Attorney Ken Piercey unrolls an heir tree showing more than 119 heirs in the $11 million estate of Joseph Stancak, a Chicagoan who died with no will and no immediate relatives.

Attorney Ken Piercey unrolls an heir tree showing 119 heirs as he works to distribute the $11 million estate of Joseph Stancak, who died with no will and no immediate family.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times (file)

South Side millionaire’s wealth set to ripple through lives around the globe

Joseph Stancak, who lived a private, frugal life in working-class Gage Park, was buried in a pauper’s grave.

What would you do if someone out of the blue told you to expect a check for about $100,000 in the mail, no strings attached?

In New Jersey, John Wisinger will pay down debt from his daughter’s wedding at The Park Savoy. It’s fancy. His wedding speech concluded with a mic drop that slayed. “My Girl” was played for the daddy/daughter dance.

On Chicago’s Northwest Side, a construction worker, who asked not to be named — coming into money will do that — plans to make a sizable dent in the loan he took out for a luxury German car.

Mike Griglak plans to retire to Florida, waving a final toodle-oo to Canada and its bitter winters.

Dreams like these are set to play out around the globe. And if you stick a thumbtack in each of them and trace with a string to their origin, they’d all lead back to a modest brick bungalow about a mile east of Midway Airport in Gage Park.

It was the home of Joe Stancak.

The home on South Troy Street in Gage Park where Joseph Stancak lived.

The home on South Troy Street in Gage Park where Joseph Stancak lived.

Mitch Dudek / Sun-Times

In 2016, Stancak, described as a hermit and a recluse by the few who knew him, died at 87, leaving behind no will, no immediate relatives and $11 million in the bank — the largest unclaimed estate in the nation’s history.

His fortune remained forgotten for years.

Then, letters began showing up in 119 mailboxes around the world — each belonging to a distant relative of the South Sider.

“One day about two years ago, my sister calls, and she says, ‘Mike, did you get a letter about some relative who passed away, apparently there’s an inheritance,’” said Griglak, 63, a retired Canadian oil sands worker who lives outside Windsor, Ontario. “I said, ‘Whatever. Probably some scam involving the Prince of Nigeria or something where they say you’re in line for some money, but, in exchange, they ask you to send your personal banking information.’ ”

Mike Griglak

Mike Griglak

Provided

It took a considerable amount of persuading from the people who finally located the money and orchestrated the inheritance, but Griglak finally accepted the bizarre circumstances as legit. And he became excited. But not so much because of the money.

“I was more interested in the family tree,” said Griglak, who’s spent a lifetime wondering about his family history — details his late father, Anthony, who emigrated from Slovakia to Canada and worked as a press operator in a metal yard in Canada, never talked about.

“I always used to look up the name Griglak in phone books whenever I traveled. When the internet came out I got on there and started sending emails to Griglaks. But it never amounted to anything,” he said. “And now here’s this guy in Chicago I never heard of. I wish I could shake his hand, learn about his life. Ask him how it was that he was one of seven siblings and none of them ever had any kids. But all the siblings are dead. And I don’t know who to ask. So it’s kind of a mystery.”

Details on Joe Stancak’s life are indeed hard to come by.

“Nobody knew him. You’re chasing a ghost,” said Joe Mallack, a longtime neighbor of Stancak’s on the 5700 block of South Troy Street.

Stancak lived on the block for decades and was one of the few residents who stayed as the area changed from Polish, Irish and Italian to mostly Hispanic.

Neighbors were shocked to hear of Stancak’s wealth. He was notoriously frugal. He regularly tinkered with his electric lawn mower and beat-up 1985 Oldsmobile.

“He asked me for a ride once to renew his license because his car wouldn’t start, and I said, ‘Joe, why don’t you get a new one?’ And he said, ‘Oh, no, no, this is good, this is good,’ ” Mallack said.

“The only time I was ever at his house was because his electricity went out, and he wanted a hand because he was always trying to work on everything himself, but there were wires hanging from the electrical board, and I just said, ‘Joe, I can’t fix this.’ But other than those two times that he needed help, we never really chatted,” Mallack said.

Most neighbors primarily knew him as the little old man who pushed a cart to the grocery store every day, usually with a newspaper tucked under his arm.

When Danny Salgado, known on the block as “Shaggy” because of his hair, went up and down Troy Street collecting signatures to hand in to Ald. Ed Burke’s office to get a block party permit, Stancak put his name down.

“And I would tell him to come out for the block party but he never did,” Salgado said. “I’d tell him: ‘I got a mechanical bull, piñatas, jumping castles for kids, people cooking out, grilling, sharing food,’ but he never once came out. He just stayed by himself.”

Mirna and Jesse Guzman lived next door to Stancak and knew him through a series of brief chats and over-the-fence observations.

Stancak was a staunch vegetarian who opened one can of vegetables every day and split the contents for his lunch and dinner. And he picked raspberries from a bush in his yard that he tended with care, the Guzmans recalled.

“Joe didn’t like the smell of meat when we would barbecue. He would knock on his window and say ‘Noooo. Don’t do that,’” Mirna Guzman said, noting that they cut back on grilling out of consideration for their neighbor.

“He wasn’t disrespectful. Joe was just Joe. You just learned to live with Joe,” Jesse Guzman said.

The furnishings in his home were humble, said Mirna Guzman, who was inside once. And he had a workshop in his basement and fixed old radios and even built his own welding machine, the Guzmans recalled.

Not everything about Stancak was frugal.

He owned a 38-foot fishing boat named “Easy” that was built in 1973.

