As 72-year-old Steve Steele is released from jail, not only can he hardly stand or walk, but he is worried about how he will recover the property stolen by Elizabeth, the caregiver who worked for him. That’s where Steve’s attorney, Brent Smith, comes in, waging what becomes a nearly two-year battle.
00:00:00] Bob: Last week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:02] Steve Steele: They kicked open the door of the place where I was living in, and they said, "You're going to jail." And I said, "What did I do?" The sheriff deputy came in and said I supposedly attacked Elizabeth.
[00:00:18] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. And this is a two-part episode, so if you haven't listened to Part 1 yet, you should go do that now. To remind you where our story stands, Steve Steele, whose voice you just heard, was arrested on Christmas Eve 2017 and thrown in jail, accused of attacking his caregiver, Elizabeth Avila. Steve had already had a terrible year; his life partner had died, and he was suffering from serious health issues. But something about this arrest didn't sit right with public defender Mara Fregoso, who did her own investigation and found out that in recent months Elizabeth had taken control of Steve’s finances, had his two homes deeded over to her, and even cashed out a $120,000 annuity that had been left to Steve by his partner. After submitting a 72-page brief to the court, Mara got Steve's charges dropped. We pick up the story just as Steve is trying to figure out what to do next. As Steve Steele walks out of jail, 90 days after his arrest on accusations of assaulting his caregiver, his life is very much in limbo. His money is gone, his homes are gone. How does he disentangle his life with the Avilas and get justice? But first, he just needs a place to go. His public defender helps with that.
[00:01:40] Mara Fregoso: The day of his release I needed to have a place for him to go lined up, so I needed to make sure that as soon as he was released, I would have somebody from the facility there because he needed to have a walker. As the release hearing came up, I called around trying to find him a place to go, because if he was going to be released, where would he go? He has no home.
[00:02:03] Bob: When people think of public defenders, I doubt they think of someone who's calling around trying to find a home for their clients.
[00:02:09] Mara Fregoso: You'd be..., you'd be surprised. It's not the first time. On different cases, you know, if somebody wants to go to inpatient treatment like drug and alcohol, we'll help, you know, we'll line up the assessments and stuff like that just like we did with Mr. Steele.
[00:02:25] Bob: Fortunately, Mara finds a home willing to take Steve Steele while the rest of his financial life gets sorted out. And that's when lawyer Brent Smith gets involved.
[00:02:33] Brent Smith: It was March of 2018; I was contacted by uh my former partner and attorney to come and try to figure out what had happened to Steve Steele. So much of the story happens before I was involved, but of course, it was my job to try to explain what happened and why to a court. And so, we learned all the history.
[00:02:57] Bob: Brent learns that not only were the Avilas living in Steve Steele's homes, they were also spending his money, even his Social Security check while he was in prison. Steve's first step is to get a protective order so he can get the Avilas out of his life.
[00:03:13] Brent Smith: So, we, we also have stalking protective orders, and then you know, relatively recently in, in the last um, maybe 15 years, um, states around the country adopted elder abuse and disabled person abuse um, protective order proceedings. So these are statutory proceedings, and when Steve initiated it on March 14th or March 15th rather of 2018, that's a pretty simple document. Um, he did file it on his own. It just explained that, you know, this property and, and uh, money had been taken wrongfully by Elizabeth Avila and Pedro Avila. And the court entered a temporary order, but then the Avilas again used Steve's money to hire a, a pretty good lawyer to object, um, to the restraining order, and that triggered a series of hearings that happened in the spring, um, of uh 2018.
[00:04:07] Bob: And also, that's crazy, I mean maddening rather I would say that Steve's money was being used to pay this lawyer who was fighting him.
[00:04:18] Brent Smith: Yes, I found it rather maddening which is why I mentioned it. And you know the lawyer that was, that was fighting um, for the Avilas, he tended to rely on um, uh the letters that Steve had written, you know, letters, 11 letters about how he loved the Avilas and their family, and he wanted them to have his property. You know that all occurred because Steve was totally dependent on them.
[00:04:43] Bob: As he digs through the financial records, Brent discovers the true extent of the mingling of assets, the steps that Elizabeth Avila took after she got the power of attorney from Steve.
