Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

Real Name: Josef Zelenka (birth name)
Case: Lost Heirs
Location: Kansas City, Missouri
Date: October 21, 1982


Details: Like many people in America, ninety-four-year-old George R. Marsh lived out the sunset years of his life alone and unnoticed. He watched the world go by from a wheelchair at his favorite window in a Kansas City nursing home. Yet, this simple, quiet man was also a man of mystery: a common laborer who had secretly amassed a small fortune of $175,000. People who knew him in his later years were surprised that he had left so much money behind. He told one nurse, Ella Freeman, about how he used to “work hard”, but he did not mention much else about it. She says that he did not appear like he had “that kind of money.”
George died on October 21, 1982, and is buried in a pauper’s grave without even a headstone to mark his passing. His estate is still unclaimed; he left no will and few traces of his life. But authorities are convinced that at least one of his long-lost relatives is still alive. Perhaps the following clues will help find his heirs.
In 1917, a “George Marsh” moved to Kansas City, Missouri. For the next twenty years, there are no records of his employment. In 1942, he worked as a laborer for the railroad. Decades later, all details of his employment have long since been destroyed. In the early 1950s, he was a night watchman for the Armour Meat Packing Company. But later, those company records were destroyed in a catastrophic fire. The Quality Hill area of downtown Kansas City was home for him for over sixty years. These few facts of his life were discovered by a Kansas City inheritance investigator, Michael Ledman.
Ledman thinks that George was a very secretive person. He apparently shared his life with no one. Ledman thought that he would find at least one person who would have been in communication with George or was close to him. However, that was not the case.
Shopkeeper Joe Cannova says that George was a customer at his store for about ten or twelve years. He remembers that George was a short, older gentleman with a mustache. George was very cautious as to what he was trying to buy. He always tried to buy the sale items, the cheaper products, and the lesser known products. As he left, he always paid cash for his groceries.
In 1979, the apartment building where George lived in Kansas City was tragically destroyed by a fire. He lost his home and all his belongings. Totally alone, he was forced to move into the Roanoke Manor Nursing Home. Ella recalls that he would just sit in a chair all day long. He never had anything to say to anyone. He spoke with an accent that may have been German. He was right-handed, and the middle finger on his right hand was cut off at the joint. He also had numbers on the inside of his arm, such as “3 4 5 7”.
Only once did George have a visitor. She identified herself as “Miss Marsh”, his sister. She said she lived in New Mexico. She was never traced, but perhaps she is the heir to his fortune. Voter registration records show that during the 1930s, he may have been married. “Lula May Marsh”, a housewife, lived at the same address as him. By 1946, she seems to have disappeared.
Head nurse Miriam Zwiegel says that, one day, she asked George if he had any children. He told her that he had a son. However, he also told her that he had no idea where he was and he had not seen him for years. He also said he did not know anything about him. He then “tuned” Miriam out; he was not willing to elaborate.
After George died, the nurses packing his belongings found several bank statements and deposit slips in a bedside drawer. It turned out he had nine secret checking accounts in four different banks. This information was given to the county public administrator, James Aylward, whose job is to find George’s heirs. The nursing home turned over several belongings and documents of his to Aylward. These items included: a birth certificate, some pictures, and a divorce decree.
According to the birth certificate found in George’s belongings, he was born in 1888 in Czechoslovakia and christened “Josef Zelenka”. Aylward says that there are several mysterious things about the case, including: why George changed his name; how he accumulated all of his money that he left behind; and who are his heirs. Aylward believes that, for some reason, George cut off all communication with his relatives.
Among George’s papers was a divorce decree that, in 1932, ended a marriage between Josef Zelenka and Catherine Zelenka. George also left behind five old and yellowed snapshots. Perhaps one of the people in the photos is the heir to his legacy. One photograph, of a young woman, was signed: “Your loving niece, Eleanor.” Another photograph is apparently that of Catherine Zelenka; her name has been written on the back of it. Yet another photograph is believed to be the only existing one of George. The woman in it may have been his wife Catherine or his wife Lula. Finally, the young boy in another photograph may be George’s long-lost son.
Whoever they are, one of the people in those pictures may be heir to $175,000. If none of his heirs come forward, after twenty-one years, George’s fortune will be dispersed at the state of Missouri. And his legacy and his memory will be gone forever.
Suspects: George's birth name may have been Josef Zelenka. According to his birth certificate, he was born in 1888 in Czechoslovakia. He is believed to have been married at least twice, to Catherine Zelenka and another woman named Lula May. His niece is believed to have been named Eleanor. He also may have had a son.
Extra Notes:

  • This case first aired on Special #3 which aired on September 24, 1987. It was updated on Special #4 which aired on November 29, 1987.
  • It was the first "Lost Heirs" case featured.
  • The show contacted Ledman about interesting cases he was working on, and he suggested this one.
  • The full segment was excluded from the FilmRise release of the Robert Stack episodes (because it was originally hosted by Karl Malden); however, the update to the segment was included.
  • Some sources spell George's birth name as "Joseph".

Results: Solved. Seventy-year-old Eleanor Tolar was watching the broadcast and recognized herself as the young woman in the picture signed, “Your loving niece, Eleanor.” It was her senior high school picture. She recognized the man in the next picture as her Uncle Joe. She realized that George was actually her uncle, Josef “Joe” Zelenka. She and her family contacted their local authorities, who contacted Kansas City authorities.
Joe had indeed been born in 1888 in Czechoslovakia and had immigrated to the United States with his family at the turn of the century. He moved to Kansas City in the 1920s. His family last saw him in 1931 at his father's funeral in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where most of his relatives still live. Joe’s ninety-year-old brother, James “Jim” Zelenka, had been looking for him for decades. Jim has no idea why Joe kept away from the family. He says there were no hard feelings, and they were all “united, always, in everything.” He does remember that Joe was always “mysterious”; as a young man, he would appear out of nowhere with large sums of money. He also always seemed to have a different woman with him. Jim speculates that he used an alias because he did not want to “hurt the family name.” He believes that Joe may have been involved in bootlegging and/or prostitution while in Kansas City.
The Zelenkas pulled together birth certificates, photos, and other documents linking them to Joe/George. They submitted this information to the public administrator’s office in Kansas City. Jim and Eleanor planned to divide the $175,000 among Joe’s surviving relatives. But more importantly, they wanted to preserve Joe’s memory. They intended to bring his body back to the family burial site. Jim says that the money is not as important as finding out what happened to Joe. He says he feels good all over to know that they located him and know where he is at. He is glad that he will be able to bring Joe’s body back to rest with the rest of the family.
In May 1989, a Jackson County probate judge ruled that George was, in fact, Joe, and that twenty-four of his relatives would divide his fortune. About a quarter of it went to Jim, his last surviving sibling. His family used some of the money to bring his body back to the family burial site in Wyoming.
On January 17, 1995, Jim passed away at the age of ninety-seven. On January 10, 1998, Eleanor passed away at the age of eighty-six.