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Chapter 123: Adventures in Forensic Accounting

May 18, 1906
Sterling State Bank
Sterling, Illinois

Business was as usual in the pleasant, expensively equipped, and spacious lobby of the State Bank of Sterling, on the corner of Locust and East Third Street. 

From The Sterling Evening Gazette. February 22, 1906,

The bright sun streamed through the large plate glass windows of the bank. The lobby was largely filled with an ornate cage, behind which two male tellers quietly conducted business with merchants bringing in weekend deposits. Mostly, these were dry-goods merchants, but there were a few saloon and restaurant owners with their receipts from Saturday — their busiest day of the week. 

The bank staff often joked about the irony that even though the president, Nicholas Van Sant, was a strict card-carrying member of the Anti-Saloon League and active in temperance organizations, he would never deny one of the saloons’ bank business — they were some of the bank’s most profitable customers.

Frank Heflebower, 40, cashier and an officer of the Sterling State Bank, sat at his desk, in shirtsleeves and garters, glasses on his nose, his chin in his hand, intently studying an open page in one of two large accounting ledgers spread across the large oak desk. A small expandable file folder that had held receipts was open next to one of the ledgers; the receipts were out of the ledger and neatly stacked according to months on the desk as well.

Frank’s desk was next to one of the windows that overlooked busy Locust Street. He was so deep in thought as he studied the numbers on the accounting page that he was oblivious to the noise and bustle of the customers coming in and out of the bank; the loud gong of the streetcar as it neared the corner of Locust and East Third, and to Nick Van Sant’s personal secretary, who hovered for several moments next to Frank’s desk, loathe to interrupt his train of thought. But the cup of coffee the secretary held in his hand was getting cold.


Frank’s eyes were still on the accounting ledger page as his face turned slightly towards the secretary.


“Frank. You’ve been staring at those ledgers for the past 45 minutes. Time for a coffee break.”

Frank glanced up at the young man, then gave him a lopsided smile and nodded as he took the cup and gratefully drank it down.

“Thank you, Howard,” Frank said. “Any word from Nick yet?”

Howard shook his head. “I’m not sure we’ll hear anything today. Nick wired last night after his that barring any emergencies here, he planned to stick around with his brothers and sisters for a few more days, presumably to help with any of the business and estate issues — although Nick probably had all of that well in order before his mother passed.” 

Nick Van Sant’s mother, Lydia, who was 94, died in March. Nick and Ella had left a few days before for Le Clare, Iowa, home of the extensive family shipping and lumber enterprises. Several of Nick’s siblings were running the businesses, and often turned to Nick for guidance as they were stepping into more hands-on roles. And though it had been a few months since Lydia’s passing, Nick was still deep in mourning for his mother. Most everyone in Sterling understood that about Nick; family was important to him.

“Mmm,” Frank said, leaning back in his chair, and frowning at the ledgers again. 

“You’ve been combing through these books and receipts since early last week. Must be fascinating reading.”

Frank only glanced up at Howard, and gave a tight lipped smile. He didn’t answer one way or the other; typical of Frank. He was completely, utterly circumspect and trustworthy, with a mind like a steel trap. One never really knew what Frank thought.

As Nick’s secretary turned to leave Frank to his ledgers, Frank said: “Let me know if you hear from Nick today; if it is possible, I’d like to speak with him in private.” 

“Of course,” Howard said, who went back to his desk outside of Van Sant’s office. He glanced back over at Frank, who was now jotting down notes, and frowning. Frank was onto something, but he wouldn’t reveal what that was. Perhaps it was one of the bank’s main clients — the secretary nodded to himself. That was it. No wonder Frank seemed troubled by it.


Frank was concerned about what he’d found, but what complicated the issue was that the audit was being conducted secretly at Nick’s direction. 

Nick had obtained the accounting books and receipts himself. No one was the wiser — not even Miss Delp — who directed Nick to the location of the accounting books and receipts Tuesday afternoon, without question. Nick handed them over to Frank, only saying that the audit was confidential and to return the books to the law firm by noon on Monday.

Frank glanced over at the large clock on the lobby wall: 10:15 am. There wasn’t much time, and he still had questions — he then turned to the neatly stacked receipts that he’d organized and studied over the  weekend —  one had caught his eye. 

Source: The Sterling City Directory, 1908, via

He studied it a moment — Ryan Brothers — 

At that moment, Frank heard the voice of John W. Ryan, who co-owned the Ryan Brothers’ Lunch Room with his brother, talking to one of the tellers.

“John” — he called over to the merchant — “can I see you when you finish up?”

“Sure, Frank.” 

Ryan finished his business at the teller’s window and walked around the side of the teller cages where Frank stepped out into the lobby. Frank lowered his voice as he showed Ryan one of the receipts from his desk.

“Would you take a look at this?” Frank asked, handing it to the merchant, who glanced at it briefly. 

“It is one of my restaurant’s receipts,” Ryan said. “Is there something wrong with it?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Frank said. “Take at look at the numbers. It looks as if the numbers were changed — maybe it was a simple error at the till.”

Ryan scrutinized the receipt. He frowned briefly.

“Yeah. The charge is definitely wrong,” Ryan said, pointing to the receipt. “The customer was charged $5 more than necessary for the meal It might have just been an error by a new employee, though I guarantee a customer would have complained about being charged $5 for a sandwich.”

“Problem is, John, there’s several like that, and with only this particular customer.”

Ryan gave Frank a dark look: “Where did you get this?”

Frank paused; glancing around the lobby to make sure they weren’t being observed or overheard. “A client file,” he said quietly. “A confidential investigation.”

Ryan lowered his voice ominously. “You think someone on my staff is stiffing the customers and pocketing the money?”

“I don’t know, John. I’m only showing you what I found. I’d like to get to the bottom of it, though, as soon as possible.”

Ryan nodded tersely. “As would I. I run a decent place. The local temperance group has been looking for any reason to force us to close the restaurant because we refuse to stop selling liquor.” 

Frank nodded. “These receipts from your restaurant have numbers at the top, but no names. Is there any way to check them against your books?”

“There is,” Ryan said. “Do you mind if I take them with me?” 

“Do you think you could look at them right away? This is an urgent matter — the accounting books and records need to be returned to the original client before noon.”

Ryan nodded agreement.

Frank said, “Wait here a moment,” then stepped back into the teller cage, and picked up three other paper receipts. He took a State Bank of Sterling envelope out of the top of his desk, and inserted the receipts. He brought the envelope to Ryan, who added the last receipt to the envelope.

“I’ll telephone you, Frank.”

Frank nodded and watched as Ryan walked quickly out of the bank, toward his restaurant on First Avenue.

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