Picture of mansion taken by Bob Cummings and edited into collage designed by No Limit Creatives

When I was approached a few months ago about a conflict at Save Our Heritage Organisation, San Diego’s premier nonprofit committed to historic preservation, I was eager to learn more. This wasn’t any old disagreement between colleagues. This was charged and emotional. It ruined friendships of 20 years. It led to a board member’s resignation. And it was never fully resolved, at least in the eyes of those who brought the claims forward.

Here’s the quick version of the controversy: Bruce and Alana Coons, who have led SOHO for more than two decades, were accused of taking $70,000 worth of historical antiques to their private home in Mississippi without permission, displaying them on a historic home tour and receiving a cut of the proceeds from the event. (There were other accusations against the Coons that are covered in the story.)

Digging into what happened here felt like a mystery out of a Nancy Drew book or computer game — one of my favorite franchises as a kid. (I guess that comes as no surprise for someone who turned out to be an investigative reporter.) I sat at my home office, cross referencing the pictures in appraisal reports with photographs of antiques in Mississippi, inspecting the designs on candlesticks and rosewood chairs and trying to match them up.

I spoke with people who were longtime supporters of SOHO but were deeply concerned by the Coons’ actions. I spoke with museum curators and experienced preservationists, who explained the massive impact that controversies like this can have in the fields of art, history and preservation.

Antiques are on display in a dining room for a historic home tour in Natchez, Mississippi, in 2019. The candlesticks belong to Save Our Heritage Organisation. (Courtesy of Christopher Pro)

And of course, I spoke with leadership at SOHO. When I first asked for an interview, SOHO hired a crisis communications representative to field my requests. The spokesperson arranged for a sit-down interview with the Coons, as well as David Goldberg, the president of SOHO’s board of directors.

There’s no other way to put it: This was a chaotic two-hour conversation. SOHO’s leaders talked over each other, interrupted one another and offered some confusing explanations. But to my surprise, the Coons didn’t dispute the basic facts. They admitted to taking the nonprofit’s antiques halfway across the country for their personal use.

However, the couple completely denied misusing the items in any way or personally benefiting from them, and chalked the whole thing up to a mistake. If the Coons had just gone to the board of directors to get approval before using the antiques, they said, there would have been no problem.

Following up on the Coons’ description of events turned out to be one headache after another. I reached out to everyone involved in the dispute, including the antiques appraiser, the auditor who investigated the claims and the company that organized the historic home tour.

Each source offered slightly different details, and I had trouble making all the stories line up. Here’s one example: Alana Coons originally described the money received from the historic tour as a “stipend” that was supposed to help homeowners prepare for the event. But when I spoke to the tour company, staff said the money participants earned was not considered a stipend and there were no restrictions on how it could be spent. (For what it’s worth, the Coons said they spent way more money preparing for the tour than they earned from it anyway.)

An excerpt from the “loan sheet” the Coons provided as evidence that the antiques were temporarily taken to Mississippi. The document did not have the word “loan” on it.

I found myself checking and rechecking the same records just to make sure I had the details right. SOHO leadership provided me with a “loan sheet,” which was a list of antiques that the Coons took to Mississippi. But as I looked closer, and went back to my spreadsheet and photographs, I discovered items missing from the loan documentation. That included a $1,350 porcelain tea set, $5,500 laminated rosewood chairs and a $4,800 Victorian table clock.

This might seem like a small detail, but it gets at the heart of the whole dispute. The Coons took these items to Mississippi without permission and without documenting them. It was only after I reviewed all the details and approached the Coons again that they admitted these additional antiques weren’t in their paperwork. The poor recordkeeping and lack of oversight at SOHO became a big part of the story. It’s why some people affiliated with the nonprofit are worried more antiques may still be unaccounted for. 

This project reinforced an important journalism principle: Be persistent. The truth is not easy to find, and no single person is going to have all the answers. The more phone calls you make, the more documents you ask for and the more time you spend researching, the more it pays off.

In the end, all that work makes the story more accurate, more fair and more meaningful.

Type of Content

Behind The Story: Clarifies for the public how a story was reported.

Jill Castellano is a former investigative data coordinator for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club....