Betrayed: Bob Lee and his late father, James 'Pops' Lee. The elder Lee's health declined precipitously after authorities started investigating his caregiver on financial abuse charges.
Friends In Need
A textbook case of financial elder abuse in Aptos becomes part of a nationwide push to protect seniors from swindlers.
By Jessica Lussenhop
LOOKING BACK, James "Pops" Lee's loved ones say they now read a lot more into things that, at the time they were happening, seemed like nothing special. Lee's son Bob dwells on the first time he met Fenita Caldwell, a medical supplies saleswoman in her early 40s who lived down the street from his father on Dolphin Drive in Aptos. "She seemed like a sweet lady, professional, highly educated," he says. "She said, 'Oh, I love old people.' I look back on that."
Seven years later, in May 2008, Bob Lee stood in front of a courtroom, after Caldwell had pled guilty to misdemeanor financial elder abuse, and read a statement he'd prepared, though he says he was almost too angry to deliver it. "Your actions betrayed someone who genuinely loved and cared about you," he read. "You not only broke his spirit, you broke his heart."
Less than two weeks later, James Lee died at 95, his health having rapidly declined over the course of the investigation against his former caregiver.
Last week, Congress heard the story in a short documentary film prepared by the Elder Justice Now campaign, a partnership of the National Council on Aging and WITNESS, a human rights video documentary group, in an effort to push the passage of the so-called Elder Abuse Justice Act. Says Lee, "I hope I accomplished out of this two things: I hope, number one, I make people aware of this, and also I hope that she'll never do it again. She was real good at this. If I hadn't taken over my dad's finances, I think she would have fleeced him."
Lee's case was just one of the 542 cases of elder abuse and neglect that came across Sandy Skezas's desk in 2008. As program manager for Santa Cruz County's Adult Protective Services (APS), she handles a team of case workers who investigate issues surrounding the ugly side of aging, from elderly hoarders to victims of physical abuse. But she says that more and more her agency is dealing with cases of financial abuse. Since 2001, the Santa Cruz County Financial Abuse Specialist Team, made up of law enforcement, county counsel, the district attorney, Adult Protective Services and the public guardian, has restored or prevented the loss of more than $42 million worth of property and assets. Skezas says the high property values in Santa Cruz make the theft of real estate especially enticing.
"It's their greatest asset. It's long paid off and they have $300,000 worth of equity somebody can steal," she says. "A pen is more dangerous than a gun. If you sign your property over to me, I've just stolen a half million dollars. Unfortunately, it is really easy to do."
According to Lee, APS originally became involved in the case because Caldwell reported him. "[She] was trying to harass me," he says.
By that time, what had started as a friendly relationship had soured. In 2006, Lee recalls, Caldwell began renting one of his father's triplex units, one that shared a wall with his. The elder Lee, a gregarious old-school Italian who'd lost his second wife in 2000, had endeared himself to the neighbors with his stories about surviving Pearl Harbor and almost making it to the big leagues with the New York Yankees. So it was no surprise that as his health began to decline, the "Dolphin Drivers," as the neighbors called themselves, were happy to lend a hand. (The younger Lee spent much of his own retirement living in Hawaii.) In October 2007, Bob Lee says he began paying Caldwell a modest $250 per month to take his father grocery shopping or to doctor's appointments.
"It was getting to be a lot more work," says Cherie Hervey, another Dolphin Driver and eventual caregiver, recalling the months leading up to that point. "When he was forgetful he'd say, 'How many children do you have?' and I'd say, 'Remember Pops, seven?' and he'd say, 'Holy shit!'"
By February, when it became clear that James was suffering from dementia, Bob Lee took responsibility for his father's financial affairs. He says the first inkling of trouble came when he discovered that Caldwell had bounced a rent check in October 2007. The next month Lee says he discovered some strange activity on his father's credit card--a $485 plane ticket to Chicago, and the next month a $1,350 down payment on a time-share in Las Vegas, both in Caldwell's name. Attempts to contact Caldwell for this article were unsuccessful.
"I approached my dad. He was stunned. 'How did she get my credit card?,'" he says. "After that, I did an audit and found out she hadn't paid rent for months." Lee still has a copy of a check that Caldwell eventually wrote for $4,500, with a note that says "past due rent." Lee says Caldwell then agreed to move out, but when he received another rent check the following month, he realized she was staying.
