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Wallet found in San Marino after 66 years holds family treasure

May 05, 2013|By Joe Piasecki
  • A wallet lost 66 years ago inside a wall of a San Marino home contained this photo of the owner's high school sweetheart.
A wallet lost 66 years ago inside a wall of a San Marino home contained this… (Thomas Robles )

When construction workers discovered a wallet lost 66 years ago inside the wall of a San Marino home, little did three City Hall clerks know they were about to be in for a days-long sleuthing expedition that would, at its end, reunite a father's romantic quest with his surviving children.

The brown leather bi-fold held plenty of clues: a World War II-era Navy ID, honorable discharge papers, regular and commercial driver's licenses, a California Department of Employment card, two pay stubs for $1.50-per-hour insulation contracting work and a Social Security card. All of them bore the name Arthur Robles, a Los Angeles resident born Aug. 28, 1924.

But there were intriguing mysteries too.

Along with a 1934-series $5 silver certificate were a black-and-white photo of a pretty teenage girl posing in a lush garden, and a 1947 pocket calendar marked with names and dollar amounts.

Victoria Marshall, Lisa Carlson and Janet Ruiz of San Marino's business license and building permit counter received the wallet on April 9 and began their investigative journey.

They quickly learned Robles had died in 2001 at age 76, but the Central California cemetery where he was buried pointed to a next-of-kin — Thomas Arthur Robles of Moorpark, whose number they found in a telephone directory.

Shortly after the three reached Thomas Robles — a 57-year-old former Los Angeles city firefighter who now works for an insurance company — on April 11, he and his sister, Debbie Chacon of Simi Valley, headed to San Marino City Hall.

“We were all excited because we wanted to meet Arthur's family. We'd grown an attachment to this person we didn't know,” Marshall said.

Still, one anxiety persisted: What if the girl in the photo wasn't the mother of Thomas Robles and Debbie Chacon?

Marshall had her answer that afternoon, when Robles' children identified the mystery woman as Julia Tahan — their dad's high school sweetheart who became his wife in 1949. She was, in fact, their mother.

Tahan died in 2000 at age 72.

And those names and numbers on the pocket calendar?

“We heard the story growing up that dad had borrowed money from aunts and uncles to buy my mother an engagement ring,” Chacon said. The names and numbers were the records of those loans.

“It was so touching to see that with my mother's picture in the wallet,” Chacon added.

Thomas Robles and Chacon shared their parents' wedding picture and a photo of their father in his Navy uniform — he worked on troop-landing boats in the Pacific theater — with the three clerks who had solved the mystery.

Because 1940s driver's licenses included thumbprints instead of photos, the photos provided the first time Marshall, Carlson and Ruiz had seen Arthur Robles. Holding a relic of his father's early life was “surreal,” the younger Robles said.

“It was like having my dad back for a little while.”

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joe.piasecki@latimes.com

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