The Estate Sale

Six bedrooms, two baths, hardwood floors, two fireplaces; walk to lakes, Minneapolis nightlife. Shown to pre-approved buyers who aren't worried what happened to the little old lady who owned it.

One day early in the summer of 2001, Michael Verbrick was cutting the grass at his home on Colfax Avenue South, directly across the street from Bernadine Riske's house. Verbrick was about to grab his weed whacker to tame some unruly patches when he realized he had lent it to a friend. Just as he was getting ready to go call that friend, he noticed that someone was cleaning out Riske's house--and that that someone had just tossed a weed whacker into a dumpster outside the house. Verbrick asked if he could retrieve it, and, with the permission of the cleaners, hopped in the dumpster to get it.

"Under the weed whacker were her tax returns, with her Social Security number, her pay stubs, some stuff about investments--complete with account numbers," Verbrick remembers. "I thought to myself, 'Something's not right here.'"

Verbrick is sitting in his St. Paul office, a tiny, cluttered space barely larger than a cubicle. An attorney, Verbrick has his own practice, specializing in immigration law. He also has a habit of running his fingers upward through a tangle of brown hair. Together with Verbrick's perennial five o'clock shadow, the hair contributes to a constant appearance of exhaustion.

Like other neighbors on the block, Verbrick knew Riske--at least a little. "She always kept to herself," he says. "Once in a while I shoveled her walk or cut her grass." She had given his children some of the books she'd written--pamphlets, really, fables about animals and nature ("Dee-Dee Chickadee Gets Lost," "Dee-Dee Chickadee the Peacemaker").

It's not that she was the block's crazy old lady, he maintains. She participated in neighborhood activities, came to the block parties. "But it was common knowledge that Bernadine was slipping," he says. "She wasn't all there. Her personal appearance was unkempt. She could carry on a conversation, but she wasn't always lucid. I thought somebody should call someone to do something. But I never did. I thought somebody must be taking care of her, somehow.

"At that point, I didn't really consider it any of my business."

Then, all of sudden, she was gone.

One Sunday in late July, several weeks after the weed-whacker incident, Verbrick and his family came home from a weekend trip. They noticed what appeared to be an estate sale at Riske's house, a three-story, cream-colored Victorian looming over the quiet block just south of Lake Street. It was already 5:00 p.m. and the sale was starting to wind down, but Verbrick and his wife quickly went over to take a look at the house. "It was a grandma house," he recalls. "It obviously hadn't been maintained very well over the years. But it seemed structurally sound. It had nice architectural details. Beautiful hardwood floors, built-in cabinets, a fireplace downstairs, one upstairs in the master bedroom."

Verbrick noticed that the third floor had been finished to include two or three bedrooms. "This would make a perfect rental property," he thought to himself. He had heard once that Riske, in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s had had boarders living with her, and he thought unhappily about the prospect of the house being turned into a boardinghouse once again.

Over time the neighbors learned that Riske was living in a nursing home and that her estate was being handled by a conservator, Wells Fargo Bank. They started to wonder what would happen to the house, but they never saw signs that anything was happening. The house stood empty.

Several months later, in March 2002, a neighbor told Verbrick that the house had been sold to a man named Christopher Horty. "I had concerns that the buyer might turn it into a boardinghouse, just because of the physical layout," Verbrick says. Add to that the fact that no one on the block had realized the house was being sold, and the questions started to grow in Verbrick's mind.

"Everybody in the neighborhood was waiting for the For Sale sign to go up. It never happened," Verbrick says. "Everyone in the neighborhood is anticipating who the new neighbors will be. Your typical stuff: Will they have kids or dogs or whatever. Nothing's happening, and nothing's happening, and nothing's happening. Then all of a sudden, boom--it's sold."

Verbrick was curious. He made his way to the probate division of Hennepin County District Court and took a look at Riske's file. Though Verbrick is a practicing attorney, he doesn't know much about probate law. But he quickly familiarized himself with Riske's situation. Verbrick knew that the elderly Riske had lived frugally. Still, he was a little surprised to see that her estate was so big: it would turn out to be worth more than $1.5 million. No wonder, then, that as her faculties declined, Riske had seemed increasingly paranoid that people might be out to get her fortune.

The file also contained a petition asking the court's permission to sell Riske's home, Verbrick remembers, and notes scheduling a hearing on the matter for March 20. That confused him. "But the house is already sold," he thought to himself. "How does Christopher Horty know enough to buy a property that was never advertised? How did the conservator sell something before he had the authority to sell it? What guarantee does anyone have that the price of the sale was fair?"

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