The Probate Murders
The War on the Vulnerable Through the Courts
by Janet C. Phelan
Archived here with permission
of the author, Janet Phelan
and Robert Kelly, Publisher,
The American's Bulletin
Barbara Rosen was concerned that her elderly neighbor might need some help. The two had become acquainted through Quaker meeting and Barbara was aware her friend was alone in the world and increasingly vulnerable.
Barbara offered her assistance, and ended up visiting the woman several times a week. The neighbor was grateful and for several years, Barbara Rosen paid her neighbor’s bills from the neighbor’s checkbook and exercised some oversight on her affairs. Barbara Rosen did this without charging her neighbor for these services, simply out of the goodness of her heart.
Barbara Rosen was, in fact, her conservator. And her selfless acts of assisting her neighbor are nearly unparalleled in what has become the business of conservatorship.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines Conservator as “A guardian, protector, or preserver.” Conservatorships are generally initiated through the courts in this country, in order to provide oversight for the vulnerable elderly or disabled. The reality behind this process, however, reveals a legally sanctioned “cottage industry” where there is massive fraud and abuse by the very parties pledged to oversee and protect.
About two years ago, an expose hit the front page of the LA. Times Entitled “Guardians for Profit — When a family matter turns into a business,” The four part series delved into the issue of conservatorship, and touched on a number of cases conservators took financial advantage of their elderly and vulnerable charges.
In fact, conservatorship abuse is nation wide, and far surpasses what was disclosed in the L.A. Times articles. While the Times detailed many circumstances where conservators had mismanaged funds to the detriment of their clients, the articles suggested that the courts were so crammed that appropriate judicial oversight was nearly impossible.
TAB has uncovered a different scenario, with an extensive cast of culpable characters, many of whom are sitting in government offices.
The story of greed and inheritance is an ancient one. In King Lear, the aging King decides to step down from the throne, and must bequeath his kingdom to his heirs. His vanity blinds him from realizing who among his daughters is acting out of love and who is avaricious and duplicitous. And what follows is one of the great tragic dramas of our time, as the love of money devolves into murder and patricide.
It is said that art imitates life. In the stories that follow, we will see the same themes of love vs. greed and honor vs. thieving and even murder for financial gain. What separates the stories of modern inheritance from the Lear saga is that the current judicial and legal system in our country is contorting itself to accommodate the criminal element. And this is what makes this a contemporary and moral issue, beyond inheritance and legalistic preoccupations.
The names have been changed in the following, so as to protect the innocent.
Megan had grown up as the daughter of an important man. He had served in two Presidential Administrations, and had founded a law firm on the East Coast, which grew large and powerful. Megan had been independent and forged her own path. When her father passed away, he left behind his aging wife, three grown children and an estate of some measure.
While he named his wife as executor, he designated one of two sons, Louie, as Power of Attorney, with oversight being given to the law firm of his creation. The firm was to keep an eye on the books and finances.
Enter Moe Smithy, a lawyer at that firm. He took over the position of overseer, and Megan’s mother, now in her nineties, was persuaded to turn over her reins as executor. This decision may have proven fatal, as the Lear tragedy spun its own particular rendition, in Twentieth Century America, in Megan’s own family.
Louie, who had Power of Attorney, began to “come over to use the checkbook.” According to Megan, he began to forge checks. So did one of the nieces, as the healthy and younger ones began to feed off the elderly mother’s increasing inability to oversee the fate of her estate. Megan believes her brother Louie forged in the neighborhood of $300,000. Clearly the oversight provided by Smithy was not adequate.
On learning of Louie’s activities, the brother, George, attempted to have him jailed. George began to collude heavily with Smithy. He enlisted the help of the overseer, and instead of nipping the avaricious and illegal activities in the bud, their actions only escalated the problem.
Smithy made the decision to pay out of the mother’s accounts to cover what had been taken, in order to quiet this down. But the thieving did not stop. And Smithy let it go on, under his oversight. Megan believes that he let it continue so as to use this as a reason to put the mother under guardianship, claiming that the mother was not competent to handle her own affairs, when it was, in fact, Smithy that let the thieving continue, on “his watch.” Megan reports that the Louie was threatened and that his criminal activities were held over his head, in order to secure his backing of the guardianship. George had become friends with one Dick Cheney, now Vice President, and Megan reports that a Bush -team attorney was assigned to “have a little talk” with Louie.
