper analogies. Life of Brian's analogies, however, were bad ones.

              1. Life of Brian's analogies, however, were bad ones.

                Nah, you just pivoted after I gave them: from "people who don't need money" to "people who don't need money who allegedly stuff it in their walls."

                So as long as they have the good sense to put the money in a bank they can bilk people out of their bottom dollar for their own unnecessary enrichment, and your original comment in no way even implied otherwise. Right?

              2. Freezer. Representative Jefferson had the cash in his freezer. Wrapped in aluminum foil, I guess so it wouldn't freezer burn.

                  1. This exceptionally selective reply from a few hours back suggests that Dilan has opted to cut his losses rather than double down on his latest anti-religion hissy fit, so I'll go ahead and spoil the punchline.

                    The building in question is a former sports arena that Osteen started leasing in the mid-2000s and ultimately bought a few years later.

                    Layering this in with the rest of the facts (and lack thereof) we've been kicking around, along with the obviously tortured language in the clickbait article, the likelihood that Osteen had any connection with the money found in the wall is statistically zero.

                    1. " his latest anti-religion hissy fit "

                      Are you a fan of superstition, Life of Brian? An adult-onset superstition victim? Do you claim to believe that fairy tales are true?

                      Carry on, clinger.

                1. "I guess so it wouldn't freezer burn."

                  More likely so anyone casually looking in his freezer wouldn't know it was money.

                  1. Matt,
                    Yes, you are correct. But Brett's (obviously tongue-in-cheek) comment had the benefit of being quite funny, while your (quite accurate) comment had the downside of sucking all the fun out of it. 🙂

                    1. Yup -- damned literalist lawyers spoil everything.

                    2. "But Brett's (obviously tongue-in-cheek) comment had the benefit of being quite funny"

                      No.

                      "while your (quite accurate) comment had the downside of sucking all the fun out of it."

                      Mission Acomplished!

          2. None of those folks got caught with money stuffed in their walls.

            Step back for a minute and think about what you're saying. They didn't "get caught" -- whatever was in those envelopes (and however much it was, and when it was from -- see my other comment below about the lack of actual facts at play here) was found by a plumber they themselves called to fix a plumbing problem.

            If you really think the Joel Osteen machine 1) decided to hide money in the walls of their church in the first place; 2) thought the most amazing place ever to stash away a bunch of paper would be in a bathroom wall; and 3) called in an outside plumber to come root around in said exact wall chasing a leak, I have some swampland down in Florida we should discuss pronto.

            1. Yeah, the guy hardly needs to hide cash in the walls when has a public net worth of about $50M.

              It was left there by a thief who for one reason or another never came back for it.

              1. Perhaps the thief wanted to deprive the church of the money but had no intent to abscond with it for his/her own use.

                1. Is it even theft, if it never left the premises?

                2. Were that the case, I think that instead of tearing apart a wall in the church, stuffing in a bunch of envelopes, and tiling it back up (all while nobody else was around to notice, for crying out loud), they would have just lit a match.

                  1. Given the amount of cash suggested in the article and code required smoke/fire detection/alarm systems, the fire would have been far more likely to get noticed.

                    The thief wouldn't necessarily have to have torn a wall open.

                    If there were repairs of some kind going on at the time of the theft, the thief might only have had to drop the envelopes into an existing hole in the wall.

                    And in a large church with multiple floors, the hole wouldn't have had to have been in the bathroom where the money was found but could have been a floor or even two above that.

  3. Surely there must be a more recent case than 1896.

    I wonder however if the found object could be shown to belong to someone else, do they still retain ownership? Suppose the rings found in the precedent were shown to be a Wedding Ring and Engagement Ring belonging to a specific person?

    1. Perhaps even a case with precedential value in Texas.

      I don't understand the law of losing things. Theft doesn't divest you of title, unless the object is laundered through a UCC-compliant dealer in that sort of goods. But loss... maybe? I've heard the UK has a crime called "theft by finding", and I've also heard that parts of the USA require finders to give the police some time, like a year, to find an owner before taking legal possession.