Lee began interviewing the Dolphin Drivers about his father's relationship with Caldwell, and says he discovered that she had about $15,000 worth of jewelry she said Pops had bought her, including a 1.38-carat diamond ring and a Rolex watch. "Who would ever accept a gift like that?" Lee says. But he adds there was evidence that the relationship had become more than friendly. "At one point, he asked me for Viagra," says Lee. "That should have been a red flag."
According to Lee, once he told Caldwell to have no further contact with his father, things escalated. He says she continued to have the elder Lee over to her house, which prompted Bob Lee to call the sheriff twice, and later to file for a restraining order.
Hervey says she had to repeatedly remind her elderly neighbor that he shouldn't have contact with Caldwell. "I told him, 'Remember, Pops? She stole your money,' and he'd say, 'Oh yeah, why would she do that?' and he would cry, not just a couple of tears. Sobbing," she says.
"His health took a downward spiral. He was depressed. My dad was a very proud man," says Lee. "He said, 'Because I'm old, she thinks I'm stupid.' I almost wish his dementia had been bad enough that he didn't understand that."
In March 2008, Lee says APS called to speak to him about neglecting his father, but the agency turned its investigation to Caldwell after learning about the credit card purchases. Soon, the APS team gave what it had to the DA's office, according to Assistant District Attorney Kelly Walker. In April, after Lee was granted a restraining order against her, Caldwell was arrested outside of the courtroom.
"I'm not real concerned about using a credit card to go out to dinner with the victim," says Walker. "That's not as concerning as a Rolex watch and a diamond ring. It became obvious that the defendant was victimizing him. She had endeared herself to him."
Though she was charged with a felony, Caldwell pled out to a misdemeanor. As part of her deal, Walker says she admitted to the two credit card charges for the trip and the timeshare, returned the ring and watch and served a 30-day jail sentence. She was also ordered to have no financial agreements with anyone over the age of 65.
Walker says he thought it was necessary for Caldwell to write Bob Lee a letter of apology, which she did. In it, she called the credit card charges "mistakes and bad judgment," but described them as the result of an agreement she had with Pops when she was having money trouble.
"The nonpayment of the rent coupled with the two credit card charges made me look like I was taking advantage of you [sic] dad when this was not my intention at all," she wrote. "I'm deeply sorry Bobby, please forgive me."
Lee, who still has some unresolved anger, says the sentence for Caldwell was too light. "I felt justice wasn't served," he says. "I felt like she had contributed highly to his death."
Walker, however, says that there was no way he could pursue a charge on those grounds. "He spoke to me regarding that, and there's no way that can be pursued. I don't disagree with his feeling, but, no, I couldn't prove that in a court of law," he says.
In some ways the family was lucky. Lee was involved in his father's life and had power of attorney. He had the means to cover his $10,000 legal bill, and prevented what he believes was the end goal--to get possession of his father's triplex, which the family sold in one week for $1,175,000. The Elder Abuse Act would create federal money and oversight for those whose families are not as astute.
"What was beneficial in Bob Lee's case was that he was on top of his father's finances. That's not always the case," says Marci Phillips, director of Public Policy and Advocacy for the National Council on Aging in Washington, D.C. "The key part [of the Elder Abuse Act] is that it creates a federal commitment, and a federal coordination and a stream of funding to help address, prevent and in some cases prosecute elder abuse."
Some of those federal dollars would go directly to local APS, so that Skezas would no longer have to rely on state funding. In the last two fiscal years, she says the APS budget has been "slaughtered." She currently has only three caseworkers.
The bill has been languishing in Congress since 2002, but was recently added as an amendment to one of the health-care reform bills approved by the Senate Finance Committee. Phillips says this is why the coalition chose to show the documentary film to Congress last week. "It really is our best shot in years to finally get this moving," she says.
Lee says helping to pass an Elder Abuse Act is a small source of comfort. "This is the only sector of the population that's been ignored," he says, pointing to the fact there is federal protection for children, battered women and animals, but none for the elderly. "These Congress people, they're going to be there one day. It's something no one will avoid."
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