A petition for guardianship was filed. The guardian was to be the brother, George. Megan, who was at that time substantially moneyed herself and quite worried about what might be going on, desired to become the guardian. She was kept out of court for the hearing, having been informed that only one family member could be present. At the last minute, George deferred his interest in the guardianship, and a friend of the judge was appointed.
The conservator only saw the mother twice in the seven months of guardianship. The bill he presented to the court was for $97,000. Megan was able to get that reduced to $37,000. The real cost, however, was her mother’s life.
ISOLATE — IMMOBILIZE — EUTHANIZE
“Mom just wasn’t dying fast enough,” states Megan, and those who had the family fortune in their sights needed to do something about that, in order to secure the money.
Over protestations from Megan, the mother was trundled into a nursing home, and the law firm that her father had founded began to move against both the mother and Megan, who was becoming increasingly concerned for her mother’s well being. False and damning testimony was made against Megan, and a typical weapon in the arsenal of the guardian was deployed — Restraining Orders were issued against her, in an attempt to keep the mother isolated from the watchful eye of the concerned daughter.
According to Megan, the mother went down hill fast. She later discovered why.
Without ever even seeing his patient, the Doctor (who would receive his pay from the estate, via the guardian, who was now working closely with George and Smithy), began to prescribe drugs for the mother which were unnecessary and further debilitating. Megan states that two drugs, in particular, sealed her mother’s fate. Digoxin was prescribed , as well as Tequin, which has now been removed from the market. Both of these drugs impact kidney function, which is precarious in many elderly people.
“Mother was catheterized,” says Megan, an act supposedly to relieve stress off the nursing staff, as the mother was incontinent. This required the administration of more drugs, for catheters predictably induce infection. So the mother was also placed on maintenance doses of antibiotics, further impacting her immune system.
The mother was only in the nursing home a few months before Megan received a phone call from Louie, stating that the mother was dying. Megan had been disallowed by the guardian to view the medical records, and later discovered that the mother had been given a lethal dose of digoxin, which had induced kidney failure.
Megan and Louie joined forces to get the mother released from the nursing home, and brought back to her own residence. The conservator objected to this, and Megan recalls him striding into the courtroom, insisting that he had an operating room ready for the mother. He had ordered a feeding tube surgically implanted in her, insisting that she was refusing to eat.
The death rate for patients with feeding tubes is actually higher than for those without.
And Megan, finally allowed to visit her own mother, recalls how gratefully and readily her mother ate the food and soup she cooked for her. She believes that her mother was being drugged and starved to death.
The judge ordered the return of Megan’s mother to her own home. With a tremor in her voice, Megan recounts how the ambulance pulled up, and delivered the mother, at last, into her own bed. She lived three hours.
And then the money war began, a war in which Megan was threatened by lawyers, demonized in court, and her substantial wealth eroded by attacks through the legal system, as the law firm, founded by her father, sought to destroy her . The firm also took control of the father’s papers, which Megan believes were nearly priceless, due to the political connections and legacy of her father. Property which she had stored with her parents was stolen or vandalized. Her own money, garnered by her own work, was drained off as she sought to protect her interests and name, through escalating attacks by what she ironically calls “The Big Law Firm.”
This story raises serious issues. The commandment to “honor thy mother and father” is obviously being gutted here, with “honor thy mother and father’s cash” replacing the Fifth Commandment. And where is the legal and judicial oversight? And why is the one individual who acted with honor now demonized and under attack?
Unfortunately, it appears that this story is hardly singular. In probate courts across our nation, teams of lawyers and conservators are gaining control of the finances and very lives of elderly and vulnerable men and women, and bleeding the estates in their own pursuit of wealth.
The victims of this process are often isolated, without significant family. When there are heirs, the heirs are often pitted against each other and mercilessly exploited for the personal gain of the lawyers/conservators.
According to her daughter-in-law, Lee Peters had been an exceptional woman. Stunningly beautiful, she had made her career in costuming for TV and film. Following her husband’s death, she had raised her four children, eventually re-marrying a man eighteen years her junior.
In the mid 1990’s Lee began to exhibit signs of dementia and started to lose her sight. Her marriage fell apart and her husband left her. Her son Casey took over a care-giving role, taking Lee to medical and other appointments. He moved back into the family home in order to better care for his mother. The two other sons (the sole daughter had died some years prior) began to attempt to manipulate Lee to revoke her will and sign other legal documents in order to ensure their financial future.
They set up a Trust, naming as Trustee the wife of Stephen Peters and an unrelated attorney, Nora Hamill, who was a close associate and advisor of son, Michael Patrick Peters. Hamill had previously been suspended from the Illinois Bar for misconduct. Marilyn Peters, Casey’s wife, unequivocally states that these parties began to loot the Trust. Lee’s house had accumulated in value, and was worth in the neighborhood of $900,000. In an attempt to seize possession of the house, Michael Patrick moved his mother to a board and care.
When this proved unsatisfactory, Lee moved back home and was immediately threatened with eviction by her own offspring. Nora Hamill withheld Lee’s social security check. “They were trying to starve her out,” reflects Marilyn Peters.
In an effort to protect Lee from further threats of eviction, Casey Peters applied in Los Angeles Superior Court to be conservator of her person only. He would thus have no access to Lee’s money, but would be able to impact such matters as where Lee would live. Lee had repeatedly stated she wished to remain in her own home, and Casey and Marilyn were, at that point, caring for her in her own residence. In this manner, Casey believed he would be able to protect his mother from threats of eviction and unwarranted moves.
A reasonable gesture, this turned out to intensify the problems, as the State’s guardianship machine geared up to make mince meat out of the elderly, blind and incapacitated woman.
As occurs in these proceedings, an attorney was appointed to protect the interests of the proposed conservatee. As is often typical in these proceedings, the attorney’s actions plunged his client into debt and further negatively impacted her ability to remain at home with members of her own family caring for her. (See sidebar .)
A new Judge took over the case, and Lee’s situation began to plummet towards disaster. Judge Aviva Bobb appointed a professional conservator, Frumeh Labow. This conservatorship lasted barely a year, and Labow resigned after accusations by Casey and Marilyn Peters that she was failing to attend to Lee’s most basic medical needs. LaBow charged $30,000 for her services. LaBow’s attorneys, Weinstock Manion Reisman Shore and Neumann, charged $70,000.
LaBow was also featured in the L.A. Times expose on the conservatorship problem. On file in Lee’s conservatorship case is concern by Casey and Marilyn that Lee has developed “purple legs.” On recommendation by the conservator, Lee had been removed from her own home and was living in an assisted living facility. The facility utilized unlicensed attendants with no medical training. Marilyn Peters has repeatedly stated that concern about the discolored legs was ignored, first by the conservator LaBow, and then by the facility and Judge Bobb. Casey Peters had made a motion in Los Angeles Superior Court that Lee be seen by her own doctor, but this motion was denied by Judge Bobb.
Lee Peters passed away on December 28, 2006 of a blood clot which had migrated from her legs to her lungs.
Upon her death, Casey and Marilyn Peters were evicted from the family home by Casey’s brothers with fifteen minutes warning and ended up homeless in Los Angeles for five months, before finally saving enough money to rent an apartment.
A CONVICTED FELON HAS MORE RIGHTS THAN A CONSERVATEE
There are certain practices which these stories reveal. The person put under conservatorship essentially loses the lion’s share of his/her rights. She may no longer control her finances, where to live or whom to associate with, and can quickly be shuffled off to a facility, where she will be unable to address, or possibly even realize, the degree of plundering of her assets. Techniques of intimidation are deployed against concerned and caring parties — be they family or merely friends. Restraining orders, evictions and even threats of police reports are regularly deployed against those who may challenge the actions of the conservator.
The end result of this is clear: the conservatee loses her dominion over her own life. In an article to the court by author and journalist Patricia Lambert, she cited the following: “Until the appointment of this conservator, Amalie was accustomed to exercising her free will, going where she wished, when she wished, seeing whom she wished — in short, she was accustomed to having control over her own life. Now she has none. She is under the thumb of a conservator and an attorney whom she regards as indifferent, even hostile, to her wishes. She has tried to dismiss the attorney but the judge ignored her letter requesting it. Now I feel Amalie is beginning to lose hope of ever being free again to make her own decisions.
“The day after I saw her, I came across the following quote (in a LA Times article) from 9th Circuit Court Judge Robert M. Takasugi, whose entire family was part of the Japanese internment during WWII. Regarding his father who died at age 57, Takasugi said this: “I think he died, if anything, of the stress that was caused by feeling he was totally helpless.” Feeling “totally helpless,” I fear, is how Amalie is now feeling. And why wouldn’t she?”
Patricia Lambert was then threatened by the conservator, Melodie Scott, with a Restraining Order. The judge simply ignored Lambert’s report and proceeded to rubber-stamp all Scott’s motions and accountings.
The conservator’s handbook states the following: “The position of conservator is one of great trust and responsibility. The court and the conservatee are trusting you to follow the law and to act in the conservatee’s best interest. You should make choices that support, encourage, and assist the conservatee’s capabilities and wishes…” (page 2, Conservator’s Handbook).
The court, in fact, is charged with far more than “trust.” Recognizing the potential for abuse in granting a stranger dominion over a vulnerable person’s affairs, the courts are charged with oversight.
THE BEAT GOES ON
The reality is that the courts are rubber-stamping decisions as well as accountings by the conservators, in what can only be considered collusion, rather than negligence on the part of the court.
In 2001, Retired Riverside County Judge William Sullivan pleaded guilty to seven misdemeanor charges of making improper financial dealings in probate cases. He had presided over most of Riverside County’s probate cases between 1987 and 1999, and had retired only upon learning he was under investigation. This capped a public scandal which rocked the Inland Empire, the Bonnie Cambalik affair. Cambalik was a professional conservator, and for over twelve years was at the helm of her own firm, West Coast Conservatorships. Christopher Mannes, in an article in the California Lawyer Magazine, referred to Cambalik as “a high-society supporter of the arts with a taste for fine jewelry.”
Cambalik had embarked on a systematic scheme to pad her own pockets with the funds of her helpless conservatees. Due to the diligent efforts of three individuals in far-away San Francisco, Bonnie Cambalik, was sentenced in 2000 to 26 years in prison for defrauding conservatees. Her lawyer, Michael Molloy, was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison for advising Cambalik in the thefts. Sullivan was the Judge presiding over most of Cambalik’s cases.
Sullivan was ordered to pay $27,000 in fines and perform 1,000 hours of community service. It appears that his fraud amounted to around $1 million.
Sullivan resigned the State Bar, and the Commission on Judicial Performance also publicly censured Sullivan and barred him from receiving an assignment, appointment, or reference of work from any California state court.
Consider the situation of E. Joan Nelms. She has served as a judge pro-tem in the San Bernardino Court system, where she has regularly heard her own firm’s cases, in obvious conflict of interest. A compilation of these was submitted to the California Attorney General’s office. At this time, Nelms is still serving as Judge Pro-tem in that district.
Jeff Golin has been battling in the courts for over six years. He has now filed a civil rights lawsuit against the County of Santa Clara, who removed his grown autistic daughter from his care. Golin is alleging wrongdoing by the County, San Andreas Regional Center, the City of Palo Alto, Stanford Hospital and others, whom he states created false records in order to trump up charges against him and his wife, for the purpose of removing Nancy Golin from their home. The Golins have set up a comprehensive website –freenancy.com, which contains the story of Nancy’s life with her parents, the “kidnapping by the State,” court documents, and regular updates.
At this date, all judges in Santa Clara County recused themselves from the Golin case, as one of the defendants in the case was appointed to the bench by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And in 2006, Schwarzenegger also appointed one Mark Mandio to the bench in California Superior Court. Mandio had been the point-man in the Riverside D.A’s office on elder abuse cases, and had a history of dropping the ball on reports of conservatorship abuse. His reward for contributing to the problem he was mandated to address was a plum appointment, and Mandio is now sitting on the bench in Riverside Superior Court.
Neither the Riverside D.A.’s office nor the office of the Presiding Judge of Riverside Superior Court responded to phone calls from TAB requesting input on allegations against Judge Mandio.
Barbara Jagiello, a San Francisco lawyer who was pivotal in putting Bonnie Cambalik behind bars, has this to say about the failure of the judicial system in adequately protecting the elderly from abuse by court appointed conservators: “What we saw with Bonnie Cambalik is that these professional fiduciaries and conservators become so well ensconsed that there is no one you can go to and complain. And that is the real problem. The judge is used to seeing the same conservator every day. The court appointed counsel won’t complain because he has to work with the conservator in other cases. The caregivers won’t complain because they will lose the account. The nursing homes won’t complain because the conservators will pull all their patients out of that home. It becomes a closed circuit, and there is a disincentive for someone to say, “Something’s wrong here.” When I got behind the scenes with Bonnie Cambalik, everyone told me “We all know what she is doing. We can’t do anything about it, but we all know.”
To be continued …..