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Wedding gift from a stranger

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Mike Kopel was cruising on his motorcycle on Highway 28 near the Pamida store when he noticed what he thought was some trash and leaves blowing around near the roadway.

Nothing unusual there on a breezy day in Morris. But he quickly realized the "leaves" were green -- very green.

It was money and checks.

"At first I thought it was garbage and a bunch of leaves," said Kopel, whose trained eye as an assistant gardener at the University of Minnesota, Morris quickly convinced him otherwise.

"I stopped right away and started picking up bills and checks. Everybody was going around me. I just started throwing it in the bags on my bike."

A fateful stop in Morris

Amber and Nate Samuelson were married in Eagle River, Wis., on June 28. Nate, 27, is a Senior Airman stationed at the Minot Air Force Base. Amber, 23, who is an Air Force Guard member, is a student at Minot State working on a Registered Nurse degree.

Following the big day, Nate and Amber stopped at the rural Morris home of her father, Mitch Pederson, who operates a construction business.

Nate was going to help out on construction jobs, so Amber went to town with their 19-month-old son, Carter, to shop at Pamida. Once done, Amber set her wallet on the roof of the car while she got Carter buckled in.

And she forgot the wallet, which contained all the cash and checks from their wedding cards -- more than $4,000.

"I've never forgotten my wallet before," Amber said. "I got halfway to my dad's house, about four miles away, when I couldn't find my wallet in the car."

Cash grab

While bent over scooping up bills and checks, Kopel's $1 reading glasses fell off and he lost them in the grass.

"I couldn't read the checks so I had no idea who they belonged to," Kopel said. "I just kept picking them up. I thought maybe a business lost its payroll or something like that."

It must have been something major, he thought, since almost all the bills were $20s, $50s and $100s. And he was able to gather up all he could find relatively quickly, which surprised him since the wind can blow pretty freely in the area, with open fields just across the highway.

"It just blows me away," Kopel said. "I can't believe with the amount of cash and checks that were there, that it wasn't all blowing away out in the field."

'No, I need a bucket'

Kopel took off toward the Stevens County Courthouse and the Morris Police Department.

"He came in and said, 'I found some money,' " said Chief of Police Jim Beauregard. "We said, OK, just put it here on the counter, and he said, 'No, I need a bucket.' He started pulling out wads of cash and checks and putting it in the bucket. There was all this dirt and grass going in with it."

The police locked up the money and asked Kopel to take them to where he found it all.

"Mike did a good turn there," Beauregard said. "Imagine the sick feeling those people had."

'Most of the money?'

Amber, Nate and Mitch were all back in the road ditch, looking for any sign of the wallet and money. Nothing.

Nate and Amber walked the ditches up and down the highway. Nate checked with workers at Pamida to see if they found the wallet. Nothing.

"I was sick," Amber said, estimating the wallet contained about $2,400 in cash and another $2,000 in checks. "I remember Nate saying earlier, 'Don't carry all that money with you,' and I told him I would do something with it when I got to dad's."

Up drove the police and Kopel with the good news.

Amber talked to an officer who said that Kopel had found "most" of the money.

"I said, 'Most of the money?' " Amber said. "I was worried. I asked the cop if he was honest and he said, 'Yes, Mike's well-liked by everybody.'

Kopel told them the story of seeing what he thought were little paper flyers that show up under the windshield wipers of cars, and grabbing the paper and stuffing it into the saddlebags of his bike.

"I started bawling," Amber said. "Nate and my dad were telling me that everything was all right, but I said, 'I know, but what if he didn't find the money.' Talk about a nightmare."

Good people out there

Amber and her family were amazed when they began sorting through the money, checks, grass and weeds in the Halloween bucket at the police department.

They not only found virtually all the checks and money, but Kopel tracked down symbolic gifts, like two $2 bills, and both halves of a $10 bill that Amber's mother, Laurie, had torn in half. She gave one half to Amber and the other half to Nate during the "dollar dance" at their wedding.

To the best of the Samuelson's recollection, Kopel retrieved all but $4, and they admitted that just as likely it could have been their counting mistake.

"That was so kind of him," Amber said. "I didn't think you'd find anybody who would turn it all in."

"It shows that there are good people out there," Beauregard said.

Story for the ages

Kopel wouldn't take a cash reward from the Samuelsons, but they insisted on buying him a $75 gift certificate to a local restaurant.

The Samuelsons visited the Kopel home soon after and stayed three hours.

"They're super people," Kopel said.

And now they're back home, with a wedding story for the ages.

"There couldn't have been a better second wedding present," Kopel said.