Friends, family increasingly rip off elderly
In the U.S. each year, a million older folks lose about $2.6 billion to scammers and thieves
At 81, Millie Rutherford wanted only to help her son when he moved back into her Bremen home.
Daniel L. Rutherford was 49, an unemployed heroin addict living at a trailer court in Pickaway County. He had worked as a state prison guard for about a decade until he was fired in 2003. He told his mother he had stopped using heroin and wanted to find a job. He helped out around the house in rural Fairfield County, and she generally gave him $100 a week. Then he wanted more, and she gave him more. Then he began taking his mother’s money on his own, forging checks and using her debit card without her knowledge.
Daniel L. Rutherford pleaded guilty to theft from an elderly person — his 81-year-old mother. He was sentenced to seven months in prison. His attorney, Jim Fields, is at left.
Daniel Rutherford stole an estimated $55,000 from his mother, authorities said when they arrested him in August. The amount could not be proved, however, and had the case gone to trial, said Assistant Fairfield County Prosecutor Gregg Marx, Daniel Rutherford was prepared to argue that his mother wrote him checks willingly. He took a plea deal in Common Pleas Court on Tuesday. He pleaded guilty to theft from an elderly person, a fourth-degree felony, and admitted stealing $1,290 from his mother. Daniel Rutherford was sentenced to seven months in prison.
Sitting at home, Millie Rutherford cried as she shared her feelings. “I had to do it; I had to take him in. I just didn’t know how to say no to him,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been pretty stupid.” She does not stand alone.
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Financial exploitation is a form of elder abuse that is thought to be increasing as the U.S. population ages. Family members, friends and caregivers are the thieves in 55 percent of the financial-abuse cases against the elderly, according to a report issued last year by the MetLife Mature Market Institute, the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, and the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech.
An estimated 1 million older Americans lose more than $2.6 billion annually to all forms of financial fraud, the report found. For each case reported, an estimated four to five are not. The federally funded National Elder Mistreatment Study released last year estimated that 1 in 20 adults older than 60 had been financially mistreated by family members or by others they trusted. Most prevalent was spending money without permission.
Researchers interviewed 5,777 older adults by phone and wrote that the study’s estimates are based on self-reporting of mistreatment, which is “notoriously under-reported” by older Americans. Elderly victims are embarrassed to have been swindled and worry that family members will think they are incompetent and need to be put in a nursing home, investigators and adult-protection workers say.
Sometimes victims are incompetent because they have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia and cannot testify in court. Pinning down elder fraud also is difficult because there is no national repository, and each state collects data differently, said Sharon Merriman-Nai of the National Center on Elder Abuse, based in Newark, Del.
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Predators such as Deborah G. Johnson and Anita L. Esquibel, who obtained power of attorney for 94-year-old Peter W. Svaldi and then stole more than $850,000 of his savings, commonly groom their victims and isolate them from family members before moving in for the crime.
Misused power of attorney is a license to steal, say police and prosecutors in Columbus who worked the Svaldi case. They said it was the worst elder fraud they had encountered. Home-health aides, financial planners and others in positions of trust also swindle the elderly. Visiting nurse’s aide Cindy L. Flagg of Lancaster was sentenced in Fairfield County to three years on probation and ordered to pay restitution this year in such a case. She admitted that she stole several thousand dollars from an Alzheimer’s patient she cared for, along with his wife, in Pickerington.
Last year, a federal judge in Columbus sentenced financial adviser Julie M. Jarvis, of the Far North Side, to 5 1/2 years in prison after she admitted stealing nearly $2.7 million from two elderly clients. Strangers prey on older people as well, using mail and telemarketing scams. Traveling bands of con artists offer driveway paving or tree-trimming at reasonable rates and then demand more money, draining hundreds of millions of dollars in all from older Americans annually.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien does not track the number of such cases his office prosecutes each year. “Anecdotally, it appears to me that there’s been an increase in targeting of and crimes against elderly victims,” he said. Ohio increased the penalties for theft against people 65 or older and disabled adults in 1999. The theft committed by Johnson and Esquibel, for example, would normally be a second-degree felony, punishable by two to eight years in prison. Because an elderly person was the victim, the crime was elevated to a first-degree felony, punishable by three to 10 years in prison.