[00:04:53] Brent Smith: By the time we get to November of 2017, um, Elizabeth has caused Steve to cash out the annuity and placed um, you know, a total of around $120,000 in um, the jointly held bank account. She quickly takes that money out, and she's also caused Steve to deed the property which he had purchased, um, to Elizabeth Avila for, you know, no money. Elizabeth didn't pay for it.
[00:05:27] Bob: And so now he's, he's missing a $1000 a month payment which I'm, I'm going to guess is a substantial amount of his income, right?
[00:05:34] Brent Smith: Right, so he, he ba---, you know his deceased partner, Patricia, had smartly set up this annuity which would supplement his Social Security, so you know when, before the Avilas come into the picture, Steve is living comfort--, he's lonely, but he's living comfortably in a house, and he has both his Social Security income and this annuity as a, as a monthly income, and so he had about two, $2000, $2500 a month coming in. When we get to December of 2017, Steve has given Elizabeth Avila control over all of his money. She has cashed out the annuity and written checks to herself and her family members. Um, and she has caused Steve to deed her both of the uh, pieces of property that, that Steve owned. And so Steve has nothing but the Social Security income which is flowing into an account which he owns jointly with Elizabeth Avila.
[00:06:38] Bob: Brent has plenty of experience dealing with acrimonious caregiver situations. And he says that when there is comingling of assets, it's always hard to identify what was spent legitimately on care, food, travel, and so on, vs. what might have been spent without the patient's best interest in mind. But in Steve Steele situation, there's something different; there's a chance to recover real property.
[00:07:03] Brent Smith: You know, when it's just money, um, and you've got fraudsters on the other side, it can be very difficult to, you know, to recover that, to collect that judgment, but because we had um, two pieces of property that were still owned by the Avilas, we, or by Elizabeth Avila, we immediately filed a lis pendens within the county records.
[00:07:26] Bob: Brent files a civil case against Elizabeth Avila in an attempt to recover the properties and some of the money from the cashed out annuity. But that's not the only legal peril faced by Elizabeth Avila. In June 2019, she is indicted for alleged criminal acts, two counts of aggravated theft, and four counts of criminal mistreatment. Pedro Avila was not charged with any crime. Elizabeth initially pleads not guilty to all six charges, and in Facebook posts that are part of the court record, Elizabeth and Pedro write that quote, "We are not scared because we are innocent and have done nothing wrong." Their post also referenced Steve's letters where he expresses romantic feelings for Elizabeth, but those letters were actually part of Elizabeth's plan, lawyer Brent Smith says.
[00:08:14] Brent Smith: Later on, um, when the case is before a court, um, Steve will explain that um, Elizabeth was telling him to write that letter so that no one would question, for instance, him deeding property to her or giving her control of assets. Um, and I tend to believe Steve on that. I think that that was, that was true. That was the level of control that Elizabeth had. But it's also true that um, Steve was just in love with Elizabeth and with the idea that he was going to be able to care and provide for this family.
[00:08:48] Bob: Meanwhile, the Avilas have filed a countersuit against Steve, but soon after the criminal indictment, the civil case is resolved. In August of 2019, a judge orders Elizabeth to return the two properties to Steve Steele, and awards him a judgment of $127,000.
[00:09:06] Brent Smith: The $127,000, that was what was relatively easily proven. You know, when you have this comingling of assets that happens over a long period of time, and I, I deal with it on, unfortunately on a somewhat regular basis, there's the parts that we can prove, oh this was not money spent on Steve, you know, for instance when somebody uses a, a Power of Attorney and spends, you know, spends the person's money on their own costs. Um, there's parts that are easy to prove, and there's other parts that are just too difficult to prove. So I'm confident that they took more money from Steve than $127,000, but that's what we were able to clearly um, prove to the trial court.
[00:09:46] Bob: The criminal case drags on for a year. But in July 2020, Elizabeth pleads guilty to four counts of criminal mistreatment. She was sentenced to 10 days in jail, 5 years’ probation, and $56,000 restitution. Getting that money is another story.
[00:10:05] Brent Smith: Um, uh, enfor--, judgement enforcement efforts are ongoing. So uh, the last time um, you know I've sent a uh, a debtor interrogatorist to Pedro and Elizabeth, and they've failed to respond, and so the next step will be asking the court to find them in contempt because they didn't answer questions about their assets.
[00:10:26] Bob: The entire episode took years away from Steve Steele.
[00:10:30] Brent Smith: You know, I feel sad about it because Steve had this period of his life that was very um, very bleak, and um, you know, his reputation was um, besmirched by this whole, this whole thing, by the, the Avilas. It's a hard story to tell. It involves swallowing a, a lot of pride for the, the person that um, you know wrongfully had their property taken.
[00:10:54] Bob: For Mara, it just showed how tough a spot Steve was in.
[00:10:58] Mara Fregoso: He's missing his wife, wanting to be loved, wanting to be a part of something, wanting to have family.
[00:11:04] Bob: When Mara thinks about all that happened to Steve, she does have a lot of things to say about other people, other friends or family members who might see something familiar in his story.
[00:11:13] Mara Fregoso: Uh, if you see something, say something, you know. Um, it's, it's kind of in those terms. You know if, if you're kind of, if you have concerns about somebody being used, you know or, or taken advantage of, um, because I believe Mr. Steele had friends that were concerned, um, but they did come forward too, so, you know, they, they, they were trying their best to, to find out what was going on and stuff like that, like you've just got to talk to somebody. You've got to express the concern, and do your best to be listened to.
[00:11:47] Bob: Brent's advice is to prepare early for care when people might find themselves in a situation where they can't care for themselves.
[00:11:55] Brent Smith: Um, the way to avoid this in a, in a, in a family situation, or um, you know in a, in a marriage where, you know, is often is the case, um, you know one partner is a lot more financially literate and a lot more of a strong personality than the other partner, and it's, it's as if um, in that kind of situation you can kind of see something like this coming if um, when the more financially literate partner passes away, um, the uh the re--, the living partner doesn't have a lot of um, support, you know, trustworthy support from family members or from professionals. And so um, in a, in a situation like this, you know, it would have been better for Steve to probably have a professional involved um, before, you know, perhaps even to have granted um, somebody that's trustworthy or an attorney or an accountant.
[00:12:58] Bob: Paul Greenwood has seen hundreds of cases like Steve's. A native of the UK, and once a barrister there, he moved to America as an adult and for two decades he ran the Elder Abuse Prosecution Unit in San Diego. Unfortunately, caregiver situations that might sound normal, even healthy at first, can go sideways fast.
[00:13:19] Paul Greenwood: Well, it happens a lot. In fact, just uh as an example I, I just had a call this morning from an old friend, uh worried about his 94-year-old mother in North Carolina because caregivers have moved in on her, and there’s some red flags that are going on. It is a common, unfortunately, um, event. And um, whether or not it starts out as being on the up and up, but unfortunately there are predators out there who are very savvy at recognizing uh potential uh susceptible victims, victims who live alone, victims who don’t have family, poss-, possibly living nearby, and they see this as a golden opportunity.
[00:14:05] Bob: A real missing cog in Steve's story, and in many stories like this, is a call from a concerned neighbor, Paul said.
[00:14:13] Paul Greenwood: Well there are pretty consistent red flags that go on in these kinds of cases and, and the first one that seems to pop up is isolation, and that’s exactly what happened in Steve’s case. Now, this is where we have to spend so much time doing community awareness outreach because that’s, that’s exactly who, who I need to be reaching, is, is, is neighbors in the neighborhood. Look out for your elderly friends who live down the street, but you haven’t seen them for a while, and you know there’s a caregiver who's come into the uh scene.
[00:14:43] Bob: It might seem like a big step to call the authorities in a situation like this, but reporting a worrisome situation is not all that hard, Paul says.
[00:14:51] Bob: What, what kind of names should people look out for when they open up Google to say I want to report something. What should they look for?
[00:14:58] Paul Greenwood: Well, well they should certainly look up uh, elder abuse reporting line, and most states actually recognize the term Adult Protective Services. You know, I’m on the board of the National Adult Protective Services, and, and they have a presence, I think, in almost every single state, certainly in Oregon where uh, this crime occurred. So people uh can very easily find out the phone number, and hopefully it’s a 24/7 phone number that they can call, and again, they could just leave the information on the phone call without giving their um, identity. And the great thing is that when Adult Protective Services responds to these calls, and make an unannounced visit to Steve’s house, they are not going to tell Steve or Elizabeth, anyone living at the house, who called them. I mean because of confidentiality. So there’s a certain protection of identity when you make that call.
