A prominent philanthropist and the epicenter of the New York society scene, Brooke Astor lived a tumultuous but glamourous life. Left a fortune by her third husband, Vincent Astor, Brooke planned to live out her later years at her country estate. But when Brooke’s son refuses to let her do so, then sells his mother’s favorite painting (worth over $30 million), grandson Philip decides to step in. Philip’s efforts to return his grandmother to the country home she loved would uncover one of the most prominent cases of financial elder abuse in U.S. history, with millions lost and a family torn apart.
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[00:00:00] Will Johnson: Coming up on AARP - The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] Phillip Marshall: My father was trying to convince his mother that she was running out of money. She had so, so much undue influence had been imposed on her. Here she thinks she's being completely brook and he's just selling stuff left and right.
[00:00:21] Will Johnson: For AARP - The Perfect Scam podcast, I'm your host, Will Johnson. I'm joined once again in the studio by the AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador Frank Abagnale.
[00:00:31] Frank Abagnale: Hi, Will. Great to be with you again.
[00:00:33] Will Johnson: Well this week's scam is one that highlights the dangers and prevalence of financial elder abuse or financial exploitation. It's the story of the late Brooke Astor and how she became a victim at the hands of her own son. It's story of a stolen fortune, a fight for guardianship, and a family's broken trust.
[00:00:39] MUSIC SEGUE
[00:00:44] Will Johnson: Brooke Astor defined NY society. She was classy, glamourous, smart, and funny. And for much of her life she was in charge of the events in Astor Foundation, her third husband's legacy, dedicated to the alleviation of human suffering. When Vincent Astor died in 1959, he left his fortune to the cause, and Brooke Astor took over. But the final years of her life before she died in 2007 at the age of 105 were overshadowed by a nightmarish scenario at the hands of her only son from her first marriage, Anthony Marshall. He and a family lawyer stole tens of millions from Brooke Astor after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. They were eventually convicted of the crime. It was Anthony Marshall's own son, Phillip Marshall, who came to his grandmother's rescue in a well-publicized case that captured headlines and brought together a cast of Brooke Astor's famous friends. Phillip Marshall never intended to pursue a criminal case against his father, already n his early 80s at the time of the trial, but as time went by and stories emerged, so did his focus and resolve.
[00:01:33] Will Johnson: Alright, I am here with Phillip Marshall. Tell us about Brooke Astor, who was she briefly and, and a little bit about where she was and your relationship to her at, towards the end of her life.
[00:01:44] Phillip Marshall: To the world, she was Brooke Astor. She was never really Mrs. Vincent Astor, she was Brooke Astor. She had her own identity. Uh, and but she was my grandmother. I had great memories in New York, we had amazing times in New York and probably best my memories were in her country house. In the country and especially in Maine where we'd just go hiking. She would just peel up mountains and we're talking this went on for decades. And sometimes she'd have to carry her dogs, but that's the only thing that would slow her down. And, and she would go out four nights a week, and that was, those were just very elaborate dinners, and, and all the benefits and the plays and theater and all this.
[00:02:29] Will Johnson: Phillip Marshall describes his father's relationship with his mother, Brooke Astor, as complicated from an early age. Anthony Marshall was the product of her first marriage.
[00:02:39] Phillip Marshall: He did not quite live up to her expectations. And uh, so that was difficult, and not to be disrespectful, but what happened, I think, is he was tied to her apron strings, and then later on he became tied to her purse strings, and he got all tangled up.
[00:02:58] Will Johnson: But it wasn't until Brooke Astor was elderly that things took a turn for the worst. She was clearly, cognitively declining, what would eventually be diagnosed as Alzheimer's.
[00:03:07] Phillip Marshall: December 2000, my father wrote an 8-page letter to a geriatric neurologist describing what, how my grandmother's feeling. She had no idea what was happening to her. She thought she was going crazy, and she was, and that's all her expression in this letter. He was chronicling how she was feeling in her words when she would meet, when they would meet and she would say to her son, she goes, you know, I am, I have no idea what's happening with me. I am, feel I'm losing my mind. I would rather die than feel this way. He was really concerned about her, but he also felt she was trying to give things away to whoever walked in the door. Oh, you know, this, and he didn't want that.
[00:03:55] Will Johnson: Phillip Marshall starts having conversations with his grandmother's staff members. Among the first, her butler, Chris Ely who Phillip met with secretly, outside of the home.