Karen Frainey, a niece through marriage of Stancak’s brother, John, said she recalls as a young girl attending family parties and hearing Stancak’s absence always explained as “Oh, he’s on his boat in Hawaii.”

Mirna Guzman recalls Stancak saying he once worked for Commonwealth Edison. A company spokesman said a search turned up no record of his employment. Others seemed to recall he perhaps worked as a mechanical or chemical engineer. Inquiries to engineering trade groups yielded no results.

“He was a bit of a hermit. I never really saw anyone visit,” Jesse Guzman said.

Even finding a picture of Stancak was a hard task. The Illinois Secretary of State declined to share a relatively recent image used on his driver’s license. A picture in the 1944 Gage Park High School yearbook shows an undersized boy in a smile and a tie.

Joseph Stancak pictured in the 1943 Gage Park High School yearbook.

Joseph Stancak in the 1943 Gage Park High School yearbook.

Ancestry.com

Two days before Christmas in 2016, Stancak was found dead in an empty bathtub inside his Gage Park home. There was no heat or electricity in his house. And he was fully clothed, wearing a sweater and jacket.

Neighbors noticed his overstuffed mailbox and a stoop littered with untouched newspapers and called authorities.

Firefighters forced open a rear door.

Authorities figured he tried to huddle in the tub for warmth. Heart disease was listed as his cause of death.

The Public Administrator of Cook County, whose office is supposed to sort out the unclaimed estates of anyone with no relatives and possessions over $20,000, never took on Stancak’s case. A routine search mistakenly showed he had a sister, Helen, who was alive. So a letter was sent to her last known address. The same one where Stancak’s body was found. She’d been dead for years.

The value of his home would have exceeded the $20,000 threshold, but the deed was in a trust so it wasn’t obvious that he was an owner.

Workers at the medical examiner’s office conducted a routine search for next of kin but found none.

So protocol was followed. And Stancak’s body was cremated and interred at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery on the Far South Side during a burial ceremony along with others who died poor or forgotten. It was presided over by a Catholic priest.

It wasn’t until 2019, three years after his death, that Stancak’s fortune began to come into focus.

That’s because there’s a three- to five-year window that financial institutions have to notify state authorities of dormant accounts.

A series of notifications went to Illinois state Treasurer Michael Frerichs’ office in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. A total of $11 million in unclaimed assets. Mostly in the form of mutual funds, some stocks and other accounts, including $21,000 in two Bank of America checking accounts.

The money sat, waiting for a rightful heir to show up. The only clue of its existence was an item in a database of unclaimed property maintained by the Illinois treasurer’s office that, to ward off fraudsters, simply indicates whether the property associated with any individual is valued over or under $100.

Ken Piercey, a Barrington attorney, won’t exactly say how he pierced that veil and found the real number.

“Trade secrets,” he said, noting he works with private investigation firms that specialize in finding high-value unclaimed estates.

When they find one, they set out looking for distant relatives. In this case, they found one in Minnesota who agreed to file a petition in Cook County probate court to have Piercey named as administrator of Stancak’s estate.

Investigators then combed through obituaries, church and government records in the United States, Europe and Canada and came up with a list of 119 heirs — mostly second and third cousins. Stancak’s family came from Poland.

The extraordinary case initially made headlines in October when Frerichs shared news of the largest-ever unclaimed estate and heirs, a story that begged for details he couldn’t provide.

John Wisinger, 66, who’d never heard of Joseph Stancak, is related through his late mother. He feels a kindred spirit to Stancak’s Southwest Side working-class roots.

“I grew up lower middle class in a row house,” said Wisinger, an attorney. “My parents doted on me and did whatever they could for me. Kids are the most important thing in your life and that’s where the money goes. Just pass it on.”

John Wisinger

John Wisinger

Provided

Wisinger said if he could speak to Stancak, he’d ask: “How did you spend your life? How did you make the money? Why did the riches never really impact how you lived your life?”

A small portion of Stancak’s wealth appears to have come from inheritances from several of his siblings, according to probate records. But where the bulk of his money came from isn’t clear.

Piercey, who stands to earn a portion of the inheritance for services rendered, said he recently learned new details of Stancak’s life because a friend of his who’s still living reached out to chat. But, he said, the friend wanted to honor Stancak’s preference for privacy, and the information was shared in strict confidence.

“You’re looking for a needle in a haystack, but, sorry, I can’t help,” Piercey said.

Lt. Kevin O’Malley was overseeing the operation the day firefighters went into the home and found Stancak’s body.

O’Malley, who’s now retired, said Stancak’s home was in disarray.

“Not garbage and rats, just stacks of magazines and letters and books everywhere,” he said, wondering the same thing that several of Stancak’s neighbors had wondered: Had he gone senile?

“This one upset us because we just felt bad for the guy,” he said. “He could have been your grandfather. I thought about that guy all the time.”

Police records show 12 bills of various denominations totaling under $400 were removed from the home and inventoried.

Also taken from his home by police: a Red Ryder BB gun, personal documents, a wooden gun box, a black leather-like holster, three rifles, two handguns, five magazines and nearly 200 rounds of ammunition.

Back in Canada, Mike Griglak, like nearly everyone else, isn’t sure what to make of the life or lonely death of his distant relative.

He hopes that if something good comes out of it, apart from a wave of newfound wealth, it will be a get-together of all the distant relatives that will result in new friendships and a better understanding of their shared past.

“Maybe I’ll even take a trip to the old country and try to retrace my father’s steps before he came to Canada,” Griglak said.

“It’s important to understand where you came from, I think.”

Contributing: Tim Novak

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