The world knew when walking worker James Robertson toted up $360,000 and a new car, which put him in danger in his old Detroit neighborhood, he told police. Now he’s in a secret apartment in suburbia.
A new home. New money. A new car. New friends.
And some old friends who aren’t friends anymore.
In the days after his sudden fame, walking man James Robertson moved twice in three weeks so that he could elude those hounding him for money — ultimately filing a personal protection order against his landlady, who was also his ex-girlfriend.
Detroit police helped move Robertson after his two windfalls — the $360,000 in tax-free gifts donated by total strangers on three GoFundMe pages, and a $35,000 metallic-red Taurus given to him by a local auto dealer. Authorities weren’t taking any chances after an 86-year-old lottery winner was found dead in a vacant Detroit house last month, six weeks after family members said he’d won a $20,000 prize.
Now settling in at a new apartment in Troy, Robertson is modestly rich. He was venerated for walking 21 miles a day, to and from an hourly job where he’d had a decade of perfect attendance. After the Free Press told his story, Robertson vaulted from obscurity to being the standard bearer for Detroit’s mass transit woes, the need for auto insurance reform, the income gap and the “living wage.”
But the soft-spoken plastic-molding operator left no forwarding address with anyone in his old neighborhood, near Woodward and Grand Boulevard.
“I may have been born there, but God knows I don’t belong there anymore,” he said.
Learning new habits
The Free Press caught up with Robertson last week, as the die-hard baseball fan relaxed in front of his new 60-inch television, tuned to the Major League Baseball network. Wearing his usual calm smile and rumpled sweatshirt, Robertson said he felt safe and secure in Troy, amid beige decor studded with contemporary black furniture from IKEA. There are few reminders of his 56 years of living in Detroit, except for a Spirit of Detroit proclamation he received that sits prominently on a shelf in his living room.
Robertson’s old habit of fueling up with huge meals hasn’t died. Recently, he had two egg sandwiches and two bacon sandwiches — in one meal. He appears a tad chubbier since the Free Press first encountered him walking 8 miles to work and 13 miles home. But he insists he hasn’t added to his 230-pound, 6-foot frame.
“I keep telling myself, ‘this is the year I’m cutting down on drinking pop.’ I’m drinking a lot more water now,” said Robertson, who routinely swallowed 2-liter Mountain Dews and cans of Coke in his days of walking to work.
Those days are over. When the door opened to his new car, another closed on his marathon walks. The commute that once took him more hours than his eight-hour factory shift has shrunk to a comfortable 20-minute drive in his well-appointed 2015 Taurus.
Awaiting him in Rochester Hills each afternoon is his familiar job at Schain Mold & Engineering, where he still earns $10.55 per hour. His cache of fresh cash is being managed by a dream team of financial experts, all working at no charge. And Robertson has no thought of quitting the job he has had for 16 years, he said.
“I’m going to keep working — that’s for sure,” he said.
Robertson’s routine includes getting up almost as early as he used to, at about 6:30 a.m., but now he gets a reasonable seven hours of sleep, instead of the survivalist two hours he once got during his years of walking until 4 a.m. to his home in Detroit. And now, instead of leaving the house at 8:30 a.m. to catch a bus and then walk 7 miles, he relaxes each morning with baseball and other televised sports.
Robertson keeps his abode spotless. He eagerly showed a visitor his spin mop with automatic wringer — “something I’ve always wanted” — that he keeps charged with cleaning solution. His life had been tightly constrained. Now, with a car and money, he has so many new choices. But there are new limits too.
Before becoming famous, Robertson liked making an occasional jaunt to a casino in Detroit, “but then he received hate for that” after becoming a public figure and he has yet to gamble another nickel, said Evan Leedy, the college student who started the GoFundMe account on behalf of Robertson. Instead, Robertson has driven several times to the Troy Sports Center to watch schoolboy hockey games, he said.
Asked whether he’ll take up skating, Robertson smiled and said, “I might be doing that.”
Lately, he attends church each Sunday with Leedy’s family at Rock Community Assembly of God near New Baltimore, and last weekend he followed up with Sunday dinner with Leedy’s family in Macomb Township.
“A lot of people are concerned about his loneliness and so am I,” Leedy said.
Safety a priority
Robertson has cut himself off from virtually everyone in his former life, except for the coworkers he continues to praise. “Now I don’t have all the riffraff, the troublesome people, running around me,” he said.
In their place, along with his new address and new car, is a new circle of friends. Besides Leedy there is Blake Pollock, 47, the UBS Financial Services vice president for wealth management, who befriended the walker last year during Robertson’s foot-slogging commutes.
UBS banker Blake Pollock, 47, of Rochester says good-bye to James Robertson after visiting him with others in his new apartment on Tuesday March 3, 2015. (Photo: Ryan Garza Detroit Free Press)
Last week, Pollock dropped by to update Robertson on their latest tactic in assuring the older man’s safety — obtaining a personal protection order from an Oakland County judge against Tanya Fox, 60, Robertson’s ex-girlfriend and landlady.
