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Selling what the dead leave behind

The belongings of those whose estates are handled by L.A. County are auctioned 10 times a year in the City of Industry. Some of the items tell unique stories of their own.

December 28, 2009|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Dozens of men and women surrounded the auctioneer, yellow bid cards in hand, whispering and vying for a glimpse of the latest lot for sale.

They were bidding on the unclaimed belongings of the dead, each tagged with the name of its former owner.

A 200-year-old German violin that belonged to a man named Leon David Cislin rested in a case of crushed red velvet. Hundreds of Hallmark Christmas ornaments once owned by a Thomas Young, many in unopened packaging, filled several tables.

Also on display were an autographed cymbal and other memorabilia from the collection of Dewey Martin, drummer for the '60s rock band Buffalo Springfield, who died in January at 68.

"Wow -- he didn't have any heirs?" a bidder asked, scanning a lot that included one of Martin's gold records. "That's sad."

If you die in Los Angeles County without heirs or a will, your worldly belongings will probably end up here, in a 122,000-square-foot warehouse along the railroad tracks in the City of Industry, protected by surveillance cameras and extra security. The walls are piled high with hundreds of 7-by-5-foot wooden crates. County employees and private auctioneers break open crates, divide the contents into lots and sell them at daylong auctions held on the second Saturday of the month, typically 10 times a year. Proceeds go back into the estate and often are used to cover burial expenses and other costs. Whatever is left goes to the state of California.

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Behind each name tag lies a story.

Rain beat down on the senior citizens' high-rise in Long Beach as Caren Alvarez, a deputy with the Los Angeles County Public Administrator’s Office, broke the coroner's tape on the door to Apartment 520 with rubber-gloved hands and stepped inside.

Stale cigarette smoke emanated from the carpet, sofa and worn chairs cluttering the one-bedroom apartment. On the kitchen table, roses wilted in murky water. On the balcony, a white robe draped over the back of a patio chair soaked up rain.

Jean Comstock, 79, a retired Long Beach city clerk, had died Sept. 24. It was Alvarez's job to find Comstock's heirs. If she had any, they would be responsible for her burial. But first, Alvarez had to see whether the dead woman had assets or a will.

Comstock was divorced, without children or close relatives, and lived on a fixed income. But she had indicated on her apartment application that she had a will and had made payments on a burial plot at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Cypress.

Alvarez searched methodically, opening dresser drawers, probing under the mattress and in the linen closet as Craig Hendrickson, operations chief for the Public Administrator's Office, looked on. She found commemorative silver Disney and Apollo 11 coins, a silver gaming token from Laughlin, Nev., and some 30-year-old Batman comic books sealed in cellophane.

Alvarez did not find a will in the usual places, but she did not give up.

Hendrickson said staff members have discovered wills in all sorts of places: under a tarantula aquarium, scrawled on a manila envelope. They have also found voodoo dolls under mattresses, boa constrictors under sofa cushions, caches of automatic weapons and tin cans piled so high that they had to dig their way through.

"If we don't find enough assets, we won't be able to bury her," Hendrickson said of Comstock. "We hope we find a bank account -- at least $7,000." That would pay for a funeral.

If they found less than that, Comstock's final arrangements would be more modest.

In the drawer of a table near the front door, Alvarez found bank statements but no indication of the balance in Comstock's accounts. Nor were there personal letters or signs of family.

"That's probably the hardest part -- to see how some of these people have nobody in their lives," Hendrickson said.

Alvarez pulled a black plastic suitcase from a hall closet and discovered several yellowed Bibles inside, stuffed with relatives' obituaries. It seemed like just the place for a will.

Under the Bibles were chalk drawings that showed Comstock as a girl in Ohio, with round cheeks and blond curls. Also inside were black-and-white photographs and certificates of appreciation from her days as a civil servant. But by the time Alvarez reached the bottom of the suitcase, she still had not found a will.

She packed up the bank statements and some silver coins and gold rings to take to a county vault in downtown Los Angeles, where they would be held until auction. The rest of Comstock's belongings would be left for her landlord to sell.

Before leaving, Alvarez plucked a black plastic bag from the closet and emptied it on the carpet. On top was a manila envelope labeled "My will."

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