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Article updated: 7/1/2011 4:55 AM

Man who lied about $17,021 proves human complexity

After Arlington Heights man found cash, he got caught between right and wrong

Robert J. Adams of Arlington Heights was both honest, returning $17,021 he found, and dishonest, telling police a lie about where he found the cash. Nothing is really black and white in real life, says Scott R. Paeth, an associate professor of religious studies at DePaul University.

Robert J. Adams of Arlington Heights was both honest, returning $17,021 he found, and dishonest, telling police a lie about where he found the cash. Nothing is really black and white in real life, says Scott R. Paeth, an associate professor of religious studies at DePaul University.

 
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When we met after work last Friday for a quick horchata at Senor Taco in Rolling Meadows, Robert J. Adams of Arlington Heights was reflective about all the amazing things that had happened to him in the three weeks since the first column told his story of how he found a bag full of money on the sidewalk and gave it back.

"I had a lot of fun doing this -- for a week," Adams said with a laugh. "But after that? Well, I understand why Lindsay Lohan has so many problems."

Adams got a taste of those Lohanish kinds of problems Wednesday when he met with an FBI agent and police. The Rolling Meadows police, whose detectives spent three weeks plugging the holes in Adams' story about how he found the money, charged him with a local ordinance violation that carries a $500 fine for filing a false police report.

The security tape at a Walgreens in Midlothian clearly shows Adams picking up the bag containing $17,021 in cash and some checks that customers had deposited in an ATM inside the store. Adams walked out the door with the money, got in his car, drove to a bank near his home and next to Senor Taco where he spun his fabricated story of how he found the bag on the sidewalk right there.

Now all the new stories about Adams reveal how the poster boy for honesty got nailed for lying about his honesty. That kicked off a new round of publicity for a guy who isn't accustomed to being in the public eye.

Some people see Adams' fate as evidence that people never are as good as they seem and that good deeds never go unpunished. Some want him to go to prison for stealing. Others see the story as nothing more than an average guy getting in over his head and getting in trouble even though he did turn back every penny of the money he found. A few want to pay his fine.

Given all the social media options in today's society, people can read a headline or hear a sound byte and instantly pass judgment. They even can canonize someone as a saint one day and condemn him as evil incarnate the next day.

"We like a good story, a story where it's easy to tell the heroes from the villains," says Scott R. Paeth, an associate professor of religious studies at DePaul University who has written books about ethics. "It's like the difference between reading 'The Lord of the Rings,' where it's real easy to tell the good guys, and reading George R.R. Martin's 'The Song of Ice and Fire,' where you find yourself liking characters who do horrible things and see horrible characters do noble things."

The real-life Adams "is a pretty good example of a morally complex person," Paeth says. "He was trying to do the right thing, but in an imperfect way trying to make up for earlier mistakes. That just sounds to me like the human condition."

Adams heard talk from people who told him what they would have done in that situation, but Paeth notes, "It's when we think we're most morally pure that we run the risk to do the most harm.

"We're complex," Paeth says. "We want to do good and we want to hear stories about people doing good because that might inspire us to be good."

But sometimes an imperfection ruins our premise and we conclude, "If they aren't completely good, they must be completely bad," Paeth says.

Put in the path between good and evil, Adams made a choice to be honest and lie.

"It's in these moments of moral tension that we really determine what our character is," Paeth says. "The truth is we are mysteries to ourselves."

No matter how much we want to put everything into neat packages of black-and-white, that's not the way humans are.

"Our life stories," Paeth says, "are gray stories."

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