[00:16:04] Bob: Those calls are hard to make, right? I mean, people don't want to get involved or they don't want to, you know, create some kind of a police file or whatnot. Well why would someone hesitate do you think to do that?
[00:16:15] Paul Greenwood: And that's why we need to make it clear to people that unless they are what is called a mandated reporter, um, which is typically certain um, professional uh agencies or groups you know like doctors, nurses, uh paramedics, caregivers; unless you’re one of those, if you’re just a, a regular neighbor, you don’t have to give your name, just, you can remain anonymous, but just make that call, you know. You know we produced a poster many years ago in my DA’s office, we called it, “Silence isn’t Golden.” And, and that is the problem these days that people feel, well I don’t want to get involved, they’ll drag me into court, and no, not necessarily. Um, we all have a civic duty to look out for our less fortunate neighbors.
[00:17:02] Bob: Paul thought the system really let Steve down too. He spent a lot of his career training prosecutors and judges and cops to understand that these cases involve real crimes, even if they have traditionally been viewed as domestic civil matters.
[00:17:18] Paul Greenwood: I, and I'm still um, dealing with those same issues in, in a teaching format now to law enforcement, to prosecutors, and Adult Protection Services. For example, with law enforcement, I would, and, and I've had the utmost respect for law enforcement all my life, in fact I almost became a police officer myself, and, and but yet, there were so many times when I would uh, want to know about an investigation and I would be told by law enforcement, oh, don’t worry about that, uh because that's just a civil matter. And I would go, hold on. Uh, excuse me, but I don’t think you’re the right person to tell me whether it’s a civil matter or not. You are great at uh doing certain things. You, you are trained to put handcuffs on people, you are trained to do a hot stop on a vehicle, but you are not qualified to tell me or any other prosecutor that quote, "this is just a civil matter."
[00:18:15] Bob: And sometimes the cases can be hard to prosecute because law enforcement can take the attitude that nothing was stolen. There is no dangerous weapon. But in fact, the criminals might use the most dangerous weapon of all.
[00:18:28] Paul Greenwood: A judge would look at me and he'd go, “Well, where’s the crime? Because didn’t she hand it over to him voluntarily?” And there would be this sometimes misconception about what true consent really is. Just because somebody didn’t steal from you by using a gun or a knife or a bomb to threaten you, it doesn’t mean that it’s not a crime. Because so many perpetrators of financial elder exploitation don’t use weapons, they don’t use violence, they use chocolates, they use perfume, they use charisma, they use charm, and that’s what I had to try to persuade judges.
[00:19:08] Bob: Still, the most important thing is that people have their ears and eyes open for a situation like what happened to Steve Steele because he certainly wasn't the first victim, and he won't be the last.
[00:19:18] Paul Greenwood: I just think this is, presents itself as a perfect teaching scenario for, for law enforcement all over this country. Because this scenario, I can guarantee is happening right now somewhere else in the United States.
[00:19:35] Bob: And Paul thinks it really is possible that much of this sad story could have been avoided if someone had made the right call at the right time.
[00:19:44] Paul Greenwood: I wish somebody would have made that first call to Adult Protective Services immediately, uh because I think had that call been made, I, I think that probably the rest of the scenario would not have occurred, because it would have at least uh given Elizabeth a very clear message; um, “you’re being watched, and you’re on our radar now.”
[00:20:08] Bob: And here's another critical point from our friends at AARP. It's a really good idea to consider making arrangements for a Durable Financial Power of Attorney so someone else can manage your money and property if you, at some point, aren't able to. It is critical that you choose someone you know well and trust who is organized, understands your needs, and what's important to you, and puts your needs first. It's a legal document, and each state has its own laws, but you can get free legal help with a Durable Financial Power of Attorney agreement at eldercare.acl.gov. That middle part is Alpha, Charlie, Lima. ACL. So eldercare.acl.gov, or call 1-800-677-1116. That's 1-800-677-1116.