[00:04:05] Phillip Marshall: He reached out to me, and eventually I spoke with lots of staff and caregivers. We didn't know, at first I had no idea, could I trust people? I had to schedule a get together with my grandmother through my, my grandmother's staff after hours because if my father was alerted, he was going to be there. It was a part of isolation, and there were two, one nurse was on duty. Another came in, uh for her you know, for her shift, and we started sharing, expressing shared concern and stories and realizing this was really bad and it was that evening that I decided to act.
[00:04:48] MUSIC SEGUE
[00:04:52] Will Johnson: As stories were shared, the picture began to get clearer and clearer, and events and memories from over the years started adding up, like a painting that disappeared in 2002.
[00:05:02] Phillip Marshall: My grandmother's favorite painting, a Childe Hassam painting that she had bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And um, the staff told me that my father had sold the painting.
[00:05:17] Will Johnson: What was the painting of, if I might ask?
[00:05:18] Phillip Marshall: It was Flags Fifth Avenue, so it was New York and it was, and it had flags in it, okay? That, she loved that painting. She bought it in 1970, but my father uh was trying to convince his mother that she was running out of money. And that she needed to sell the painting, and that after she, the painting was sold, she asked her son, my father, "Now, can I buy dresses?" She had so, so you know, so much undue influence had been imposed on her. Here she thinks she's being completely broke and he's just selling stuff left and right. And the nurses and the staff, they're saying, well things are just bad, but they weren't sharing that much until 2006. In-between, in 2004, uh I uh, [00:06:18] I saw my grandmother and I, we drove up to see her. She was going out to the country because we couldn't arrange a, a visit with her could not be arranged. That would be again, isolation, so we just drove up, and I saw how terrified she was. It's like, whoa, she, you know, and then I remember visiting her once and reading her book to her, Patchwork Child, which is about her childhood. And because what am I going to do at that point? So I'm reading her book and I go to put it back in the shelf, and she looks up and goes, don't take that! It's like, whoa. What is happening here? So just that, even that alone...
[00:07:00] Will Johnson: She didn't want you to take the book?
[00:07:02] Phillip Marshall: You know, my father had been lifting off Tiepolo paintings worth almost half a million, putting them in Bloomingdale bags as we found out later and walking out. He was walking out of her apartment with pretty much whatever he wanted. I didn't know that at the time, but it was like, oh, I'm about to put the book back in the bookcase, and she's going, "Don't take that!" It's like whoa, this is so bad, and it all adds up slowly.
[00:07:26] MUSIC SEGUE
[00:07:29] Phillip Marshall: She told the nurse, she goes, you know, "Oh, they're here," my father and third wife. It was like, "What do they want? Tell them I will pay them to leave."
[00:07:40] Will Johnson: As time goes by, Phillip Marshall develops a deep understanding of elder abuse and financial exploitation. His vocabulary has evolved.
[00:07:49] Phillip Marshall: What I would call it now, is she endured hybrid elder financial exploitation, which means money is going out, but as a, as part of the means of that exploitation, there's poly-victimization. So my grandmother was isolated, she had, as here, the undue influence is incredible, uh psychological maltreatment is putting it politely, and there was deprivation and there was a lot.
[00:08:18] MUSIC SEGUE
[00:08:20] Will Johnson: Convinced that his father was victimizing and stealing from Booke Astor, Phillip Marshall decides that his father has to be removed as her guardian. The case goes to civil court.
[00:08:30] Phillip Marshall: And we didn't know where we were on this, okay? You know, I didn't know what side, and they didn't know where I was. Well it didn't take long for all of us to be on the same page and people say, you know, I say my grandmother, well there was an A team. There was a, and it was the staff who really started. What happened is a lot of people think you know, oh, you know, I, they were my grandmother's friends who were really helpful. I couldn't just pick up the phone and call them. I didn't really know them. And so it was through staff, my grandmother's staff and for example, staff of David Rockefeller who was a close, close friend of my grandmother's that I could connect with David. And with Annette de la Renta who eventually, who was my grandmother, ended up being my grandmoth--, grandmother's guardian, after I filed a petition for guardian, and Henry Kissinger filed an affidavit for that petition.
[00:09:24] Will Johnson: So this is a civil trial. Phillips wants his father out of his grandmother's house, money, and life. He wants her to live freely and with dignity, but as the trial ends and Anthony Marshall loses his fight to maintain his role as sole guardian, the judge makes a ruling that surprises Phillip and gets the attention of the Manhattan DA's office.
