GAFFNEY, S.C. – There aren't many secrets in a place like Gaffney, so when two heating and air conditioning workers suddenly quit their jobs and began buying stuff like a big screen TV, a used car and a riding lawn mower with $100 bills so old they didn't even have the off-center portrait of Benjamin Franklin, people started talking.
Police said all that talk got back to Lois Brown, who had hired those men a few days earlier and made them a deal. She told the workers just before her husband died seven years ago, he said he had hidden thousands and thousands of dollars in the basement. Her family had never found the money.
If the workers discovered the cash, Brown said, they would be in for a big reward.
After hearing about their free-spending ways, Brown went to Joey Reed and Elie Spencer and made an offer. Keep what they bought and a bit more money for themselves, give the rest back to her and she wouldn't go to police. They played dumb, and the law got involved, Gaffney Police Det. Brian Blanton said.
Now the men are facing grand larceny charges, accused of taking the $100,000. And Brown has sued the owner of the company they once worked for to get her money back. She hasn't seen any of the cash from the workers, Blanton said.
"They quit their jobs the day after they found the money," Blanton said. And they didn't waste any time spending it."
The story begins with a repair job at the large, white, two-story farmhouse with the wrap-around porch that Brown shared with her husband for decades before he died. He founded a business that sold small crane games, arcade games and other amusement devices. He also was in real estate and kept large amounts of cash around, Blanton said.
After Brown's husband died in 2003, his family searched for the cash he had hidden in the basement.
Each time someone came to work at the old house, Brown offered a nice reward if the workers found the money. It was the same offer she made to Reed and Spencer in September 2010, but they left the three-day job without telling her anything, police said.
The spending spree started a few days later. Spencer had the underpinning of his mobile home secured with bricks, Blanton said. Reed bought a $1,800 television, a $1,800 riding lawn mower and a $7,500 used car for his girlfriend. All of the purchases were made with crisp $100 bills printed before the federal government started measures to fight forgery like the 1996 redesign making the portrait of Benjamin Franklin on the front off-center and bigger and adding the early 1990s decision to put a security thread to the bill, the detective said.
"The man at the car dealership took the money to the bank to verify it wasn't counterfeit," Blanton said.
That kind of money spent in Gaffney, a city of about 12,000 people, led folks to start asking questions. One of the in-laws of the men heard how the workers got the money and told Brown and police about it.
After the men refused Brown's offer to not get the law involved if she got some of the money back, she called police too. Detectives tracked down the worker who spruced up Spencer's mobile home and he still had the old $100 bills. Others told police about their encounters, Blanton said.
Spencer, 47, and Reed, 50, are charged with grand larceny and are awaiting trial. If convicted, they face up to 10 years in prison.
Neither man's attorney returned messages from The Associated Press. An address for Spencer could not be found, and an eviction notice was posted to the front door of Reed's home.
In September, Brown sued Dean Painter, owner of Painter Heating & Air Conditioning, which hired the workers. Her lawsuit said Painter should have made sure his employees were properly supervised so they didn't steal from her. The suit asks for $100,000. Painter didn't respond to a message from The AP.
A man who answered the door at Brown's home, wouldn't identify himself and refused to say where Brown was. Brown's lawyer also didn't respond to phone calls or emails.
Reed's lawyer asked for a preliminary hearing, telling a judge the charge should be dropped because authorities can't prove the money was taken from Brown's home or even that it ever existed. He compared it to a leprechaun promising a pot of gold, according to a report on the hearing by The Gaffney Ledger.
The judge allowed the case to continue, and Blanton said she believes the prosecution has a strong case, adding, "We've got documents and proof they spent it like crazy."