“James, I didn’t tell you yet. Tanya was finally served” with the order. Pollock said she’d ducked a process server several previous times at the house in Detroit that she owns. That’s where Robertson lived for 15 years, in the same neighborhood where he grew up, and where Fox had been collecting $880 a month in rent from Robertson for smaller quarters than the deluxe one-bedroom apartment he now has in Troy for $800.
“She told the deputy (who handed the court order to Fox) that you owe her a lot of money,” Pollock said. Robertson seemed to show quiet relief, hearing that Fox would no longer be, according to statements in the PPO, driving to his job in Rochester Hills, causing factory bosses to call the county sheriff.
“I can only say I wish her the best,” Robertson said quietly.
In text messages for several weeks, Fox told the Free Press that she wanted to meet with Robertson and a reporter at a restaurant in Warren. She said she wanted to talk about her relationship with Robertson and what she has done for Robertson over the years.
“At one time, we contemplated marriage. Wow!” she said in one text.
In a telephone interview last week, Fox denied having been served with the court order — “the sheriff just left a note in my door” — but then she said she planned to contest the order “because I’m not a threat to him, and no one in this house is a threat to him.”
She further said that those helping Robertson are “doing all that to keep him away from me.” And she confirmed that she expected a share of his new riches.
“He said he was going to give me $50,000 to fix up the house,” Fox said, adding that “James was not a neat person; he got grease all over the wall” of the kitchen.
Pollock alerted Troy police to Robertson’s new address and the PPO.
“They said they’ll keep an eye on him to the extent they can,” Pollock said.
New world of wealth
In addition, Pollock’s employer UBS Financial Services arranged for Wholesale Truck and Finance of Auburn Hills to provide Robertson with a free tracking device on his car, in case it ever is stolen.
Pollock is ideally suited for managing a windfall. As a bank vice president, he oversees millions for high-wealth clients. Yet, from the outset of Robertson’s change of fortune, Pollock distanced himself, insisting that anything he did could be seen as a conflict of interest with the warm friendship he kindled after he opened his car door to Robertson last year to offer the older man a lift, the first of dozens of rides he gave his improbable new pal.
Instead, to avoid a possible conflict of interest, Pollock suggested to Robertson that a colleague at UBS Financial Services manage Robertson’s horde of cash and long-term expenses. And the role of assisting Robertson with his short-term budgeting fell to Leedy, the Wayne State University computer-science student who kick-started the donations.
Largesse poured in from everywhere, with a dozen offers of free cars and some 14,000 donations to Leedy’s GoFundMe page. The cash torrent ended only after the teen abruptly shut the digital spigot, with Robertson’s approval.
“James told me he didn’t think he needed any more money — he said he wanted any more donations to go to other people with other needs,” Leedy said. More than $351,000 raised on Leedy’s page on GoFundMe.com is going into a trust account that Robertson’s financial planners created to oversee his main saving and spending.
Two other GoFundMe page creators raised smaller amounts that paid for Robertson’s immediate needs. Jiyan Cadiz, 31, of Rochester Hills, a product communications manager at Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles, raised nearly $6,000 on his site, so he bought Robertson’s furniture, TV, kitchen appliances and a giant nature mural, and showed up with coworkers to assemble it last month, Leedy said.
GoFunder Maggie Mastro, 31, of Ferndale raised about $2,700, which paid for Robertson’s first month’s rent and went into a small bank account for everyday needs, Leedy added.
“James, we ordered checks today, so when your bills come you can pay,” he told Robertson on a recent morning at his apartment. But major expenses — rent and car insurance — will flow automatically from the new trust account, Leedy said. Earnings from the invested trust will more than cover Robertson’s $800 in monthly rent and $212 in monthly car insurance costs, Leedy said.
The trust’s earnings are projected to be enough that Robertson won’t ever need to draw down the principal amount of about $351,000, said Rebecca Sorensen, a UBS Financial Services senior vice president for wealth management. Robertson’s nest egg will remain intact until he retires, Sorensen said.
She heads a team of high-powered investment gurus who are working on Robertson’s behalf, at no charge “for the life of the relationship,” she said.
“So many people have stepped up” simply because he is an unselfish and deserving person, she said. “He wants the majority of the funds he received to be invested in a way that will someday provide an income stream when he retires,” to augment his Social Security checks, she said.
Her team includes a lawyer, trust expert, tax specialist and an expert on the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, in which Robertson is soon to enroll. The experts won’t have a grip on every cent Robertson spends, but they will watch his overall expenses, wary of his tendency to be overly generous with others, they said.
Giving to others
Last month, though, no one stopped Robertson from giving away more than a week’s worth of his take-home pay. It happened when he was on WJR-AM with retired radio funnyman Dick Purtan, at the Salvation Army Radiothon fund-raiser held at Emagine theater in Royal Oak.
To Purtan’s amazement, Robertson handed over a check for $300.
“Oh, James, you’re quite a guy,” the host gushed. “Thank you so much!”
After doing that, Robertson told his advisers that — in the event anything happened to him — he’d like his entire nest egg to go to the Salvation Army.
Last week, he gazed around his cushy new apartment, stocked with baseball magazines, with its heartbeat of major league action beating nonstop on the big screen, and explained the move:
“I feel like it’s this way — why should I enjoy all this by myself? I should share it.”
Source: Detroit free press.