[00:09:41] Phillip Marshall: Based on the court evaluator’s report, the judge, the guardianship judge said, "Elder abuse was not substantiated." That one clause catapulted us from case to cause. We were no--, we'd saved, I'd saved my grandmother. She was in the country, okay? And but to think that if this was not elder abuse, it was going to be open season on seniors.
[00:10:06] MUSIC SEGUE
[00:10:08] Will Johnson: In other words, the Manhattan DA and Phillip Marshall were now intent on pursuing a criminal case. Liz Loewy was the head of the Elder Abuse Unit with the Manhattan DA's office. She ultimately spent 30 years there before starting her own company EverSafe, a fraud monitoring platform protecting seniors and their families from financial abuse. She is passionate about protecting seniors from financial exploitation and elder abuse.
[00:10:33] Liz Loewy: Elder abuse is a huge problem, and it's a growing problem. There's physical abuse, there are all of those cases that involve family members, you know domestic violence can also be elder abuse. There are sex crimes that involve older victims, and neglect cases that also can be criminal. There's emotional abuse that can involve an older person. And then there's, of course, financial exploitation involving older victims.
[00:11:01] Will Johnson: Here's what might surprise you. Out of this range of forms of abuse, it's the financial abuse that is the most deadly.
[00:11:08] Liz Loewy: The University of Texas did a study about a year ago I'd say, where they looked at the mortality of different forms of elder abuse, and surprisingly, elder financial abuse and caregiver neglect had the lowest survival rate or the highest rate of mortality. Higher than physical abuse and domestic violence cases. I had a lawyer here in Manhattan who had lived through three heart attacks, and when he was exploited by a caregiver, an aide whom he loved, he passed away before I could even meet him, and his daughter told me, "I can't prove it, I cannot prove it, but I'm telling you he lost the will to live after, after she did this to him."
[00:11:49] Will Johnson: In addition to seeing family members taking advantage of the elderly, Loewy sees other common themes across cases of financial exploitation.
[00:11:56] Liz Loewy: The exploiters are smart. They start small, they don't take like a big amount from one bank account, they usually steal across bank accounts; sometimes they use bank accounts and an investment account and, and a credit card. Then they hit identity theft in the credit report, but they usually steal across accounts, across institutions, they fly under the radar.
[00:12:21] MUSIC SEGUE
[00:12:23] Will Johnson: Loewy and her colleagues started looking at the Brooke Astor case. They took a close look at finances and saw lots of suspicious activity, erratic transfers, and Astor getting more and more ill. Six months and more than 70 witnesses later, Phillip Astor's father Anthony was convicted and sentenced to prison. The last time he spoke to his father was at the trial.
[00:12:43] Phillip Marshall: There, my father was found convicted on, I think it was 14 or 15 counts. There was mandatory sentence of at least a year in prison. And uh, and he ended up in prison.
[00:12:57] Will Johnson: He was sentenced to a year and then how long was he there?
[00:13:00] Phillip Marshall: He was there for a couple months, and then he was released on pa--, parole.
[00:13:05] Will Johnson: And then he subsequently passed away.
[00:13:07] Phillip Marshall: And then he passed away in November 2014, and I went to the funeral.
[00:13:11] Will Johnson: You did?
[00:13:12] Phillip Marshall: Yeah. For the service.
[00:13:15] Will Johnson: Your taking on this fight for your grandmother was a, I would imagine a big step in, in a lot of ways. But it cost you.
[00:13:28] Phillip Marshall: Uh you can see, or you can hear that it cost me. And so, and you know, um, it cost me a lot, and the money, you know people go, oh, you could have, you, you were disinherited by your father, and you would have inherited double digit millions. It was like, I don't care about the money, and so I'm compelled to uh advocate so people know that um, to be complacent about elder justice is to be complicit in elder abuse and our silence protects perpetrators, not their victim. And that today victims of this crime may be strangers. Tomorrow they may be our loved ones, and perhaps in the future ourselves; seniors and society deserve more. Isolation is one of the biggest issues. You know, basically renew that relationship that you have with seniors. [00:14:28] Because you're going to be there soon enough if you're lucky also.
[00:14:34] Will Johnson: Outside of the main scope of this story, I have to ask what your feelings were about your father as this all sort of unraveled.
