Inventor's children seek to regain missing stained-glass windows valued at $3.5 million

Who broke into the old milk house in Queen Anne's County, and what did they find?

Someone had broken into the old milk house. The thief had hacked away at the vines growing over the whitewashed brick walls, then cut through the lock and removed the entire metal device — lock, latch and all.

Even in the middle of a bright February day in 2012, it was pitch-black inside the small building. But Tim Kearns saw immediately that 75 handmade crates had been removed, crates stacked vertically to protect their fragile cargo: 64 stained-glass windows that, he learned much later, are worth an estimated $3.5 million.

He knew he'd have to call his brother Dennis, who handled their father's estate. For the second time, their dad had been robbed of of an integral part of who he was.

"Oh, gee," Tim Kearns thought, and mentally began berating himself. He'd let his father down — Bob Kearns, the modern-day folk hero who'd invented the intermittent windshield wiper.

His dad had gone to immense trouble to buy those 90-year-old pieces of colored glass from the Catholic church outside Detroit where he'd worshiped as a boy. The windows were to illuminate the chapel Bob Kearns had planned to build in the meadow of Cheston-on-Wye, his 1654 estate on the Eastern Shore.

The discovery of the break-in was the first step in what has become an almost three-year odyssey, during which the six Kearns children located the stained glass and are now seeking to have it returned.

By that February, Bob Kearns had been dead for seven years. But Tim could still hear the familiar voice in his head.

"My father found solace in those windows," he said. "They were part of his life. This would have become another quest."

Now 58 and living in Talbot County, Tim Kearns might not be an exact copy of his father, but he's cast in the same mold. He easily channels his father, pitching his voice to Bob's characteristic inflections:

"We have to get this glass back," Tim said, landing hard on the final word.

"We gave those parishioners our word" — he draws out the final syllable — "that we were going to take care of this glass. Whatever it takes — we have to get those windows back."

A case pending in federal court in Minnesota pits the Kearns estate against an antiques salvager who says he bought the windows fair and square. Hearings on motions could begin as early as December before U.S. District Judge Donovan W. Frank.

Bob — often acting as his own attorney — strove for 31 years to be compensated for inventing the intermittent wiper, a device installed on virtually every car built since 1969. His assistants were his children, who began fighting their father's battles in elementary school.

The inventor argued that Ford and Chrysler had infringed on his patents from 1964. For Bob, the battle was never about the money. It was about protecting the rights of small inventors to their intellectual property.

"My dad believed people shouldn't get away with doing bad things," Dennis Kearns said. "They shouldn't steal, and if they do, they should get caught."

Bob fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually was awarded about $30 million. His Don Quixote-like crusade was portrayed in the 2008 movie "Flash of Genius" starring Greg Kinnear.

Now the salvager, Don Riggott, is seeking a court ruling that he's the rightful owner of the stained-glass windows installed in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church around 1924.

His company, D.C. Riggott Inc., is based in Minnesota and sells liturgical antiques. Riggott paid $11,000 for the windows on Aug. 21, 2012. A receipt is included in the court documents.

The seller, Matthew Lastner, says he bought the windows from an acquaintance of Bob Kearns'. The acquaintance isn't named in the court record, so there the trail ends — at least for now.

Riggott sees himself as an underdog fighting a powerful and wealthy family. From his perspective, he's the guy at risk of losing everything. If the windows really were stolen, he wants to know, why did the Kearns family wait until the late summer of 2013 to file a theft report?

As he put it: "They pressured me, using money and influence to get these windows that belong to me."

According to court documents and to Maryland State Police Sgt. Michael Smith, a worker on the estate was the first to discover that the milk house had been burglarized.

But that discovery apparently occurred months after the crates vanished, when clues such as footprints had long since been erased. And the Kearns brothers say that when they discovered the break-in, they had no idea then that the windows were so valuable.

John Lingenfelter, an executive with Mayer of Munich, the windows' German manufacturer, is preparing an appraisal for the court case. His off-the-cuff estimate is that the collection is worth $3.5 million.

"These windows are stunning," Lingenfelter said. "Though they were designed to hang 20 feet in the air, the figures all have eyelashes."

The 15-foot round "rose window" once installed above the church entrance is sublime, with a central medallion showing a pensive Madonna. When the afternoon sun struck the window, it dropped petals of carmine, amethyst and emerald light onto the heads of the worshipers below.

***

All his life, Bob believed he was guided by a divine presence. But there's no denying he also was buffeted by more capricious forces. As one of Bob's daughters, Maureen Kearns, put it:

"We used to say that my dad carried around an umbrella under which it always rained."

On Bob's wedding night in 1952, the nervous groom aimed a champagne bottle in the wrong direction. The cork flew into his face, leaving him legally blind in one eye.

Traumatic as the accident was, it inspired Bob's breakthrough design. He wondered why windshield wipers didn't work like eyelids, which pause between blinks.

Chance was at work again in August 2013, when Bob's eldest son, Dennis, sat beside his dying mother in a Rockville hospice.

During some down time, Dennis Kearns pulled out his iPhone.

"I wanted to send a picture of my dad's windows to a friend who's interested in stained glass," he said. "I Googled them, and bam! There they were on Ebay."

Now 60 and living in Keego Harbor, Mich., Dennis has the rumpled demeanor of a private investigator — which he is — and his father's take-no-prisoners jaw. Within seconds, he found a publicity release headlined, "Architectural Antique Salvage Company DC Riggott Inc. Selling Rare Cathedral Artifacts With Dramatic Past."

"It was the craziest thing in the world," Dennis said.

His attorney wrote Riggott a letter asking for the windows back. Instead, according to court documents, Riggott sold three windows to customers in Massachusetts and Louisiana.

Dennis Kearns complained to Smith, the state police sergeant. On Feb. 25 of this year, Riggott was charged with criminal theft, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Riggott says the publicity release proves he's no thief.

"If I were a crook, would I have written that article?" Riggott asked, his voice rising in frustration.

"No! The only reason Dennis Kearns knew the windows existed was because of me."

A few weeks later, Riggott was removing antique pews he'd purchased from a church in West Virginia. His nephew forgot the key, so Riggott told him to crawl inside through an open window. A suspicious passerby called 911.

The misunderstanding was cleared up. But when deputies discovered the outstanding warrant, they threw Riggott in jail.

Queen Anne County State's Attorney Lance Richardson knew that Riggott wasn't the one who broke into the milk house. (State police investigators are tracking down leads and hope to make an arrest soon.)

But possessing stolen property also is against the law, and that gave Richardson leverage. The prosecutor said he struck a deal over the phone with Riggott's West Virginia lawyer to drop the theft charges if the windows were returned.

Riggott says didn't know about the arrangement, never agreed to it and wasn't bound by it. The moment he was freed, he returned to Minnesota and stopped returning phone calls from police. He still had no proof, he said, that his windows were stolen.

The prosecutor was not pleased.

"I was so livid," Richardson said, "that I immediately reinstated criminal charges."

A few weeks later, deputies confronted Riggott outside his home.

"I was going down to the nursing home to visit my mother, who only had a few hours left." Riggott said.

"I'm walking out to my truck, and lo and behold, the sheriffs put cuffs on me and haul me to jail. They'd resurrected the frickin' charge again — bogusly, illegally and wrongly. I didn't get to see my mother before she died."

Faced with extradition to Maryland, Riggott relented and handed over the windows to authorities. They're being held in secure storage while the lawsuit is pending.

If the Kearns family gets the windows back, they say, they hope to sell them to a church.

***

It's one thing to honor your father. It's quite another to allow your father's life to consume your own — even when that father was as magnetic as Bob Kearns.

As Tim Kearns said wryly: "And that's how we all ended up going to counseling as a family."

The children viewed their father as a lone man, virtually unarmed and battling Goliath. He desperately needed their help.

