Editor’s note: “Murmurations” is an original short story written for BirdWire by Christine Goff, author of the Birdwatcher Mystery series. Find these books online and in bookstores nationwide, and visit christinegoff.com.
Synopsis: The Troutdale Town Council tables a proposal to ban the feeding of wild animals—including birds—much to the frustration of Councilman Todd Harvey. Newspaper reporter Neveah Porter suspects there is more to the story, given the lack of public notice or input on the proposed ban, and the councilman’s determination to get it passed quickly. As she digs into the proposed ordinance, she finds that “overfeeding” birds can result in a fine of up to $2,650 per day! Clearly something is wrong with this picture, so she intends to investigate. She visits The Dipper, the local wild bird-feeding store, where owner Bo Bogan debunks the notion that feeding birds year round is harmful. He suggests that someone is trying to put him out of business, noting that the Chamber of Commerce has their eyes on his location for a new building. He said someone has been scattering seed on his property to attract nuisance wildlife. As she leaves the store, she sees Councilman Harvey ducking into the neighboring restaurant.
Neveah moved her car. Todd Harvey clearly hoped she hadn’t spotted him heading into the T-Bar-S, and she wanted to know why. She also didn’t want him to see her coming.
Driving away, she turned right onto Main Street, then a quick right into the ice cream shop’s parking area. Parking in a space beside a large red pickup, she hit the door locks and doubled back on foot toward the restaurant. Headed down the walking path toward the bridge, she had a clear view of the back deck of the T-Bar-S. Harvey sat at a table on the other side of the gurgling creek with two men she didn’t recognize.
His back was toward her, and she edged close to the edge of the creek to see if she could hear their conversation.
“There are three beneficiaries to the land trust,” one of the men was saying. “Bogan’s wife …”
A shout from behind her erased his next words as a gaggle of children swarmed past, ice cream cones in hand, to look at a handful of mallards bobbing in the shallows on the near shore. The three men swiveled to see what the commotion was about and Neveah turned away before Harvey spotted her. She’d overheard enough to know that while Bo Bogan had told her he wasn’t interested in selling his land, maybe the land wasn’t his to sell.
Pulling out her phone, she Googled land trusts. Colorado didn’t have specific laws. Land trusts here were modeled after the Illinois land trust, a simple, inexpensive method for managing the ownership of real estate. The title is held by a trustee, while the rights and convenience of ownership are exercised by the beneficiaries whose interest isn’t disclosed.
Next she checked did a document search on the Clear Creek County website and discovered the online records went back only as far 1983. The tax records simply indicated The Trout Family Trust as the owner.
It took her thirty minutes to drive to the Clear Creek County Clerk and Recorder’s Office in Georgetown, the county seat. The offices were housed in the newly refurbished courthouse near the middle of Main Street. The county clerk was manning the desk. Neveah gave her the property address for The Dipper. “I’m interested in knowing when the land was placed into The Trout Family trust.”
“What’s so special about that piece of property?” the clerk asked. “You’re the third person who’s been in here asking about that address in the past few weeks. I should have bookmarked it!” Walking over to a wall of filing cabinets, the clerk slid open a drawer, pulled out a file, and flipped it open. “It says here The Trout Family Trust was created in 1944 by Fredrick Trout, Jr., and lists The First National Bank in Troutdale as the registered trustee.”
“Are the beneficiaries listed?”
“No way,” the clerk scoffed. “Like I told the others, you’ll have to check with the bank. My guess is they won’t cough up any information.”
Neveah thanked her and headed back toward the car. There had to be another way to find out who made up the trust. It stood to reason that the Trout Family Trust had been created to benefit Trout family descendants. The family had come to the area back in the mid-1800s; there were five generations of Trouts.
The research librarian at the public library had been a fountain of information. It turned out Fred Trout, Jr., had written a history of his ancestors. Lugging the tome outside to a table on the library patio, Neveah thumbed through the book while a plumbeous vireo in the trees urged her on.
The Trout family was among the first settlers of the region, arriving in Colorado seeking riches in silver and gold, and staying to capitalize on the health migration: In the late 1800s people from the East came here in droves seeking sunshine and drier air in hopes of curing tuberculosis. There were estimates that at one time as much as 60 percent of the state’s population was here seeking treatment. Fred Trout seized the opportunity, building Troutdale as a sanatorium for the infirm and later transforming it into a mountain playground for Denver’s wealthy.
In addition to numerous photos, a Trout family tree spread across two pages in the center of the book. Checking the low-lying branches, Neveah found Fred Jr. had a younger brother named Norman. Based on their birthdates, both men would be in their nineties now, if they were even alive.
Heading back to the Troutdale Gazette offices, Neveah went downstairs into the basement where the old archives of the newspaper were kept. The morgue, as it was called, had every issue of the newspaper, hardbound in volumes by year. Starting in 1959, she laid the books on a long table in the center of the room and started looking through the obituaries. She struck pay dirt in 1994. Fred Jr. had died leaving behind two survivors: a daughter, Amy Bogan, and his brother, Norman Trout, both of Troutdale. Scanning forward, she found that Norman had died in 2016, leaving behind a daughter, Sybil Beaumont of Troutdale, a son, Jodey Trout of St. Petersburg, Florida, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
It seemed both Amy Bogan and Sybil Beaumont, head of Troutdale’s Audubon society, had a vested interest in what happened to The Dipper.
Heading back upstairs, Neveah used a computer and attempted a web search on Jodey Trout, but came up empty. In this instance it seemed safe to assume that Amy Bogan and Sybil Beaumont stood with The Dipper, but where did Jodey Trout stand? Trusts could operate in a number of ways. Changes could be made by one member with a deciding vote or—most commonly—by a majority of beneficiaries agreeing on trust decisions.
One thing seemed crystal clear. The trust didn’t seem willing to relinquish the land, so someone was taking it into their own hands to try and force the shutdown of the business. Pushing back from the small desk, Neveah mapped out her next moves. She needed to talk with Sybil and find out where Jodey stood on the issues, and to check the tapes that Bo had given her showing the person dumping bird food in back of The Dipper. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking.