Campton Hills woman’s missing wallet found nearly 29 years later in Arizona

Julia Hsia admits she loses things all the time.

But this is not about the odd glove. After nearly 29 years, one of Hsia’s more personal items has resurfaced. It’s a miniature time capsule into her past life.

Roughly 1,700 miles from where Hsia lives in Campton Hills, a wallet she lost in 1995 was found last summer in Arizona by a dermatologist while he was underwater diving in the Salt River. The wallet was at the bottom of the river.

Hsia (pronounced “shah”) says the wallet went missing during an off-road adventure that nearly turned deadly.

“The thing is, I lose stuff a lot,” Hsia said. “I always get so upset. And with the wallet, I was really bummed. We were just grateful that we were safe, and we didn’t lose our lives.”

A traumatic experience

Hsia, who at 14 moved with her family to Carol Stream from Tainan City, Taiwan, was two years out of Illinois State University when she and her then-boyfriend went out west on vacation.

Near the end of their trip, the young couple visited Hsia’s cousin. After sightseeing in Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, the cousin took the couple and his 6-year-old nephew on an adventure in the Salt River.

The cousin decided to take his GMC Yukon off-road and drive into the river. Just that week, he’d crossed the Salt River in the Yukon.

This time, with Hsia’s boyfriend up front and Hsia and the 6-year-old boy belted in the rear passenger seats, the driver didn’t realize that a dam had released water into the Salt River, making it deeper. The heavy vehicle started floating downstream.

  Julia Hsia holds a replacement wallet that her mother gave her. Hsia lost her wallet in a river in Arizona during a trip in 1995. A man recently found the missing wallet. Brian Hill/

Hsia recalled that water started seeping inside the vehicle, eventually reaching about dashboard level. The four had to escape through open windows.

Hsia says it was a frightening proposition because she doesn’t swim, and the young boy needed rescue from some people fishing nearby who saw the floating disaster and came to their aid.

“We were all safe, but it was all very traumatic,” Hsia said.

Though Hsia escaped with a Nikon camera on a cord around her neck, her wallet sank to the sandy bottom, perhaps weighted down by casino tokens she’d kept from a trip to Las Vegas.

Safe and sound, but for the wallet, Hsia and her boyfriend went back home and lived their lives.

Salvaging what’s left behind

Enter Dr. Jeremy Bingham, a dermatologist in Mesa, Arizona.

Born in Mesa, Bingham has explored the Salt River all his life — fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, free diving to its depths, and salvaging things people left behind.

“Tubers are always dropping stuff,” Bingham said.

Dr. Jeremy Bingham of Mesa, Arizona, with the wallet that Campton Hills resident Julia Hsia lost in 1995. Courtesy of Dr. Jeremy Bingham

He’s found lots of wallets, he said, but his specialty is rings. He’s kept 140 of them.

One day last summer, Bingham was at the Salt River with his sons, Taylor and Zachary, when he found Hsia’s wallet on the sand underneath 15 feet of water while on a dive.

Bingham figured it had been buried until recent storms and winter runoff had churned the river, bringing Hsia’s wallet to the surface of the sand.

“I’ve probably floated over this wallet thousands of times over the (years),” he said.

The wallet contained those coins all mottled together, along with Hsia’s driver’s license and credit cards for stores like JC Penney and Sears. Bingham didn’t find any cash; Hsia didn’t recall if there was any in the wallet but figured it would have disintegrated long ago.

  Julia Hsia looks over negatives of her 1995 Arizona trip on Thursday at her house in Campton Hills. Brian Hill/

It took until late fall for Bingham to track Hsia down via X, formerly Twitter, and it wasn’t until January that Hsia responded to his message since she doesn’t often use the social media platform.

They had a nice long chat about both their adventures, which drew the interest of Mesa print and broadcast media.

“To be reunited with the wallet makes me feel complete,” Hsia said. “This item from the past came back.

“I’m grateful that Dr. Jeremy took the trouble to look me up and send me the message with the intention to give the wallet back to me,” she said. “Of course, he did not expect a story. Now he and I both have stories to share.”

Bingham still has the wallet and soon will send it to Hsia. It hopefully won’t get lost in the mail.

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