"His quest [in the case of the intermitent wipers] was so noble," Tim Kearns said. "It was so doable, and it was so just."

The 30-year fight over the intermittent wipers wore out Bob's wife. Convinced her husband would never stop fighting, Phyllis Kearns dissolved the marriage in 1989.

"My parents were very much in love," Dennis said, "but having a war waged in your living room isn't good for the soul."

The children were wholly swept up by their father's vision of forming a family corporation called Kearns Engineers that would manufacture his wipers. Bob assigned each child a role:

Pat would be the accountant and Kathy would handle public relations. Mechanically minded Tim would become an engineer. Tenacious Dennis would handle legal affairs, Maureen would oversee human resources, and young Bob would manage the plant's daily operations.

"This is what we were born into," Tim Kearns said. "God has a plan, and if you're part of Bob Kearns, you're part of the plan."

Dennis began working as his father's research assistant when he was 10 years old. Over the next three decades, whenever Bob needed him, Dennis came to his father's side.

"I could have had a very successful investigation business," he said. "But I'd put a guy in charge of it and let him run it for a year, while I'd come to Maryland and help my Dad."

For his part, Tim Kearns didn't follow Bob's blueprint exactly as drawn. He became not an engineer but an architect. But for his Ph.D. thesis, Tim designed a factory for manufacturing windshield wipers.

In 1990, when Bob dreamed about building a chapel at Cheston-on-Wye, he asked Tim to draw up the plans.

Bob's faith had been a haven for him since the 1930s, when he was a boy and the Depression came to River Rouge near Detroit.

Bob's steelworker father sometimes worked as little as half a day per week. His 13-year-old son had to help put food on the table.

At Our Lady of Lourdes, Bob's life felt manageable. A boy who was smart and worked hard could earn straight A's. A boy who followed the rules could become an altar boy — a high-status position in that neighborhood.

Bob began his lifelong habit of attending daily Mass. He became attached to no-nonsense Sister Marie Regina Maloney, who taught the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

In 1990, he was dismayed to learn that the beautiful but crumbling Gothic edifice was to be torn down and a smaller church erected on the site. Bob worked out a plan to donate $140,000 in exchange for 64 stained-glass windows and other church contents, including the white marble altar and gold doors.

Bob never intended to build a replica of Our Lady of Lourdes at Cheston-on-Wye, but he hoped to capture the church's spirit.

"He wanted to build 'a house of adoration,' " Dennis Kearns recalled.

Tim designed an open, octagonal building of light-colored wood. He sited it east of the house, which had views of the river and was shaded by 300-year-old white oaks.

"The chapel would face south to catch the brightest light," Tim Kearns said. "We had enough stained glass to maybe cover the upper walls and ceiling. You'd walk into a stained-glass room with saints floating in the sky."

The chapel would have been beautiful. But Tim wasn't really surprised that it never got built.

Even after winning his $30 million judgment, Bob couldn't stop fighting. Automakers worldwide kept putting his wipers on their cars and had to be stopped. No energy was left for anything else, including that chapel.

Today, Bob's home office at Cheston-on-Wye is crammed with desks and old computers. File cabinets line an entire wall. Papers spill out of boxes and onto the floor.

***

When Bob died on Feb. 9, 2005, his children knew he'd want to be buried in River Rouge. They held his funeral Mass at the newer, smaller Our Lady of Lourdes.

As the funeral procession left the church, the lead car's driver lost his bearings and took a wrong turn. The line of mourners followed.

"Thirty cars drove through River Rouge and Dearborn," Tim recalled.

"We took an unplanned tour of the places where my father's life had been intertwined. We drove by the shop where my grandfather worked as a tool-and-die man. We drove by the gates leading to the Rouge Plant. And we drove past the Ford headquarters."

The lead driver realized his mistake, did a U-turn, and led the mourners back toward the cemetery. As the funeral procession once again passed Bob's former haunts, it began to drizzle.

At practically the same moment, everyone turned on their windshield wipers.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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