Cheryl Gavazzi went into a Swampscott department store Tuesday after work on a mission to get a birthday present for her daughter-in-law.
Instead, she ended up hightailing it out of the store with a bag full of cash, frantically looking out for what she thought might be gun-toting drug dealers.
“ ‘This is a drug thing,’ was my first thought,” said the 54-year-old. “ ‘I’m going to get killed.’ ”
Gavazzi didn’t hold up a drug lord at the local Marshalls, but she also knew the rolled-up $100 bills in plastic baggies she found in a pretty bag hanging on a rack couldn’t have been a shopper’s bonus.
The blue swirl-pattern shoulder bag held more than $11,000.
“It was a Vera Bradley bag, and it was nice,” said Gavazzi, a bank collections analyst from Beverly.
When she first spotted the bag, she thought she had found the birthday gift she needed — until she opened it. That’s when she saw the cash. She also saw diapers, wipes, and a wallet, but no IDs; she saw immunization records for several children, but no adult names or addresses. She looked around.
“This is crazy,” Gavazzi said of the thoughts running through her head. “What do I do now? Do I ignore this and leave it hanging? If it’s a drug thing, what do I do?”
She decided to toss it in the undercarriage of her shopping cart and walked around the store for 10 minutes hoping its owner would notice it. No one did.
Because of the amount of cash, Gavazzi decided it was a matter for the police, not the young cashiers.
“I ran to the car, threw it in the front seat and locked my doors, looking for drug dealers following me,” Gavazzi recalled. “I’m a nervous wreck looking.”
Not knowing where the Swampscott police station was, and with a looming hair appointment, Gavazzi drove to her Beverly home and called her husband with instructions: “Don’t touch it. I’ll explain to you when I get home.”
Hours later, Gavazzi returned and took the bag to Beverly police. Soon, they found that a Lynn man had reported the bag missing to Swampscott police that afternoon. “He went shopping with his family, his wife put the diaper bag down, and she forgot it,” said Swampscott Police Detective Timothy Cassidy.
No one answered the door at the man’s home, but Cassidy said he told police the cash was the proceeds of a fund-raiser to build a church in Guatemala.
“It’s outstanding,” Cassidy said of Gavazzi’s actions. “We need more people like that in our society.”
With Gavazzi’s permission, police gave the man her phone number. “He called me and said, ‘I just want to thank you so much. It’s not my money. I would have had to give up Christmas for my kids and sell my car,’ ” Gavazzi said.
The two met that night at a restaurant parking lot, where the man insisted on giving Gavazzi $200 for her honesty.
Gavazzi said she didn’t want to take the man’s reward money, but he seemed to truly want to her to have it.
Although at first glance his story might have seemed hard to believe, Gavazzi said that after talking to him, she thought he was sincere.
The mother of three and grandmother of two said she had never thought about keeping the $11,000.
“That’s not my money,” she said. “If it had happened to me, I would hope that someone would do the same.”