Ex-sheriff using different kind of detection

Ex-sheriff using different kind of detection

RANTOUL - Even though he's been retired from police work for 13 years, Joe Brown has found a good use for his investigative skills.

The 65-year-old Brown, former Champaign County sheriff and former Rantoul mayor, is now the Champaign County public administrator/guardian.

?As administrator, I get involved when somebody dies and has assets but no will,? he said. The deceased usually doesn't have relatives that anyone knows of.

?My big responsibility is to find if there are any relatives. In most of the cases, I have found that they are not close to anyone in their family and that is probably the reason they didn't have a will,? said Brown, who was appointed to his job in September 2001 by then-Gov. George Ryan, a longtime friend and political ally. The term is for six years and Brown believes it to be secure even though Ryan is no longer governor.

After leaving the sheriff's office in 1990, Brown worked for Ryan when he was secretary of state for about 10 years doing inspections of auto dealerships. In July, Ryan also appointed Brown to the state lottery board, a position for which his expenses are paid but no salary. The board meets every two months.

The administrator/guardianship job is not exactly an eight-hour-a-day, Monday-through-Friday job, but it can take a lot of time.

Brown said he's handled about 17 estates in the little more than a year he's had the job. They have ranged in value from almost nothing to one that may turn out to be as large as $4.5 million.

?You're looking for a lot of clues. Sometimes, they are right there and sometimes it takes a lot of time to find them,? he said.

He starts the process by going to the person's home and combing through the belongings, every last one of which must be inventoried, right down to the forks and knives.

Brown said sometimes it takes months to discover all of a person's assets.

?Sometimes you find paperwork in the home to indicate he may have a bank account here or six there. Some of them you don't know until you get notification from the bank that here's what's in the account,? he said.

He said one man had $133,000 in a checking account earning less than 1 percent interest. His first order of business was to close that account and move the money into an account making more interest.

?Whether I know there are relatives or not, I have to do my best to put the money in the proper place,? he said.

Just snooping around in the home is the way he usually finds relatives. In one man's belongings, he found two Christmas cards from 1989 that the man had received signed, ?Your nephew.?

?Those weren't too hard to run down because they had return addresses,? he said, adding that both had moved and he was able to find forwarding addresses for them. It turned out that the men, both school superintendents in Pennsylvania, were great-nephews of the man and believed that they were the only relatives the man had.

?Last month, new Christmas cards came from another nephew and a niece. I called them and learned (the deceased) had five brothers and two sisters,? he said. Their mother had told them of her siblings but they admitted the family was not close so it wasn't hard to believe their cousins did not know of them.

?A lot of times you go through the census on the computer. A guy may be 88 so his family would be in the 1910 or 1920 census. I know about where they lived, find the house and trace them from there,? he said.

Brown said he hasn't trained himself to use the Internet in his searching work but his sons, both police officers, have and they help him. In fact, one of his sons traced Brown's mother's lineage back to the Revolutionary War so Brown, his brothers, nephews and sons are now members of the Sons of the American Revolution.

Brown has been appointed as a guardian in only one case where a person was terribly injured in a vehicle crash and couldn't take care of his finances.

He said he really enjoys the administrator work, much of which sounds a lot like what police investigators do.

?You start from nothing and you come up with something,? he said, adding that he relies on the skills he developed when he was an investigator for the sheriff's office for more than 10 years before his election as sheriff in 1978.

Among the unusual things he's found in his work are large amounts of cash kept in a lock box - about $15,000 to $18,000 in one case, he said.

?I had a guy in Tolono with gobs and gobs of antiques. We took a picture of everything in that home. It took us four days just to take the pictures. From there, you have to inventory everything. It's very time-consuming,? he said.

He also lines up people to come in and prepare items for sale and conduct estate sales, he said.

Brown's fees are set by the judge handling the deceased person's estate. He submits an accounting of his expenses - stamps, mileage, stationery, etc. - and the number of hours he's spent working on an estate and the judge sets a fee. Brown said he's spoken with other administrators who say they can earn anywhere from $50 to $150 per hour.

Champaign County Judge Arnold Blockman said he typically sets fees for administrators who are not attorneys around $90 per hour.

Brown said in cases where he can find no relatives, assets go to the state and the state gives a portion back to the county.

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