      1. If the insurance company pays you for the loss, do the lost items belong to the insurance company? Seems logical to me, but law and logic don't always play well together. If it's something personal like engagement and wedding rings, as opposed to cash or a car, do the reimbursed previous owners get them back, do they have to pay the insurance company back?

    2. I have to agree. Rather than discussing this case in the trivial specifics that are obvious to small children (possibly why the precedent is so old), I had hoped Blackman would have gone into the laws about buried treasure, which are fascinating.

  4. Left unmentioned is that in both cases the common laborer had the owner's permission to be on the premises. Left undiscussed is why a decision by a British court would be considered precedent in the good old USA. An aging hippie like myself might say that Lord Russell's opinion surely reflected the bias of the property-owning class. If Josh will consult the Constitution--our Constitution--I think he'll find there's a prohibition against granting of titles of nobility, which applies to both the federal and state governments. Even Texas.

    1. Not binding precedent, but a convincing explanation from another court applying the common law.

  5. Umwut? The linked article clearly says: "It’s unclear how much money the plumber discovered."

    It also says: A representative from Lakewood Church acknowledged cash and checks were found at the facility during repairs, years after a burglary of $600,000, in 2014."

    If the cash and checks indeed were the same or a subset of what was stolen, it seems like they would have clearly said that instead of this sort of careful wording.

    1. Good call, but that makes this extremely shitty journalism. The only reason to mention the stolen cash is to get the reader to assume a link. If the stolen 600k has no connection or baring to the the found monies, then it should not have been mentioned, as it is no more relevance to the story than, lets say, the church curing a faithful's hemorrhoids in back 2012.

      1. but that makes this extremely shitty journalism

        "Extremely shitty" implies the baseline is a good deal higher. I'm not sure that's really true anymore, unfortunately.

    2. From the link

      Evidence from the recovered checks suggests this November case is connected to the March 9, 2014 theft report of undisclosed amounts of money at the church, Houston police confirmed Friday.

  6. The analysis here offers some insight into why South Texas College of Law wanted to burnish its reputation by trying to steal a better school's identity.

  7. From childhood experience, invoking "finders keepers" isn't good enough. One must also invoke the doctrine of "losers weepers".

  8. Couple of things:

    First, the assumption is it is stolen property and the checks would make that pretty easy to confirm. Contractor on another's property aside, if you were to find Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee in a wall of a home you owned, would you be able to keep it, considering it is stolen property? I doubt it (although I don't know if art has any special laws that would not apply to cash).

    The more murky legal issue is if he would have found this money in a house, bought the house without telling the owner about it, and then pulled the money out and flipped the house. While generally a no-no, it is certainly not clear cut.

    1. Art has some important factual differences from cash, but as far as I know nothing like a government-run registry of ownership as we have for land and cars.

      And the guy who possibly had the aforementioned painting in his wall died earlier this year without ever giving up the secret. https://www.wbur.org/news/2021/09/23/robert-gentile-obit

        1. I think there's a private registry of stolen art too, but it's not mandatory the way you need to have your car in the government database to use it. It keeps honest people honest.

      1. Does cash have any "legal" differences from art? The question would, is there any legal difference between stealing and/or possessing 600k in cash vs. stealing/possessing a 600k painting?

        Considering that checks are involved, signatures, statements from the check writers, and dates on the checks should able to tie this money directly to the money stolen. Even if you could not tie it in this particular case, would their be a difference if you could; say with cash from a bank robbery with known serial numbers?

        And ya, that is why I used that painting in my example. I've followed that case a little off and on over the years and read an article about his death fairly recently.

        1. "The question would, is there any legal difference between stealing and/or possessing 600k in cash vs. stealing/possessing a 600k painting? "

          Assuming the checks weren't made out to cash, a pretty big difference.

        2. If you display distinctive stolen property to the public the statute of limitations starts running on actions to recover it. The Mona Lisa is hanging there in the Louvre and I know it, so I have to act soon to sue to get it back. We pretend that dollar bills are interchangeable. I do not have to check the serial number of the dollar bill on the wall of your restaurant to see if it used to be mine.

