Louis and Catherine Agro, both 75, deposited their life savings of $8,000 in an Anne Arundel County branch of Old Court Savings and Loan last spring. Only weeks later, on May 13, the troubled Baltimore-based thrift was taken over by the state, and shortly afterward Gov. Harry Hughes froze its accounts. All the Agros can do now, along with about 75,000 other depositors, is wait.
"We've got our burial money in there," said Louis Agro, a retired shipyard crane operator who cashed in the last of his life insurance -- a $500 policy -- to take advantage of interest rates of 10 percent offered by Old Court. "I just hope we live long enough to get at it."
The Agros are scraping along on their $700-a-month check from Social Security, which must cover food, utilities and other expenses that include $120 for medicine.
"Thank goodness the house is paid for," Catherine Agro said of their modest home where they have lived for 40 years in the shadow of a plant that recycles garbage into electricity.
While some of Old Court's former customers are highfliers who gambled on jumbo accounts, most are ordinary people like the Agros facing practical problems.
One young couple, for example, are building their dream house in Harford County. It is supposed to be completed by the end of this month, but they said they may lose it unless they can persuade the builder to give them an extension on paying.
A widow needs the $60,000 she placed in a 90-day Old Court certificate to acquire a new smaller home. A man who quit his job March 29 to start his own business is left "essentially unemployed" because his start-up money is in Old Court.
A Columbia man needs to cash in his $8,000 certificate of deposit because his variable rate mortgage has gone up two points; a Westminster man sold his car for $3,200 and needs the money he put into Old Court for the down payment on a new Chrysler.
Businesses and organizations are affected, too. A Carroll County synagogue wrote a $60 check to pay one of its Hebrew school teachers, but the teacher cannot get the check honored.
The owner of a Glen Ellyn, Ill., security service who put $75,000 in Old Court between real estate transactions pleads to his attorney in a letter, "I need that money now." A Williamsburg, Va., business has its profit-sharing trust tied up.
The depositors' feelings range from anger at themselves to anger at various officials who played a part in the state-approved savings and loan system. Several echo the sentiment of a Randallstown woman, who says her biggest complaint is that the state of Maryland allowed the Maryland Savings-Share Insurance Corp. (MSSIC), a private insurance fund supported by 102 state-chartered thrifts, to use a seal that left some people believing their money was insured by the state.
Beyond that, depositors say they can't understand why the MSSIC fund, which contains about $160 million, isn't being used to pay them off immediately.
"If a person dies, we can't say, 'We'll pay you next month.' We write them a check," said Gerald L. Bathurst, 50, who works for Sun Life Insurance Co. Bathurst, who has business and personal accounts at Old Court totaling just over $100,000, said his American Express payment was rejected, with a stamp on the back saying "withheld by the state."
Others point the finger at former Old Court president Jeffrey Levitt, who attracted hundreds of millions of dollars to Old Court by offering interest rates among the highest in the nation, and then used many of those deposits for high-risk investments and insider loans.
Several depositors said their outrage has been heightened because, while they are unable to get their money, Levitt continues to live well. He still travels and owns two airplanes, fancy cars and an art-filled home in Lutherville in Baltimore County.
Donald J. Terry, 44, of Eldersburg, a computer analyst for the Social Security Administration, who was $4,000 short for the settlement on a house, blames the newspapers. Without publicity about customer runs on Old Court, which prompted more runs and finally the state takeover, the thrift might have been able to survive, he said. "Not even Maryland National Bank could withstand a run by all its depositors," Terry said.
The depositors' situation was eased somewhat last month when Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan ordered the return of $1.1 million in so-called demand accounts or variable rate accounts deposited since Old Court went into conservatorship.
The vast majority of Old Court's deposits, however, continue to be frozen under a 90-day order by Kaplan that expires in September. That freeze may be extended, Kaplan said recently.
Some officials have predicted it may be three or four years before the remainder of the deposits can be returned, though Kaplan said he is hoping for a date earlier than that.
In a response to a lawsuit, state officials said they were reluctant to dip into the MSSIC insurance fund to pay off depositors until federal auditors complete their scrutiny of the books of other thrifts that have not yet qualified for federal insurance. Only then, they said, will the amount of possible exposure by the state be known.
