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In the film Holes*, in the early 1900s, a man named Stanley Yelnats was robbed of a chest full of treasure. The bandit later buried the treasure on the property of a man named Trout Walker in Texas. Years later, in the late 90s or early 00s, Stanley Yelnats' great-grandson (also named Stanley Yelnats) found the treasure.

In the scene where the treasure is found, the owner of the property (Trout Walker's grand-daughter) insists that the chest belongs to her because it was found on her property. But the chest has Stanley Yelnats'name on it, so Stanley's lawyer takes it and it goes to Stanley's family.

I have two questions, assuming real-life Texas inheritance and property law:

  1. Who is the rightful owner of the chest of treasure?
  2. Regardless of who the ultimate rightful owner is, did Stanley's lawyer have the right to take something off of the Walker's property just because it had Stanley's name on it?

* I think this is all same in the book as well, but I haven't read it, so I'm not sure

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  • Minor nitpick as I'm not certain of the law, but Kissin' Kate Barlow's first known crime was the murder of the Sheriff of Green Lake in 1888. Her crime spree lasted from 1888 for 20 years and the robbery of Stanley Yelnats (I) early in her career as part of a Stagecoach robbery (it is likely that she kept on to the stocks and bonds because they were difficult to sell. Any cash, jewels, and precious metals were not Yelnats' property). Given that Stanley Yelnats was traveling by Stagecoach, it's likely still in the late 1800s.
    – hszmv
    Apr 24, 2023 at 13:53
  • Also the book and film are virtually identical (a rarity for films based on the book) with the only significant detail is that Stanley Yelnats IV was overweight in the book, while actor Shia LaBeouf who portrayed the character, was 16-17 at the time of filming and for health reasons was convinced to no gain weight for the role. Additionally the origin of Stanley's nickname Caveman was different. In the book, it was because of his size. In the film, it was because of his discovery of fish fossils (This did happen in the book, but after Stanley got his nickname).
    – hszmv
    Apr 24, 2023 at 14:00

2 Answers 2

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In all likelihood, the property would have gone to Stanley. Keep in mind that Warden Walker and her family owned the remains of the town of Green Lake, which had become a ghost town in the 20 years between Kissin' Kate's crimes and her death. The books likely take place in the year of the release. In all likelihood, the state owned the lake proper, and thus the lake bed, even if Trout bought all the buildings as the town population dwindled. In all likelihood, the loot was abandoned property on public land (the dried lakebed). As such, it was Hector and Zeroni opperating on their own, who discovered the treasure and thus would be able to claim it as their property. As we do not see the deed to the land, this is an assumption. However, the lack of any fencing around a juvenile detention facility probably hints that they were operating on land that the camp could not legally fence off and used the threat of dehydration to deter escape.

If it was on the property, there might be a legal dispute as it was stolen property in the first place and the estate of Stanley Yelnats would be able to make a claim against Warden Walker that they need to return the goods that were not theirs. This is complicated by the fact that Warden Walker and her employees are knowingly violating the law by using Juvenile Offenders as unpaid labor, despite the fact that they are private state contractors and advertise themselves as a counseling service and are engaging in computer crimes to cover up two offenders running off into the desert as well as fraud. This results in the state seizing control of the facility to properly dispose of those in it's custody and the property itself. This means that even if Warden Walker rightly owned the land, the state felt it like it was in everyone's interest to back the Yelnats' claim to the contents of the chest (In all likelihood, they could have included it as a settlement to prevent a lawsuit as the state would be a party to any case (at the least, they failed to properly inspect the facility and it's operations) and the Yelnats and Zeroni's are the victims who were impacted the most. It could also have been used to incentivize or thank them for testimony against the Walker operation.).

It could also be the case that the book ended prior to the treasurer's ownership being rightfully decided by the law. The Yelnats were independently wealthy thanks to Yelnats III's discovery of a cure for foot oder (Sploosh), which was so successful that they were able to advertise it with a Superbowl commercial with a celebrity endorsement from a Major League Baseball player no less. While the baseball player likely was doing it at a significant discount because his testimony lead to Yelnats IV's wrongful conviction and abuse at Camp Green Lake, the price for a 30 second spot in Super Bowl XXXIII (1999) was $1.6 million dollars and was likely payed for from (Sploosh's) own income as an advertising expense is nothing to sneeze at.

It should also be pointed out that Holes is not a story about the law (this comes as early as Stanley IV's trial, where he is not given an lawyer and his family cannot afford one, along with some testimony that would not have been allowed being allowed to be heard.). The point of the treasure being found was symbolic of the family curse being lifted, a result of Stanley carrying Zero up the mount where they found water, and allowing him to drink while he sang the fabled song (The terms that Stanley's No good pig stealing Great-Great-Grandfather failed to oblige to Hector "Zero" Zeroni's Great-Great-Grandmother that brought the curse upon the family.). As a major theme of the book is the choices of the past affecting the present, the treasure is a symbolic victory. Stanley IV is rewarded for fulfilling his ancestor's promise out of the goodness of his own heart and no idea that he was doing this. When Zero reveal his real name as Zeroni, Stanley has no idea of the relation to the gypsy woman who cursed his family (if I recall the book spells it out for the reader. I remember in my first read, I forgot Madam Zeroni's name by the time we learn it's Zero's name.). As such, the legality of do they own it because it was stolen and their name was on it wasn't considered. Green Lake is also recieves the first rain it has in 100 years after the treasure is found and Zero is taken with Stanley's lawyers out of Green Lake (it's implied that Sam, Kissin' Kate's lover, whose death at the hands of the towns folk brought about the cursed drought, had also been broken.).

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The owner of the property, or the finder, or the true owner(s).

Look, it’s complicated. These sorts of cases don’t come up very much. Practically, most of it is going to be owned by the lawyers arguing about it. If the land had been sold in the meantime that would further complicate things. Also, despite the finder being a descendent of the original true owner, that doesn’t necessarily make them an heir and likely not the only heir.

This explains the situation.

At common law (which appears not to be fully applicable in Texas) found property falls into 5 categories:

  1. Abandoned where the owner has given up all claim to it but has not transferred it to anyone else (aka littering)
  2. Lost where the owner has involuntarily or inadvertently parted with it
  3. Mislaid where the owner has deliberately placed it somewhere and then left it
  4. Embedded where the property has become part of the natural earth
  5. Treasure which includes gold and silver objects and sometimes paper money.

Abandoned property belongs to whomever finds it. Lost property belongs to whomever finds it, subject only to a claim by the true owner. Mislaid property belongs to the owner of the property on which it is found, subject only to a claim by the true owner. Embedded property belongs to the owner of the property on which it is found. Treasure trove is generally treated the same as lost property (except in common law jurisdictions outside the US where all treasure belongs to the Crown i.e. the government).

Texas only appears to recognise the first two but it’s not settled law so there’s room for dispute. It’s also not entirely clear which category your object falls; particularly since it was deliberately placed there and not by the actual owner.

If it was found on government owned land, the answer would be simple - Texas owns it.

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