NEW YORK CITY — When Louis Passerini died in 1994 at Bellevue Hospital, his passing barely registered with the rest of the world.
No one was there to mourn the eccentric 84-year-old. He hadn’t been in touch with any of his family for 27 years.
None of his relatives, including a nephew on the Upper West Side, knew that he was living alone in a boarding home in Manhattan. None were even told Passerini had died. He didn’t leave behind contact numbers or addresses to reach loved ones — let alone any information about his life or belongings.
All that remained from his 84 years on Earth were more than 30 bank accounts and safety deposit boxes containing cryptic messages scattered around the country. Collectively, they held nearly $1 million.
But since no one knew he had died and no paperwork existed to alert anyone to the accounts, the fruits of Passerini’s frugal living and constant saving remained a secret and stayed that way for another six years.
“He was very private,” his brother Joseph Passerini said. “He never had a telephone or a car, so you couldn’t track him that way.”
That’s why Joseph said he was shocked to hear news about his brother in 2000, when Jaisan Inc., a Manhattan-based agency that searches for unclaimed bank accounts, contacted him and another brother, Henry Passerini.
Jaisan informed them that Louis had died and that it had discovered two of Louis’s bank accounts in New York that held $81,155 but had been dormant for years.
Henry who, unlike Joseph, was near in age to Louis and at one time had a close relationship with him, suspected that the $81,155 was just the tip of the iceberg.
Henry knew Louis had been a miser his whole life — even during the Great Depression. The brother also knew Louis had a long career in the Air Force, meaning he moved around the country and could have held banks accounts anywhere.
With that gnawing hunch, Henry embarked on what could be one of the longest and farthest-reaching scavenger hunts — all to find more of Louis’ hidden money.
The search started in 2001 with Henry identifying hundreds of banks and other financial institutions in the immediate neighborhoods in which his brother had lived during his life. Henry hired lawyers who sent letters to each of these institutions, asking if they held accounts in Louis’ name.
More than 60 letters went to New York City banks alone. Another set of letters was sent to the 18 largest banks in Canada because the family had lived there at one time.
Henry reached out to government agencies and people who might have information on where his brother’s money was. And he contacted the unclaimed funds' administrator in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
He also reviewed Internal Revenue Service records to see if any banks reported interest on accounts held by Louis from 1996 to 2001.
Joseph said what Henry uncovered left him and his family “very surprised.”
Louis was born in 1910. He was the oldest of six siblings to Italian parents who immigrated to Canada before settling in New Britain, Conn.
Not much is known about Louis’ life. Joseph said he barely spent time with Louis and was only 1 when his brother left home. He said Louis only kept in touch with some siblings.
But Louis' brilliant mind and quirkiness made him a fixture of family lore.
“He was kind of a mathematical genius as well as being an eccentric,” said Allen Fitzpatrick, 60, one of Louis’ nephews. “The whole family, they were pretty much on the smart end, but I guess he was the biggest brain of them all.”
Louis’ eccentricity garnered him notoriety in the press in 1936 when the news wire service UPI wrote about his quirky commute to college.
At the time he was 25, working as a bookkeeper in Hartford, Conn. He would bike from Hartford to the Springfield, Mass., branch of Northeastern University twice a week. He covered 56 miles on each round-trip ride for a total of 112 miles a week, the wire service reported.
During World War II, he was drafted into the Air Force and made a career out of the military.
Joseph, who lives in Florida, said he didn’t know much about his brother’s life after that, nor did he know how he ended up living out his final days in a boarding home.
Henry, 92, could not be reached for comment at his Falls Church, Va., home, and his lawyer declined to comment until she got his approval.
But Henry’s hunt paid off.
By 2004 he identified more than 30 bank accounts in Virginia, Connecticut and New York that Louis held.
Henry also located four safety deposit boxes that Louis had. Those boxes contained passbooks, keys to other safety deposit boxes and notes written in a little-used version of shorthand that referred to the location of other assets.
In all Henry discovered about $912,000 that his penny-pinching brother had kept scattered around the country.
But doling out the money has proven just as challenging as tracking it down.
Court papers in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court show that the funds are to be divvied up among Louis’ two surviving brothers, Joseph and Henry, and six nieces and nephews who are the heirs to his other deceased siblings.
But distributions haven’t been made because Joseph and Henry, who are the administrators of Louis’ estate, have been locked in a legal fight over how much to pay Henry’s lawyers for preparing tax filings on the $912,000.
Last year, Joseph asked a surrogate’s court judge to remove Henry as an administrator.
Joseph declined to comment on the case, calling it “a private family matter.”
Earlier this year, Henry filed a legal response that cited the lengths he went to to track down the money and demanded that a judge dismiss Joseph’s request.
Fitzpatrick, whose mother was one of Louis’s sisters, said the delay is “because of roadblocks set up by other family members.”
“It’s the longest legal case I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Fitzpatrick, who lives in Seattle, never met his Uncle Louis. He said he might have if the family knew he was living in Manhattan. At the time of Louis’ death, Fitzpatrick lived on the Upper West Side.
“Obviously, I certainly would have said hello to him,” he said. “It’s weird.”