And the conservator, the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund, a state agency created to replace MSSIC, does not want to dispose of Old Court's assets in a fire-sale atmosphere.
An Anne Arundel County woman, desperate for funds to continue paying $1,700 a month for her mother's care in an Eastern Shore nursing home, sold her mother's Severna Park home in early May and put the $40,000 in proceeds in an Old Court certificate of deposit. Ten days later, "all this malarkey comes out in the paper," said her husband, a 70-year-old retiree.
But he trusted Old Court, he said, because after he asked if his money would be safe there, "the branch manager in Ocean City called MSSIC and was told everything was okay."
No, he admitted, he didn't actually hear the other end of the conversation. He didn't want his named used because "I'm embarrassed that I was so stupid."
Louise Cleaver, manager of the Ocean City branch, did not recall such a request, although she said that after "we started having problems" she called MSSIC.
Wayne T. Owens, a 47-year-old machinist, worked hard for his money, often putting in 14-hour days, seven days a week. He once tallied a 121-hour work week.
When he wanted to invest his nest egg, he chose a 12-month Old Court certificate of deposit. He bought a $25,000 certificate last Dec. 12. Promised a yield of 13.22 percent, he figured he could make about $3,000 in a year.
Shortly after Owens deposited his savings, he was laid off, and now he needs some of the money he thought he could afford to leave alone for a year. As of July 13, he had exhausted his weekly $175 unemployment compensation.
Last month he got his annual property tax bill on the 170-year-old South Baltimore row house he bought in 1960. The $931.11 tax bill, an overdue telephone bill of $97.62, and a gas and electricity bill of $98.28 remain unpaid.
"Heads ought to roll," the mustachioed Owens said as he sat on a metal glider on the sidewalk outside his house, pondering his growing stack of bills. "A bushel basketful."
Owens can't understand "why they don't pay off. What do I have automobile insurance for? If I have an accident, it pays off." Each account is insured up to $100,000, he said, "and I only want my $25,000."
When Jacqueline L. Shapos heard about lines forming at Old Court, she called her attorney, Lawrence I. Weisman, for advice.
"He said, 'Put your robe on and run up there as fast as you can,' " the Towson businesswoman-investor recalled. And run she did, along with her mother.
They arrived at the Old Court branch in Randallstown about 10 a.m., carrying brown bag lunches and lawn chairs.
A line already had formed, and as the time passed, it became apparent to the Shaposes that the workers inside the red-brick building were not in any hurry to close out accounts.
The Shaposes had a "substantial" amount at stake: between them, seven certificates of deposit and two IRA accounts. Asked why she and her mother put so much money in Old Court, Jacqueline Shapos paused from sipping champagne at a happy hour in Towson and smiled: "Greed."
After it became apparent that they were not going to get their money out, Shapos collected the names, phone numbers and account numbers of others standing in line, and that list became the nucleus for a class action lawsuit.
She has become president of the Old Court Depositors Association, to which several hundred depositors have contributed $10 each.
Out-of-state investors are particularly frustrated because they rely largely on form letters from the conservator or the governor's office for news about Old Court.
Retiree Victor Roth of Rockville Centre, N.Y., said he received a six-page question-and-answer sheet from the conservator that said, "someday, somewhere, money will be paid back."
Roth, a lawyer, said his goal now is "to find the meaning of the phrase, 'the full faith and credit of the state of Maryland,' " which is his understanding of what the legislature pledged to Old Court investors at a special session in May. Meanwhile, he and his wife are borrowing money from their children to supplement their monthly Social Security check.
Edwin and Rita Coopersmith of Philadelphia purchased a 91-day certificate of deposit from Old Court in mid-February that they planned to cash when it matured, but that occurred a couple of days after the thrift's accounts were frozen in May.
"We invested with the presumption that it Old Court was state insured. We now know that was a fallacy," said Coopersmith, who needs the money to pay for mounting medical bills -- he was forced to take early retirement because of a heart ailment, and his wife has cancer.
Through it all, the Agros have managed to maintain a sense of humor. Catherine Agro said their daughter told them that if either of her parents should die before they get their money out for a funeral, she would "haul us up to Old Court and sit us out front in a chair."
That would be okay, she said, "if she also gave me a card table and a bingo card."