  9. I remember reading Hannah v. Peel, K.B. 509 (1945) all the way back in law school, and thinking that it was a strange case, precisely because it rejects the locus in quo rule of South Staffordshire Water Co. v. Sharman in favor of a rule based on agency. But I suppose the plumber in this case was probably hired by the Church to do the work, so the result still favors the church.

    Nonetheless, this being a case arising in Texas, it would seem to be governed by the prior precedents of Texas courts.

    See Schley v. Couch, 284 S.W.2d 333, 336 (Tex. 1955) ("The finder acquires no rights thereto, for the presumption is that possession of the [stash of money hidden on the property by an unknown third-party] is in the owner of the locus in quo, and, accordingly it is held that the right to possession of such property is in the landowner.").

    1. See also Neale v. Kirkland, 486 S.W.2d 165, 167 (Tex. Civ. App. 1972), which seems to establish that the Church could assert ownership over the money, as against a finder, by using circumstantial evidence to prove that it was the same money previously stolen from it.

      1. If those checks are even a little bit legible, church wouldn't even have to rely on circumstantial. Dates on the checks would give church strong corroborating evidence which could be further strengthened by the comparing the amounts with the church's accounting books and by check's writers.

      2. " See also Neale v. Kirkland, 486 S.W.2d 165, 167 (Tex. Civ. App. 1972), "

        Also see Kirkland v. Henry T. Fleming (1979) (establishing that awarding the Oscar to Ted Kramer, that talentless hack, was a crime).

    2. Well, not universally. As Schley makes clear, the locus in quo rule applies to mislaid property, not any personalty found in an odd place. "Lost" property is retainable by the finder, as "treasure trove" was under the common law. But I think the money here would qualify as "mislaid," rather than "lost."

      The differences in these doctrines at common-law were rather fascinating, and the outcomes totally different based on the classification. The post glosses over all of that unhelpfully.

  10. There's still an official, unresolved criminal case so to me, it's a crime scene and should have been processed as such.

    And yes, the plumber probably didn't know it was potential loot, but once the story came out, the cops should have become involved.

    1. That was actually where I thought the article was headed when I first started reading it.

      If there was an insurance write-off, there is going to be an insurance company asking a lot of questions about why exactly this money was still on premises.

  11. How gullible and stupid must one be to send money to Joel Osteen?

    Thank goodness the prevalence and influence of these freeloading hucksters -- televangelists, faith healers, rattlesnake-jugglers, tongues-speakers, prosperity gospel peddlers, organized religion in general -- is diminishing in modern America.

    Choose reason. Every time. Be an adult.

    Or, at least, please try.

    Thank you.

    1. Call HPD and they would probably shoot somebody then seize the money with civil asset forfeiture.

      More seriously, the money belong to whomever it was stolen from. Or possibly their insurance company, who likely has first dibs on whatever amount they covered. Which I believe it was stolen from the church in the first place. Now the real question, is how did it get behind the wall? It isn't like you can just shove money in a wall without anyone noticing.

      1. Depending on details of construction, (The more shoddy, the better, in this case.) you might very well be able to. Not everybody properly frames in an opening in drywall for a wall mounted urinal or whatever.

      2. Shoot the bearer, and then the cops would keep the cash, turn in the checks..

      3. " Which I believe it was stolen from the church in the first place "

        The church reportedly claimed it was stolen. Whether such a claim was accurate should be the subject of a police (and prosecutor) investigation.

  12. Citing a 1896 English case? FFS, that's weak.

    1. Estate of former homeowner prevails over current homeowner when hidden cash is discovered in a home sold "as is" (with cash in the walls, later found): https://www.azcourts.gov/Portals/89/opinionfiles/CV/CV110148.pdf

      Handy discussion of relevant US law (Arizona). There's probably on-point TX law too that would be a heckuva lot more relevant than Lord Russell's opinion for the Queen's Bench. Which might be entirely different than Arizona. And actually precedential in TX.

      If Blackmun teaches with this level of sloppiness about what case law to cite and how persuasive it is, I weep for his students.

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