Uncle Frank

This story should have been written up 2+ decades ago; but much like everything else in life, I’ve been busy doing other things.

Frank S. Haigh jr actually isn’t my “uncle”, he was my father’s cousin, which makes him my 2nd cousin, but most people don’t understand this relationship; so for ease of understanding, I’ve always referred to him as “uncle”.

Frank, and his 2nd wife, Louise, were always in our prayers when we were children. We knew he was a relative, but lived in California (while we lived on the east coast).

Frank & Louise had been married for 30 years, yet never had any children. (I don’t know if this was a conscious decision or there were any medical reasons) This was Frank’s 2nd marriage and Louises 3rd,

Frank had been in the Air Force during the Korean war. He was a pilot and attained the rank of Staff Sargent.

After the war, his first marriage failed and he found his way from Illinois to California, where he got a job in the aerospace industry as an electrical engineer.

In 1986, soon after I had moved to Long Beach, Ca, Louise passed away unexpectantly one night. I had not made the effort to meet them as soon as I had moved there, so now my opportunity to meet her was gone. I sent a sympathy card to Frank and finally met him for the first time in 1987. We instantly hit it off and I tried to keep in touch through the years. At some point, Frank had stated that he wanted me to be the executor of his estate and also that none of his estate would go to his step-nephew, because that guy was gay.

Jump forward a decade. I’ve moved several times and not been in contact with Frank for at least 2 years. I get a call from my parents saying that Frank had passed away, the cops had been involved, and I need to contact the L.A. county officials because I’m the executor of Frank’s estate.

The month of November 1997 is a blur for me. I found out that Frank had died on October 21st and I agreed to meet with a representative from Los Angeles County at Frank’s home on the morning of November 3, 1997. The weekend of November 1 & 2 was spent moving my (soon to be ex-)wife and my son out of our house and into a house that she had rented. The night of the 2nd, my friend Paul & I drove south from Galt, Ca to be at Frank’s house on the morning of the 3rd (which just happened to also be my birthday). I had been told that Frank had an “incident” with the L.A. SWAT team and that the house was full of tear gas crystals; so, I came prepared with long sleeved clothes and an Army surplus gas mask. Much of what I would later learn of the situation would be from piecing information back together after talking with other people.

The doors & windows had been boarded up by one of Frank’s neighbors, Mike, as an effort to keep the looters out. This had the side effect of keeping the tear gas in. The county guy said we would open the house and search for a will, but as soon as we removed the first board and opened the front door, the fumes were so overwhelming that he signed over total access to me.

I get back to work on the 5th and call my mother to update her on the situation. Surprisingly, one of my sisters (who lived 100 miles away) answered the phone. I asked to speak with mom and my sister told me that mom was taking a nap because our father had passed away earlier that day. When I got off the phone, I told my boss what had happened, and he suggested I go home. “Go home to what?” I thought, an empty house without my son, no furniture, and yet another death in the family? No thanks, I’ll take my chances in the solitude of my cubical.

Paul & I would make 4 round trip weekend visits to SoCal over the next 5 weekends. We cleaned out all of the valuables from the house, leaving only trash, and moving 2 cars as well. I would later find out that someone on the cleaning crew had discovered some old checks and ordered a fresh box of them, but had them sent to a different address. This should have been a “red flag” for the bank, but the fun didn’t stop there.

Backing up just a little, after Louise had passed away, Frank found himself alone in the world, with only his 2 neighbors as friends. Only a short 2+ years after we met, I had moved away, keeping in touch only through sparce phone calls. Depression and alcoholism were controlling Frank’s life, pushing him down to a low point and then he’d snap back just in time to catch up the bills, before things were to be turned off. But one such low point was a little deeper & longer than usual. Franks’ home went into foreclosure and was sold on the county court house steps for only $88,000; a mere pittance for a house with 1/2 acre of land in SoCal. All this time, the neighbors had been telling Frank that he had to take care of these legal documents and he replied that he had sent them a check. What he didn’t realize is that his check was sitting in the mountain of un-opened mail that was piled up on his coffee table.

The new owners of the house, a real estate investment company, wanted to take possession; which meant they had to legally evict any & all people who may be living there. Documents were sent in Frank’s name, Louise’s name, the names of the people they had bought the house from in 1974, and anyone who may be squatting on the property. And of course, all these legal documents had the unintended effect of generating all sorts of mail for Frank & Louise. “Louise Haigh – You’ve been pre-approved for a new credit card!” Just what Frank needed, daily reminders that the love of his life was gone.

On October 21, 1997, the new owners were at the house along with the police, in order to physically remove anyone and everyone from the property. When they knocked on the door, Frank parted the front curtains with a 410 shotgun and told them to go away. The police, obviously, did not take this well. The SWAT team was called in, Frank’s house was surrounded, and the neighbors were all held back at the top of the street. Even his neighbor, Mike, who was a LA police officer, was not allowed in the “secure zone”. Local news crews interviewed people from up the street, who told them that “He’s a war vet” and “He’s got and armory in his basement“. Had they actually known Frank, they would know their worst fears were completely unfounded. He was a nice old guy who loved cats and didn’t even have a basement.

