The Ex-Lax Man

Written by Ellis Conklin

Article appeared in the April 4, 2012 edition of Seattle PI

Barry Lyn Stoller was a most unremarkable man. Everything about him seemed ordinary – that is, until the leaves began to brown in the early autumn of 1993.

That’s when fate arrived via the mail and Barry, an unmarried loner, a taciturn, $15-an-hour working stiff drywaller, took his shot at the moon.

This is the story of how he became known as “The Ex-Lax man,” of how Barry Stoller sought a $1.99 refund but ended up with a check for $98,002.

Today he’s on the lam, the target of a warrant charging him with first-degree theft, living who knows where with whatever is left of his windfall.

Few could imagine – certainly not Stoller – that a small fortune, albeit tainted, would tumble into his lap. Stoller spent most evenings quietly with his beloved pet, Battle Cat, inside Building A, Apt 5, of the 190-unit Brittany Lane Apartments in Auburn.

He appeared to live life without leaving fingerprints on anything or anyone. His lone run-in with the law happened five years ago when he was cited for driving without wearing his seat belt. His idea of a great weekend, say family members, was to visit flea markets.

“The name just doesn’t ring a bell,” was the common refrain among dozens of his Ferris High School class of ’75 students and teachers, who this summer gathered for the Spokane school’s 20th reunion at Templin’s Resort in Post Falls, Idaho.

His picture didn’t appear in his junior or senior class yearbooks, and there are only two words beside his name in the senior index: “Future – Navy.” He never did join the Navy and, needless to say, was not missed at the reunion, which nearly two-thirds of the 350-member class attended.

“I’ve never heard of him, and I talked to some others, and they’d never heard of him,” said Christine Walker, who organized the reunion.

Barry was just a homebody, making dumplings from recipes in the German cookbooks he took, along with a stack of Reader’s Digests, when his mother died, said his older brother, Bruce.

Stoller had spent his days puttering around the Kent-Auburn area, toiling in the sheetrock craft his dad taught him as a teen-ager, seemingly devoid of dreams or ambitions. If he did have any, he kept them to himself.

Velma Stoller, Barry Stoller’s aunt, was hard-pressed to conjure up anything memorable about her 38-year-old nephew. On second thought, there was one thing: He was cheap, a real skinflint with his money, Velma said.

“Oh yes,” his father Benny agreed. “He could account for every dollar he’d spent over the course of a month. Saved everything he made.”

With a chuckle, Velma remembered how Barry taught Battle Cat to use the toilet. The reason was quite simple: He’d no longer have to buy cat box litter.

“Oh boy, he was very frugal. He was always saving,” said Velma Stoller, who lives in Kent.

But for what? A whirlwind European voyage? A home and maybe a family someday? A pitcher of margaritas on a Mexican beach? No, that wasn’t Stoller’s style. No one really knows the real story, except perhaps his brother, Bruce, 41, who has tales of a more reckless side of his younger sibling.

“I once told him,” Velma said, “I said, ‘Barry, you have the money. Why not take a trip somewhere?’ And he said, ‘Why should I? It’s all the same. The same trees, the same mountains, the same everything that’s already here.’”

In early September 1993, Stoller was beset with gastric distress and bought a bottle of Ex-Lax Regular Strength Pills. But he wasn’t satisfied with the popular laxative, and on Sept. 6 Stoller scrawled a note to Ex-Lax’s manufacturer, the multimillion-dollar Sandoz Pharmaceuticals Corp. in East Hanover, N.J.

“Dear Ex-Lax,” Stoller wrote, “I took the pills at bedtime but it did not have any effect by 8 am morning, or 8pm that day. I would appreciate the refund of $1.99.

“Thank you, Barry.”

Promptly, Mary Drummond of Sandoz’s consumer affairs department wrote Stoller on Sept. 10, apologizing that the Ex-Lax had not proved effective.

“Please return to us any remaining product, so that our quality assurance department can evaluate it. I have enclosed a postage-paid label for your convenience,” Drummond wrote. “Enclosed is your refund.” And what a refund it was.

The check – that must have shaken in Stoller’s hands – was for $98,002.

The company’s newly automated check-paying system had gone berserk and mistakenly spit out a check in an amount matching Stollers ZIP code.

In filing its victim impact statement with the Kent Police Department more than a year later, a Sandoz company official wrote: “The check was one of many processed at the same time and was inadvertently signed and mailed.”

Stoller didn’t do anything with the check for the next 10 days. No one knows what thoughts raced through his mind or what schemes he might have contemplated.

Police speculate that Stoller called various Seafirst Bank branches to see which of them might have the cash on hand. He found one about eight miles north of Kent, a few blocks from the home of his uncle, Pete Stoller.

SuLee Allen was the teller that morning – Tuesday, Sept. 28 – when Stoller came in with the check. She says she can still vividly recall Stoller’s “weird transaction.”

“I remember him well. I mean, I gave him over $100,000,” Allen said recently. “Normally, no one comes in to ask for this much cash.”

Since Stoller did not have his signature on file at the Kent branch, and because a required currency transaction report had to be filled out and later filed with the Internal Revenue Service, it took about an hour for Stoller to collect.

“He was real calm, a real nice man. He didn’t talk a lot,” Allen said. “He never got upset. Usually, you can tell if you’re being frauded. The customer will get fidgety or walk around a lot, and maybe even walk out of the bank if you go and make a phone call.

Allen said she tried to coax Stoller into accepting a cashier’s check at least for half the amount. But no, Stoller insisted on cash. He told her he owned his own business and wanted to pay for some equipment. Allen remembered Stoller saying he’d get a better deal if he paid in cash.

After Allen counted out the money in a back-room office, Stoller closed his account and left eh bank with $114,188 in cash, most of it in $100 bills.

The additional $16,000 apparently was money Stoller had saved.

Brother Bruce says it was money Barry stashed away from selling a modest home in the Spokane area. Stoller’s father Benny says it was simply hard-earned bread from hanging sheetrock.

His pockets plump with cash, Stoller left the bank and promptly moved out of his Auburn digs, loading his belongings into his black 1977 Chevy pickup, which he always kept in good condition.

It took Sandoz Corp. accountants until late October 1993 to notice what at the time they euphemistically called “an overpayment to Mr. Stoller.”

A private detective hired by Sandoz to retrieve the loot talked with neighbors and managers of the Brittany Lane Apartments. They reported that Stoller had left mail in a locked box and gave no forwarding address. Stoller also left the Halloween decorations he had put up around the door and on his apartment windows.

So where did Barry Stoller go, and what did he do with the $98,002?

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