Virtually every jurisdiction nationwide has “bump-up provisions” for various crimes against the elderly and disabled because those groups are deemed more vulnerable, said Ric Simmons, a criminal-law professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. And even if there is no correlation between enhanced penalties and deterrence, he said, such laws are politically popular. “I tend to be retributive,” said Simmons, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan. “Morally, that’s a worse crime. I have absolutely no problem making it a worse punishment.”
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David Kessler doesn’t need a study to know the trends. The investigator for Fairfield County Adult Protective Services said most of his cases involve elderly people who have been victimized by their families. “It is going through the roof,” he said. Family caregivers rationalize their behavior by thinking, “Look at all I do; I’m entitled.” “Because of the economy, it’s even more on the increase,” Kessler said. “Before losing your house, the last resort is grandma or grandpa.”
Also, he said, many who prey on an elderly family member are addicted to drugs or gambling or another vice so powerful that they are driven to steal. “The No. 1 excuse I hear from the predator is, ‘They wanted me to have it’ or ‘They gave it to me.’ But that was based on lies, deception and undue influence.” Millie Rutherford was deceived and pressured by her son into writing him check after check, ostensibly for medical bills at the Veterans Administration hospital in Chillicothe and for car repairs, said Kessler, who was frustrated that he and the prosecutor could not prove the extent of the fraud. “It breaks our heart to not be able to prove he stole all of it,” Kessler said.
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In a Licking County courtroom in September, Samantha L. Crawford held out her wrists so a deputy sheriff could fasten the handcuffs. She had just been sentenced to four years in prison for aggravated theft, a third-degree felony, and aggravated theft from a disabled adult, a second-degree felony. The victim was her mother, 62-year-old Crystal A. Crawford, who has Parkinson’s disease.
Behind her mother’s back, Samantha Crawford transferred the deed to her mother’s house in Newark into her name. She acted while she had temporary power of attorney for her mother, who was in a nursing home at the time recovering from surgery. Samantha Crawford said she took the house, where she and her boyfriend had been living with her three children, because she was afraid her mother was going to kick her out.
At sentencing, Common Pleas Judge Thomas Marcelain ignored her plea for mercy, noting that this was her second conviction for stealing from her mother. She had received probation in 2006 for theft and forgery convictions related to taking money from her mother’s checking account. At Crystal Crawford’s house, which is now back in her name, she reflected on what happened.
Her 36-year-old daughter has used drugs since high school, most recently crack cocaine and methamphetamine, she said. She tried to help by giving her daughter a place to live and money to pay bills. “Samantha seems to think that anything bad that has happened was someone else’s fault,” her mother said. “I suppose that’s my fault to a certain extent. I always stepped in and tried to help her.” She reported the deed transfer to Newark police when she learned of it last year, and that led to the prosecution and imprisonment of her daughter. “It’s called tough love,” she said, “and it gets mighty tough at times.” email@example.com
‘Friends’ clean out man’s life savings
Women win retired brewer’s trust, then steal his fortune
Stories by Mary Beth Lane THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Peter W. Svaldi was a frugal millionaire. He was the first brewmaster when the Anheuser-Busch plant opened in Columbus in 1968 and built his fortune with work and thrift. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment at Worthington Towers on High Street in Clintonville and wore the same pair of gray, suede Hush Puppies for 40 years.
But it took only about a year for two women who befriended the 94-year-old to steal and spend more than $850,000 of his money. Deborah G. Johnson and Anita L. Esquibel were about to help themselves to another $50,000 when police arrested them in March. They pleaded guilty to theft and attempted money-laundering and were sentenced in September to four years, 11 months in prison.
“To me, it’s the worst case of theft from the elderly ever — the amount, the speed,” said Assistant Franklin County Prosecutor Jeffrey Blake. “It’s definitely a case that stands out.” With the population aging, law enforcement officials say they are confident there are more Peter Svaldis out there — and more Deborah Johnsons and Anita Esquibels.
Columbus police detective Eric Harp was at his desk in the Economic Crime Unit on March 3 when he took an urgent call from a Fifth Third Bank security manager. The detective was told that two women with power of attorney for a customer named Peter Svaldi had deducted and spent more than $800,000 from his accounts and were now trying to transfer $50,000 from another account. Harp took notes, hung up and opened a case file. He knew he had to work fast. He tried to visit Svaldi at his apartment at Worthington Towers in Clintonville the next day, but he wasn’t home. The detective left a message with the building manager.
