In early May, 1906, Nicholas Van Sant was worried.
His law firm with Emmett was not doing as well as he’d hoped. Although they had won cases and were building a client base, there was a negative cash flow.
Emmett seemed to be doing well enough; but Van Sant hadn’t had a chance to talk with him in-depth. He also didn’t see him that much because of bank business and several trips to Iowa in April and May.
Given the excellent political and business connections Van Sant had (not only from his own connections, but those of his brother, the Governor of Minnesota), Nick had started to wonder why the law firm wasn’t doing so well. The law firm likely had a decent amount of work to keep Emmett busy; also, no one expected Emmett to be the Clarence Darrow of Sterling. Nick just expected Emmett to show up, do his work, do a good job.
Nick Van Sant put a trusted employee on the case to get to the bottom of the problem: Frank Heflebower, cashier and forensic accountant.
(Heflebower didn’t actually have the ‘forensic accountant’ title, but he was skilled at this kind of problem-solving for Nick’s bank.)
This wasn’t a hard case for Frank: All he had to do was examine the law firm accounting books, receipts, and bank statements.
In the end, Heflebower assembled the financial picture and presented it to Nick. Conclusion: Something was wrong at Van Sant & Wilson; the books didn’t balance. Heflebower may not have been able to prove Emmett’s drinking was the problem, but the figures definitely revealed Emmett was hiding a problem.
On or about May 25, Nick confronted Emmett with the evidence and asked for an explanation — which, to his credit, Emmett admitted. Emmett knew he’d get in trouble if he kept up the charade.
What was difficult was that Nick saw Emmett as a sort-of heir apparent. Because Nick considered Emmett as the son he never had, he must have been disappointed. He’d done everything for Emmett to make the transition to Sterling seamless; unfortunately, what Nick didn’t see was the alcoholism. Emmett must have hid it well, until he couldn’t hide it anymore.
Something else: Because we know that by May 1906 Emmett was a full-blown alcoholic, it is possible that Nick discovered Emmett had been drinking on the job; perhaps he walked in on Emmett.
What transpired between Nick and Emmett that day, at the end of May, constituted an intervention. Nick would not have prosecuted Emmett; he wouldn’t have wanted to do anything to harm his career or reputation.
I believe Nick offered to help Emmett get sober; even pay for the treatment. He gave Emmett two options: Sober up at the local Bedal Gold Cure Sanitarium in Sterling, or leave.
Nick gave Emmett some time to think about it, but in the end, Emmett packed his belongings and returned to Chipley. He told everyone — including The Chipley Banner editor that he was taking a month’s vacation; but the reality was that he was back permanently, unemployed, starting over. Emmett would never have admitted that he had an alcohol problem, nor would he have taken the chance if his admission to the sanitarium became public knowledge.
Emmett was damn lucky: If he had been partnered with anyone else, he might have faced a penalty, or perhaps disbarment if Heflebower had enough evidence to show embezzlement.
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