$100,000 CAN BUY A WHOLE LOT OF UNHAPPINESSFREEWAY CASH RETURNED CIRCUITOUSLY

I got a phone call Thursday from a man who sounded frantic. He said he would speak only to me. He said he’d found some money, a lot of money, money from that armored truck that spilled over on I-75 Tuesday. He wanted to return it. He said he was scared.

That much I could hear in his voice. He sounded like a man calling a crisis hot line. In between gulps of air, he rattled on about his baby daughter, his wife, his work, how he hadn’t slept, how he hadn’t eaten, how his stomach was tied in knots.

At times he cried. At times he couldn’t catch his breath. He said his business could be ruined, his reputation could be crushed — all because he stopped on the highway and scooped up a bundle that wasn’t his.

“I tried to give it back to an officer there,” he said. “But he shrugged me off. So I got in my car and left.”

“How much did you take?” I asked.

“A lot,” he said.

What he’d taken — in less than a minute — was more than $100,000.

And whatever that weighs in a bag is, apparently, nowhere near what it weighs on your conscience.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“I don’t want to give you my name,” he said.

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to help me. I want to give you the money, and have you give it back. I trust you. I listen to you. You’re the only one I can trust.”

Now, in this line of work, you are not supposed to get involved with your stories. But this did not begin as a story. And being a journalist does not mean you stop being a person. In the crazy hours that have followed this incident, people have told me I was nuts to give this man my home phone number, that I was a fool to agree to meet with him, that I should have simply told him to call the cops and stayed as far away as possible.

Maybe that was the smarter thing to do. But I do a lot of talking on this job, and I try to do some listening, too. And something I heard in this guy’s voice said that what he wanted was not to hurt me or anyone else, but to stop hurting himself.

How do you walk away from that?

The meeting is set

So, we exchanged several more phone calls Thursday night and Friday morning, and I called Ike McKinnon, the Detroit police chief, who assured me there was an amnesty period in effect for that money, and if this man — who told me to call him “Charlie” — would meet me with the cash at an agreed-upon spot, nothing would happen to him. I asked McKinnon to join me there, and Charlie said that was OK, as long as we were alone, and no one would arrest him or pull a double-cross.

I suppose, as a media person, I was an insurance policy for Charlie, just as McKinnon was an insurance policy for me, and I was the connection for McKinnon getting the money back. This is how these things work.

So we set a time. We picked a place — the lobby of WJR’s 21st floor offices — and Charlie showed up.

With a box.

He was a young man, 29, wearing a long white T-shirt, and he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. When he saw me, he beamed and called out my name — like some sort of old friend — and I was once again struck with how powerful newspapers and radio must be, for this complete stranger to feel this sort of kinship.

And then he opened the box.

It was more than $100,000 — all crisp, new $20 bills — and you’d be surprised at how small a package it takes to hold that much. McKinnon, after exhaling, called the state police. The chief had had a gun. He’d had backup help on other floors.

None of that was necessary. As soon as Charlie handed over the money, he seemed to relax. The officers came and counted it. McKinnon told him, “You did the right thing.”

And Charlie — whose real name, we learned, is Craig Alcantara, a pizza store owner — was free to go.

No hero — but honest

Now, we have to be careful about labeling this man a hero. He never should have taken that money in the first place. And there aren’t too many crimes in which you get to give back the goods and call it square.

But money that spills onto the open road also spills into the gray area of finders-keepers, and, worse, spills into that easily tempted region of your brain known as “opportunity knocks.”

Guys like Charlie, with a wife and a kid and a moderate income — maybe they see money like that, and maybe they snap. They see 10 years of hard work there in a single armful. They see no real victim. They see an official who walks away.

They grab.

This is part of human nature. But so too, thankfully, is a sense of right and wrong. And of guilt. It’s what led Charlie to that first phone call, and we can only hope whoever has the rest of the money still missing from this accident is feeling some of that emotion right now.

Before he left, I asked Charlie point-blank if this was really all the money he had taken. He almost cried. “I swear on the baby Jesus that is every dollar there is.”

Well. Almost every dollar. Charlie, who had given away exactly $140 of the money, went to the bank before our rendezvous and took that much out of his own funds, and put it in the box with the rest of the bills. No one would have known the difference. Except him.

“I feel so much better,” he gushed, as they took the money out of his life forever. “I’m gonna go out with my wife now and eat a meal at Red Lobster.”

It’s not the kind of place you’d go with $100,000, but I bet it tastes pretty good just the same.

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