After holding their places for most of the day, it appears that someone decided to try and “wrap up” the situation. The SWAT team fired 2 tear gas canisters into Frank’s small, 900 sq ft house, Frank went into his bedroom and fired one shot with an Ithica .38 pistol, killing himself instantly. The SWAT team heard this shot, and everyone opened fire with their tear gas canisters. A news reporter would later say 30 canisters were fired and even though the police picked up the actual canisters, they did not pick up the small piece of foam that separates the canister from the propellant. I physically picked up 27 of these from around the property.

The coroner was called and Frank’s body was removed from the property. Frank’s neighbor, Mike, saw a pickup truck driving by and recognized that the way they were acting was that of potential looters scoping out their next target. That’s when he quickly went to Home Depot, bought some sheets of plywood, and boarded up Frank’s house.

Paul & I worked to clear the house of Frank’s valuables. Every time I walked through the house, I was stirring up dust & tear gas crystals, adding to the complexity of the situation.

Frank’s engineering background & organizational skills were still showing in his final days. He was a smoker and I found separate piles of cigarette packs, the cellophane wrappers, and cigarette butts; all sitting neatly next to his rocking chair. His closet still had his work clothes hanging where they always were, and the bathroom still had Louise’s toiletries by the sink.

I was able to secure the gun safe because Frank’s other neighbor, George, had a copy of the combination. I had to climb under the house and unbolt it from the floor. Inside the gun safe I found a lock box key from a local bank. I would later find a bank statement, showing that Frank was indeed paying for a safety deposit box at that branch. On the day that I went to the bank, I brought Frank’s death certificate, Louise’s death certificate, and a copy of my executorship papers. The scene was quite surreal – I inserted my key, the branch manager inserted his key, we both rotated the locks at the same time, he removed the lock box while his secretary stood by, ready to document everything that was inside. When we opened the box, we found……… nothing. Not even dust! Frank had been paying for this box for years and never used it.

I also found some paperwork and a business card from a lawyer that specialized in wills. I contacted him and he said that Frank had come in to talk about writing a will, but he never returned with the needed information. Yet another dead end.

I went to the LA County Coroner’s Office, to claim Frank’s body. The office is an old, ornate building and walking inside resembled a scene from the TV show Dragnet. I had never seen a dead body before, so I tried to mentally prepare myself for the worse case scenario that was about to happen. I told the desk clerk that I was there to claim a body, he took my name & info along with Frank’s info. I had brought along the 2 pictures of Frank from 1987 and I told the clerk that he was probably dirty, disheveled, and had a long, unkept beard. I think he could tell that I was extremely uncomfortable with being there and he confirmed that my description was so good that I would not have to physically identify the body in person. I gave him the info for the funeral home and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

I had the post office forward Frank’s mail to my address and about 3 months later I received a bank statement which included 3 checks that had cleared his account. WHAT-THE-FUCK?!?! The checks were written after Frank’s death and totaled almost $21,000, which was almost every penny that Frank had at that time. Immediately I called the 1-800-number for the bank and filed a fraud claim. They verified that (1) I had not written those checks and (2) I was not a signer on the account. They also advised that I contact the local branch and get the account closed. I had filed that paperwork a month before, so I was pretty livid when I made the call later that day. A woman answered the phone and I explained what had happened including my fraud claim and the papers that I had previously filed with them. She said she’d look into it and get back to me. About an hour later, a man who said he was the branch manager, called me back. He said they found my paperwork, had figured out what had happened, said they would credit those amounts back into the account, and then he asked where I wanted the final check sent. I asked him if he had found my paperwork in someone’s in-basket, and he said “Yeah, something like that”.

There is something very unnerving about seeing your own name, hand written in a note, especially after piecing together what the situation was and what the writer’s mindset had to be at that moment. I contacted a probate attorney, and he was able to get the note legally accepted as “will annexed”. This note had specifically named Frank’s life assurance account, which had a balance of $86,000, and that he wanted it to go to me. This account was held by a company in Iowa and when I (acting as executor of the estate) contacted them to get the funds released, they informed me that there was a named beneficiary – Frank’s gay step-nephew. The probate attorney tried to get the funds released, but the company said that since they were in Iowa, they did not have to follow California’s rules and laws. Over the years, I would routinely contact the company and check on the status of the account. Each time they would claim that they had sent paperwork to the beneficiary’s listed address (in Baltimore, Maryland) and he had not replied to their mailings. Every year I would google his name and after 17 years of trying, I got a hit – a death certificate for that name issued in Baltimore. I paid $30 to obtain a copy of the death certificate and then contacted the life assurance company again. They were surprised that I was able to find this info when they could not. In the end, they contacted the person who was named as next-of-kin on the death certificate, and they issued a check to him for the entire account ($160,000 at that time). Congratulations Frank, none of your money went to your gay, step-nephew; it went to his life partner. And this was the final puzzle piece needed to close out Frank’s estate.

Frank had told me that he wanted to be buried at sea, so I rented a boat for $400, invited a few co-workers along, and we went out past the Golden Gate Bridge. We stopped the boat in “international waters” (3 miles out), had a moment of silence, then we opened up the canisters that contained Frank’s ashes, Louise’s ashes and 3 small canisters from a pet crematorium, which I assume was the ashes of some of the cats that they had over the years. Scattering the ashes to the sea, once more his family was together and at peace.

It’s been said that once something is on the Internet, it never goes away. This is not true, as evidenced by the only newspaper article I could ever find that talked about Uncle Frank’s death, which is long gone from the internet’s hard drives. I wrote this story down, so that Frank would not be completely forgotten.



About hemibill

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