[00:14:44] Phillip Marshall: I cannot believe what he did to his mother. And uh, you know, and what's really sad, you know, sometime along, you know, halfway through the trial when I was testifying, you know somebody goes, well you have to speak to your father through the press, but you know my statement to the press the day, one of the days I testified was, you know, I asked my father to please, please, and asked to seek forgiveness, and he didn't. He never sought forgiveness. He ended up in jail for a few months, in prison for a few months and came out for parole board and the parole board said, well, "Mr. Marshall, would you do anything differently?" And he said, "I suppose."
[00:15:32] Will Johnson: Did you love your father?
[00:15:35] Phillip Marshall: Yes. Yeah, I felt so sorry for him. I felt really, really sorry for how, how things have not worked out.
[00:15:48] Will Johnson: Was your father in need of that much money?
[00:15:52] Phillip Marshall: No. He was going to inherit like the equivalency of...
[00:15:55] Will Johnson: He was doing alright.
[00:15:56] Phillip Marshall: ... 50 million already.
[00:15:57] Will Johnson: He was doing okay.
[00:15:58] Phillip Marshall: He was doing fine. He did not need another 100 million or whatever. No, he was doing just fine.
[00:16:07] Will Johnson: I'd like to bring Jilenne Gunther into our conversation. She is director of BankSafe at AARP. Thanks for being here today.
[00:16:12] Jilenne: Thanks for having me.
[00:16:13] Will Johnson: BankSafe is an AARP startup project looking at stopping financial exploitation by empowering people on the front lines at financial institutions. Jilenne says that 1 out of 5 people become victims of financial exploitation and 2 out of 5 know someone who's been exploited. The average victim loses about 120,000 dollars.
[00:16:33] Jilenne Gunther: Imagine the fact that every week you're paying into your retirement, and then in a blink of an eye, that all disappears because you have one kid that's gone to the dark side. If you think about it as a con artist, a con artist with a scam has to um, they have to first look at gaining trust of their victim, they have to look at isolating their victim so no one can help, and they have to also figure out where the assets are. If you're a family member, you have that already. You know where the money is, you've already gained that trust.
[00:17:10] Will Johnson: What steps can be taken to ensure that a loved one is not financial exploited?
[00:17:15] Jilenne Gunther: I think one of the things to do is be that second pair of eyes to see if there's anything suspicious going on. Um, perpetrators of this crime are just like predators in the wild. They're looking for that, they're looking for the weakness to exploit. And one of the things to really keep careful eye on are kind of four different things: Has there been an illness? Has there been a loss of spouse? And has there been cognitive decline, and is there isolation? And when you see those types of things, you want to close ranks because that's where we see perpetrators take advantage of an open opportunity.
[00:17:56] Will Johnson: From the perspective of someone who could be a victim, if they feel like maybe something is not right, or they just want to make absolutely sure that something like this isn't going to happen to them, what can they do?
[00:18:07] Jilenne Gunther: I think one of the biggest things is to prevent isolation. If you are feeling pressured, fear, or manipulation to reach out to someone what you know, whether that's a friend, a family member, or a church member, and ask them for advice. And if, if there isn't someone in their community, every state has an adult protective services unit that you can call that anonymous. Um, and they'll start an investigation to look into the financial exploitation and stop it. And you can find out what the adult protective services unit is in your state by going to eldercare.acl.locator.gov.
[00:18:47] MUSIC SEGUE
[00:18:48] Will Johnson: Frank, this story was in the news, it was very, she was a very famous person, but to hear it from Phillip Marshall and everything that he went through, to protect his grandmother as much as he could, it's really an emotional story.
[00:19:02] Frank Abagnale: Very emotional, and as, you know, as we know in many, many cases involving scams and cons and defrauding people, a lot of times it is, unfortunately, a family member that's doing that, which makes it even more devastating that someone would steal from their own uh, uh family, but that's pretty much a common, a common occurrence unfortunately.
[00:19:24] Will Johnson: So that is, so you see this all the time.
[00:19:27] Frank Abagnale: Yeah. Kids who write checks off their parents' checkbooks or get into their bank account or steal their jewelry and sell it to someone, uh, I mean unfortunately that's a, that's a common thing that goes on.
[00:19:39] Will Johnson: He talks about the nurses and the staff that notice some of the things that were going on in the household. We don't all have families with nurses or staff, but if we're able to get clues from people who are close to our family and, and like, in this case, maybe find out something's going on that otherwise would remain hidden, it's important to sort of keep, be aware of those.
