Loren Herzog, Wesley Shermantine, Joel Magana. Scott Peterson, Phil Spector, Jesse James Hollywood, William Jennings Choyce.
They’re all convicted killers — some from Lodi, some with celebrity status. They all owe restitution to their victims’ families.
And they all have one more thing in common: Each one has money sitting in California’s collection of unclaimed property. In most cases, it isn’t a huge amount — Herzog, for instance, is owed $121.59 from Pacific Gas & Electric. But Hollywood has $1,512.78 waiting for him. Spector has hundreds of dollars left in checking accounts.
Victims are entitled to that money — but a state law prevents them from collecting it unless they file a civil lawsuit or if the inmate himself first tries to get the money.
In other words, murder victim Cyndi Vanderheiden’s parents have a $50,000 restitution order and are entitled to the $121.59 that Herzog never collected. But they can only get that money if Herzog first tries to claim it for himself.
That was all news to Vanderheiden’s parents, who have yet to get a single dime in restitution, though the state said they should get a check soon.
“That would be nice,” the victim’s mother, Terri Vanderheiden, said Friday, and added, “We don’t care about the money, necessarily; we just want our daughter.”
About a decade ago, John Vanderheiden, Cyndi’s father, learned that he had about $300 waiting for him from a savings account he’d long since forgotten. The couple hadn’t even thought of checking to see if their daughters’ killers were also owed money.
California’s unclaimed property total currently sits at $5.7 billion, said Jacob Roper, spokesman for the California State Controller’s Office.
Inmates and countless others have left money in bank accounts, but haven’t gotten a utility refund or didn’t get an insurance reimbursement. After three years of no activity or contact, the agencies make one more attempt to contact the owner, then turn the property and money over to the state.
It’s not known how many inmates have such money waiting for them, as neither controller nor corrections officials had considered the matter. It’s also unknown how many victims could be entitled to those funds.
Some amounts, like Herzog’s, are small enough that they won’t make a vast difference for the victims’ families. But some, like Jesse James Hollywood, have a chunk of change waiting for them:
- Hollywood, now 30, has a total of $1,512.78 in unclaimed money from credit card balances and an insurance company. As a teenager, he built a drug sales operation that allowed him to buy a house, then flee to Brazil after the murder of a 15-year-old boy whose brother had a drug debt. Hollywood was eventually found, prosecuted in Santa Barbara in 2008 and sentenced to prison for life after being convicted of kidnapping and murder. The case got the attention of filmmakers, and Justin Timberlake starred in the film, called “Alpha Dog.”
- Phil Spector, an award-winning songwriter and record producer now in prison for the death of an actress, has $625 in a Wells Fargo Bank checking account; another $890.91 in a different account was also listed to a Phil Spector in the Los Angeles area.
- Wesley Shermantine, on death row for Vanderheiden’s rape and murder as well as several other murders, has $30.33 awaiting him from California Water Service. His victims’ families won’t get the money unless he first claims it.
- Scott Peterson, the Modesto man who became recognized around the world for killing his wife and their nearly full-term baby, has $146.94 waiting for him from Fire Insurance Exchange. His wife, Laci, is also listed on the refund.
- Joel Angel Magana, who is serving 75 years to life for conspiracy to commit two Lodi murders, has $1.59 waiting for him from American Bankers Insurance Co., which listed his previous address in Galt. In a twist of coincidence, the same day the bank reported that money to the state, the bank also reported that $5.38 was owed to Sabrina Dahnke, one of Magana’s victims.
- William Jennings Choyce, who grew up in Oakland and is now on death row for murdering women in Stockton and Oakland, has at least $44 coming to him from an insurance company.
Convicted killers aren’t the only inmates who have money waiting for them:
- James Riffel, a Lodi toy department manager serving eight years for molesting a friend’s two children, is owed $14 from the California State Automobile Association.
- Shelley Kenefick, a Lodi bookkeeper serving 16 years for bilking her clients, has $4.66 awaiting her from Farmers Insurance. It’s not much compared to the $890,000 she was ordered to pay in restitution.
When a judge orders restitution, that order is in place for life, or until all money is paid. If the convict is sent to prison, the California Department of Corrections keeps that order on file.
Some counties offer help to make sure victims’ information gets to corrections officials. San Joaquin County is among them, and the victim witness program has an internal policy that all victims who want to fill out the form are offered help.
If an inmate tries to claim money sitting in the controller’s office, the restitution order will be applied to it, Roper said. Once the inmate is paroled, though, victims must make sure their restitution claim is on file with the controller’s office; if so, the victim will be given priority, like any other creditor.
All unclaimed money sits in the state’s coffers forever, Roper said. The program was established in 1959 and has been growing steadily.
Laws changed in 2003 so the money no longer earns interest, which means claimants can’t collect interest, either. The money is kept in the state’s general fund. In recent years, the controller has launched publicity campaigns to help people find money, such as the time a few years ago when the San Francisco Symphony received more than $14,000.
However, the money pot continues to grow: In December 2005, unclaimed money totaled $4.8 billion; now it’s $5.7 billion.