An Orlando bank lost her jewels. She sued and lost. And then they turned up — at an auction

It had been three years since Orange County teacher Jennifer Morsch’s lifetime of valuables mysteriously disappeared from her safe deposit box at a Chase bank on Dr. Phillips Boulevard.

About $100,000 in jewelry, gold coins and cash were gone. A federal lawsuit Morsch filed against Chase questioning the reliability of bank safe deposit boxes had come and gone, with Chase winning the suit based on a statute of limitations provision.

Morsch, an elementary school special education teacher, was out of options and out of hope.

Then she got a text last Thursday afternoon that would rip back open the safe box snafu she had tried to leave behind. It set her on a path back to the items she believed were long lost through a series of coincidences — and more than just a little dumb luck.

“It wouldn’t hurt to check it out,” came the message from a friend, along with a link to an auction that the Florida Department of Financial Services’ Unclaimed Property Division was holding called Florida Treasure Hunt. The department auctions unclaimed property from banks, but also offers consumers the option to reclaim their property if the see it among the items.

The news of the auction had run on WKMG Local 6 news with a photo of a gold choker necklace with five round-cut diamonds that looked an awful lot like one of the items that Morsch had lost in her safe deposit box.

The image of the necklace, a 10th wedding anniversary gift from her ex-husband, stopped Morsch cold. She paused the news video.

“Oh my gosh, that’s my necklace,” she thought. The auction, by another stroke of luck, was being held at the Double Tree Airport Hotel in Orlando on Saturday.

So Morsch rushed there Saturday morning with her attorney Andres Beregovich, who toted the affidavits, appraisals and court documents with him that the two had used in their case against Chase. Displayed at the auction was a large print image of the necklace.

Presented with the evidence, Walter Graham, director of the state’s division of unclaimed property, sifted through the database. Then he walked over to Morsch and put his hand on her shoulder.

“We have your things, they’re safe,” he said gently. “We found your items.”

And it wasn’t just the necklace. Morsch’s wedding rings, which she hoped to pass on to her children, $35,000 in cash, rare gold coins.

All of the jewelry and coins were at the auction in Orlando, all of it passed on to the state in 2016 from Chase listed under owner “unknown.” Morsch, who had long ago promised to leave the entire debacle behind her, broke down crying.

The necklace was one in thousands of items, worth an aggregate of $312 million, that the department had photographed to advertise the event, Morsch learned, setting off the series of events that led her there.

“For some reason, fate had somebody make the decision to choose that item to take a picture of to display, and then fate, God, whatever, had my friend see that little segment, send me the clips, then I happen to look at it again on Friday night and then my attorney happens to be available,” Morsch said, her voice breaking. “… Every piece of the puzzle miraculously fit into place and I feel it was just meant to be, that I was reconnected.”

Florida’s program came as a surprise to Morsch and Beregovich, who said they were never told her items could ultimately go to the state if they were found but weren’t claimed. The division said her items will be removed from auction until the state goes through the unclaimed property claims process to return the valuables.

“It would have been auctioned underneath her nose without her ever knowing about it,” Beregovich said.

For Morsch, the auction reunion was the culmination of a confounding situation that began in August 2016 when she tried to access her 3-inch-by-10-inch box ending in the number “64” at the local branch. She had leased the box since 2003 and last opened it in 2012. Inside were $20,000 in rare gold coins, the $35,000 in cash and diamond, ruby and sapphire jewelry worth thousands more.

She had always opened the box with her key, which was used in combination with the bank’s key. But when she went to her local branch in August 2016, her key wouldn’t open the box. Over the ensuing months, Morsch and the bank would differ on which box was hers, with the bank believing that the box she thought belonged to her had in fact been leased to someone else in 2012.

That fact would be the point Chase would use to argue its case in March when the lawsuit went to trial. The bank successfully argued that the window to file a case against them opened in 2012, when the items were first lost — and not 2016, when Morsch realized something was wrong.

By the time she filed suit in December 2017, it was too late, the statute of limitations was up. Chase won the case.

The bank is still investigating the situation with Morsch’s items, said bank spokesman Michael Fusco.

For Morsch, the case was an eye-opening experience into the potential risks consumers take when they store their items with banks. Banks have contractual liability caps on what they can be responsible for in the case of a loss or theft. So the onus is on the consumer to read the fine print and independently insure their items.

“Any time that I talk to any of my friends since this happened, I say, ‘Check your box. Check it often,” Morsch said.

As to her items, they likely won’t see the inside of one of those small boxes again.

Morsch laughed at the idea, saying, “I really don’t trust the safety deposit box.”

Orlando Sentinel