Jose Nuñez Romaniz was headed to the bank to deposit money so he could buy socks online for his grandfather when he came upon a large clear plastic bag filled with cash next to an ATM in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“When I first saw it, I kind of stared at it for a few seconds, not knowing what to do,” Nuñez said of his discovery May 3. “I was very shocked. I’ve never seen so much money.”
Nuñez, 19, a criminal justice student at Central New Mexico Community College, said that after the initial shock had worn off, he took a picture of the bag.
He said he noticed a tag on the outside of the bag that said it contained $60,000 in $20 bills. The police later counted an additional $75,000 in $50 bills.
“It never passed through my mind to keep any of it,” Nuñez said Saturday.
Nuñez first thought about calling the toll-free number on the Wells Fargo ATM but instead dialed 911 because he didn’t want it to seem as if he had been stealing, he said.
After calling the police, he put the bag in his car and moved it so someone else could use the machine. He then called his mother to tell her he was going to be a little late coming home.
Two police officers arrived within minutes, took the bag and took Nuñez’s statement and information. He said his parents expressed amazement and disbelief when he recounted what had happened, even after he showed them the picture.
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff in 21 years, but this was unique and refreshing for the department and city,” Officer Simon Drobik, an Albuquerque Police Department spokesman, said Saturday. “I think this is the biggest amount of money found in Albuquerque and returned.”
Gilbert Gallegos Jr., another spokesman, said it appeared that a Wells Fargo contractor had intended to put the money in the ATM but had mistakenly left it on the sidewalk.
On Tuesday morning, Nuñez was in Phoenix buying materials for his parents’ mattress business when Drobik called.
“He asked me how was it to be a hero in the town, and at first I didn’t know what he was referring to,” Nuñez said. “But then he started telling me about a ceremony to honor me. He wanted me to take my family there and meet the mayor and the chief of police.”
About 50 people attended the ceremony, which was held at the Albuquerque Police Academy on Thursday.
At the ceremony, Mayor Tim Keller commended Nuñez’s actions: “Man, we all know that temptation. Even just to take a little, just one of those bundles off the top. I mean that had to be really hard.”
Nuñez said he had received a plaque, gift cards, sports gear and even a $500 scholarship from an electric company.
“My parents got emotional, my mom mostly,” he said. “I was more nervous than anything because it was my first time on the news.”
Nuñez said that he had spoken to the two officers who responded and that they had told him they at first thought his call was a prank.
Also in attendance were officials from Wells Fargo and the contractor, who expressed their gratitude, he said. Wells Fargo is investigating what happened, the police said.
Tony Simmons, a Wells Fargo spokesman, on Saturday referred questions to the contractor, Respond NM, which delivers cash in armored vehicles and provides ATM services. The company could not be immediately reached for comment.
When Drobik learned that Nuñez was studying criminal justice and wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement, he invited him to apply for a position at the department. Nuñez said he had gone to the station Friday and filled out an application to be a public service aide, an entry-level position for those who want to become law enforcement officers but do not yet meet the requirements.
“I’ve wanted to be a crime scene investigator or a detective for the police since I was a kid,” Nuñez said. “I already had my mind set on that.”
Since the ceremony, Nuñez has been getting many calls and lots of attention on social media. Many Hispanic people, in particular, have reached out to express their support and pride for how Nuñez represented their community, he said.
The Albuquerque Isotopes, a minor league baseball team, asked Nuñez to throw out the first pitch at an improvised ceremony in what will be an empty ballpark because the coronavirus pandemic delayed the 2020 season.
“The family was very humble,” Officer Drobik said. “It was amazing to watch them. There’s a greater good there. They weren’t blown away by Jose’s actions, but everyone else was.”