[00:19:59] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, and I think in the case of, in, in this particular case, here's the son who's already, he's an elderly individual himself. His mother's very elderly. Mother doesn't really understand what's going on. So he sees the opportunity to, well I can make some money by selling some of her things using some of her money. She's not going to know it. She's not going to miss it. Um, it's very much a case of elderly abuse, and again, no one was out looking care of the mother, to making sure the mother was okay other than the son and again, the mother probably felt she only needed the son to look after her and the son wasn't doing that. The son was taking advantage of her. So, some of the people that worked for her realized that was going on and tried to let people know, hey, there's something that's not right here and someone needs to look into this. And so, ironically, that man's son was the one who came forward and started to do something about it.
[00:20:54] Will Johnson: If there's an amount of money, whatever it is, and you want to be careful as a family, maybe you've got siblings or, or others involved, are there things families can do to, to not leave it in the hands of maybe the kids?
[00:21:08] Phillip Marshall: Yeah, this is why I think the real smart individauls that say, for example, the gentleman that's made millions and millions of dollars, in his will he's leaving that money to his wife, and uh but however he has that trust overseen by a very legitimate law firm that he's done business with for years, not just one lawyer or somebody that might go the wrong way, he's dealing with a major law firm, they let them oversee that trust so nobody abuses his wife or, or takes that money from his wife, whether it be a family member or someone from the outside, and she has all the access to the money, but they're also looking after how that uh money goes and gets spent, and that no one's taking advantage of her. I think that's a very smart individual who does that.
[00:21:53] Will Johnson: So scams and fraud can come from the outside and from the inside, so be...
[00:21:56] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely it can come from anywhere.
[00:21:58] Will Johnson: ... cautious.
[00:21:59] MUSIC SEGUE
[00:22:01] Will Johnson: Alright, up next on The Perfect Scam, we would like to welcome back Jen Beam. She manages the Fraud Watch Network Facebook page, and she sees it all. Jen, how are you?
[00:22:09] Jen Beam: Hi, Will. (inaudible)
[00:22:11] Will Johnson: Do you hear about it all?
[00:22:12] Jen Beam: I hear about it all, yes, I'm on the frontlines.
[00:22:15] Will Johnson: The frontlines is right, and actually you have a really terrible thing to share with us today, but it's something that all of our listeners should be aware of and looking out for, obituaries.
[00:22:25] Jen Beam: That's right. So, um, it's kind of the lowest of the low, pretty terrible. What it is, is scammers are uh you know think now you can go to legacy.com, it's not just a newspaper. You can find an obituary online and if you think about a traditional obituary, they're packed with information. So, if you think of someone, they're grieving, their loved one has just died, they have so much to do following the death of you know, their beloved uh you know, husband or spouse or family member, and it's really easy to just follow the traditional format of writing that obituary so you can check it off, you know, check it off the list, uh and get onto all the other you know, arrangements that you have to make. So the problem is, when you think about what you put in a traditional obituary, there is tons of personal information.
[00:23:16] Will Johnson: Yeah, you know, of course.
[00:23:18] Jen Beam: And so what you can see is, you can pull names, addresses, birthplaces, birthdates are often in there. And then of course the huge list of family members and pets even, and so think of all the security questions you're asked. Those are all in there, so if your mother's maiden name, that kind of information. Um, so the tip is, and it's really hard because these are, this is tough advice to give, is that when you're writing a death notice, that you leave a lot of this out, and that can be really hard, you know, to not include the list of all the loved ones who have been left behind, to not include birthplace, to not include your mother's maiden name, but it really does protect both the deceased and those left behind. I'm even hearing, one of uh, our Facebook members shared that she saw in her town, they were seeing an increase in crime, [00:24:18] tied to when funerals were happening. So actual criminals were reading the obituary and then you know casing these houses during the funeral hours. So what was really cool is that this community set up a, kind of like a fraud watch group and they actually keep an eye on people's houses when they're going through this, which I think is amazing.
[00:24:40] Will Johnson: Alright, Jen. Join us again please, will you, and we'll find more about things we need to know about even if we don't want to know about it.
[00:24:47] Jen Beam: Well put. Thanks, Will.
[00:24:50] Will Johnson: And Jen Beam is with the Fraud Watch Network Facebook page. Thanks again, Jen.
[00:24:54] Jen Beam: Thank you.
[00:24:56] Will Johnson: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a scam or you just need information on anything scam related, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Thanks to my team of scam busters, Julie Getz and Brook Ellis and audio engineer, Steve Bartlett, and audio mastering done by Julio Gonzales. For AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
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