05/15/2014 at 03:00 PM EDT
New York college student Reese Werkhoven was settling down last March with two roommates on the couch they'd just purchased for $20 at a resale store when he felt something under the used sofa's arm. He dug down and found an envelope stuffed with cash – enough $20 bills to total $700.
"The most money I'd ever found in a couch was, like, 50 cents," he told The Little Rebellion
website. "Honestly, I'd be ecstatic just to find $5 in a couch."
They found much more. As Werkhoven, a geology student at State University of New York at New Paltz, and roomies Lara Russo, a New Paltz grad, and Cally Guasti, a Mount Holyoke grad, kept poking and probing in the contours of that piece of furniture, they came up with $41,000.
Dreams about their windfall blossomed: paying off student loans, travels around the world. "I would have bought my mom a new car," Werkhoven said. "What she drives is a piece of junk, and I really wanted to surprise her with a brand-new car."
But after Russo found a woman's name on one of the envelopes, reality took hold. They called their parents for advice. "We all agreed that we had to bring the money back to whoever it belonged to," she said. "However, there were a lot of gray areas we had to consider." Was it counterfeit? Drug money? The secret stash of a dead person, or someone they wouldn't like?
As Russo explained: "My mom said that I have a good moral compass, and if I don't think that someone is a good person, or deserving of the money, then I'm not obligated to give it to them. That really threw me off. Where do you draw the line? It's all very subjective."
The next day, Werkhoven's mom said she'd found the woman's name in the phone book. When Werkhoven called the woman and said he'd just made the purchase at the Salvation Army, she responded, "Oh, I left a lot of money in that couch."
Driving up to the woman's rustic home in a rough neighborhood of the Hudson Valley to return it, the three roommates' worries vanished and their decision was validated when the woman's daughter and granddaughter met them at the door.
"I could just tell right away," said Werkhoven, "that these were nice people."
Asking that her name not be used, the woman told the website her husband had a heart condition and had given her money to sock away until after he died. When he did, the floral worker continued to store cash in the couch, where she slept until a back operation sent her to rehab for several months. That's when her daughter and son-in-law had donated the couch and replaced it with a new bed.
For their honesty, the woman gave the trio $1,000 as a reward.
"We almost didn't pick that couch," Russo said of the cash-yielding thrift-store find. "It's pretty ugly and smells, but it was the only couch that fit the right dimensions for our living room."