Johnson later called and told the detective that she had power of attorney for Svaldi. She said that she and her sister cared for him and that he was in a nursing home recovering from a fall. Harp and another detective drove to the nursing home and found the two women in Svaldi’s room. They ushered them out and interviewed Svaldi. It quickly became clear that he had no idea what the women had done. The detectives next questioned the women. They were nervous and kept looking at each other before answering. They said they were Svaldi’s neighbors at Worthington Towers. He was estranged from his family, they said, so they had helped by obtaining his power of attorney. And no, they said, they had not moved any large amounts from Svaldi’s accounts.
On March 5, detectives served search warrants at Fifth Third that seized and froze Svaldi’s accounts and the women’s accounts.
Harp reached Svaldi’s cousin Michael Svaldi in Miami. “Thank God you called us,” Michael Svaldi told the detective. “We have been trying to get hold of Pete.” The transfers from his accounts into accounts that the women opened for themselves before their arrests March 12 were staggering.
Between Jan. 1, 2009, and March 3, 2010, the women took $857,172 from Svaldi. Then they went on a spending bender.
- They bought a Dublin condominium for $166,300 and splurged on furnishings. They bought and traded five new vehicles, including a Toyota Highlander, a Toyota RAV 4 and a Honda CR-V.
- They dropped tens of thousands at Best Buy on a high-definition television and a home-theater sound system, an iPod, desktop and laptop computers and other electronics.
- They spent more than $40,000 at local jewelers, buying so many diamond and gold earrings, pendants, bracelets and charms that police later found the jewelry still nestled unworn in sales boxes.
- They treated themselves to cosmetic procedures at a plastic surgeon and got porcelain veneers and teeth-whitening at a dentist. They commissioned nearly $50,000 in paintings from a Worthington gallery, including a portrait of their dog, and bought clothing from Chico’s, Macy’s and Filene’s Basement.
- Johnson paid her $5,000 tax bill to the Internal Revenue Service with Svaldi’s money. Eventually, the detective filled a three-ring binder with page after page, documenting line by line the thousands of dollars in purchases from hundreds of merchants. “It was like The Price is Right,” Harp said.
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Harp got to know Svaldi while working on the case.
The son of Austrian immigrants grew up in Illinois and left home at 20 for brewery work in Miami. Uncle Sam drafted him before Pearl Harbor was bombed and made him a staff officer in the Far East Air Force of the U.S. Army Air Forces in the Pacific Theater. After the war, Svaldi made a career with Anheuser-Busch.
Today, he reads two daily newspapers and follows his beloved Chicago Cubs. He wears a fedora when he goes out and has taught the detective the proper way to enjoy a beer: from a pint glass after giving it a stir, never directly from a can or bottle.
“After Pete found out about this, he was devastated, absolutely devastated,” Harp said of the theft. “It had nothing to do with the money. It was the betrayal.” Less is known about the women. Johnson, 54, and Esquibel, 69, lived together and told people they were sisters. Esquibel taught kindergarten at St. Michael School in Worthington. Johnson claimed to be a registered nurse but wasn’t, the detective said.
The women have never explained why they did it. They did not respond to questions that The Dispatch e-mailed to them at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. “The intent appears to be sheer greed,” Harp said.
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Now 95, Peter Svaldi remains at the nursing home. Harp stops by to visit and so does attorney Lorelei Lanier, Svaldi’s court-appointed legal guardian. Lanier is trying to recoup what she can. She is selling the Dublin condo and vehicles, and last month auctioned the furnishings, clothing, jewelry, paintings and electronics the women bought with Svaldi’s money.
The auction grossed about $52,000. That is a fraction of what the items sold for new but a success nonetheless, said Columbus auctioneer Mark Van Hook. Electronics held their value as they customarily do; a 55-inch flat screen television that retails for $1,900 fetched $1,700 at the auction, he said. The art the women commissioned had no resale value. “No one else in the world wanted those paintings,” the auctioneer said. Michael Svaldi, who visits about once a month, has tried to persuade his cousin to move to Miami to live with him and his family. Peter Svaldi considers Columbus home and won’t leave. He is bewildered and hurt by the women’s betrayal. “The three of us were very good friends,” he said. “They did a pretty good job of cleaning me out.” firstname.lastname@example.org