[00:21:08] Bob: Mara, Steve's defense attorney still feels angry about the case, and about the idea that ultimately Steve Steele spent more time in jail than Elizabeth Avila did.
[00:21:18] Mara Fregoso: Very, very angry. Very angry. Um, well, I mean like I said, I followed, I checked in, I followed it until Ms. Avila pleaded, so um, yeah. I didn't have to. I did it 'cause I was angry. 'Cause I, I was disgusted.
[00:21:41] Bob: Brent wonders what might have happened if Mara hadn't listened to Steve, hadn't spent all that time investigating the situation. And if Steve hadn't continued to fight for his rights.
[00:21:52] Brent Smith: I, I credit, you know, Steve was in a, because they put him in jail and, and look, if Steve, if Steve would have died, this never would have came to light, you know, let's remember that, and there are any number of, of um, well there's, I'm sure, many um, times where an elderly person is financially or physically abused, and they die of a natural disease or due to a lack of care. And the abuse never comes to light. And so, um, I'm happy that Elizabeth Avila was convicted of a crime. I'm happy that there was a clear court record. I hope that it um, I hope that some more knowledge about this issue and, and how it's resolved will, you know, cause those um, bad actors to think twice about, you know, taking financial advantage of an elderly person.
[00:22:40] Bob: In fact, Brent thinks Steve probably wouldn't have made it without Mara.
[00:22:45] Bob: I, I don't know if he's told you this directly, but he told me, he thinks that you saved Steve's life.
[00:22:50] Mara Fregoso: Um, I did hear that. I, I don't know if I did, honestly. Um, but yeah.
[00:23:00] Bob: Well, important people seem to think that, that you did, and I hope you feel very proud of that.
[00:23:05] Mara Fregoso: I do. I do. Um, I always wonder too, you know, what's going on with Mr. Steele.
[00:23:11] Bob: What's going on with Mr. Steele now? Well, he still has trouble getting around, but he is well enough to have breakfast or lunch with friends every day.
[00:23:19] Brent Smith: Uh, Steve's doing pretty well, and uh he lives in an apartment. He has a little bit of care. It's, it's more a situation where he can easily get the, the care that he needs and he doesn't have to um, maintain um, a uh, a, a large home. Um, you know when he and I went through this, it was, there were times when we weren't sure how it was going to turn out, and what we would talk about is uh making sure his uh motorized wheelchair is well setup and making sure he had the money to go uh eat breakfast and lunch at Shari's with his friends, you know, at the restaurant there in Hermiston. And so, you know, he was pretty hap--, he's a very social person and he was pretty, pretty happy to have um, to have some money and to live right in town in an apartment and um, you know I, I think he's a lot happier than he was when all of this was going on, and certainly a lot happier than he was when he was in jail, but he did love the Avilas. You know, so there's that own, as misguided as that whole relationship was, there was a whole mourning process over that, over those, those relationships which really became like family relationships for him.
[00:24:30] Bob: You know, and it still, also, I'm sure it stings that he lost the, you know the, what a loving gift that annuity was, and that, for that to have disappeared. I'm sure that really stings.
[00:24:41] Brent Smith: Yeah, and I, and that was very smart of Patricia, and I think, but it's clear that Patricia was the, the, the um, you know, financially um, dominant one in their relationship, and as far as avoiding this, you know if, if as a couple you think there may be a problem, get those professionals involved, you know, before somebody passes away so that there's some records of what the plan is, and so you have somebody reach out to. You know, Steve could have reached out to that, you know, lawyer or accountant that had met with them, um, for some advice, and he probably would have, right, before he deeded all of his property to um, Elizabeth.
[00:25:22] Bob: Steve really does have a happy outlook now, and he's been able to put a lot of this behind him.
[00:25:27] Steve Steele: Oh yes, I, I'm doing great. I've got wonderful friends. They're so good to me. The best friends I ever had, them and Brent Smith. He, he's been wonderful to me as well. I'm really grateful to everyone. I...
[00:25:43] Bob: Yeah, you know I just, it's hard for me to, to, I just have one, one more thing. It's just hard for me to think about you spent 20 years of your life taking care of people who needed help, because they were older, and then when it was your turn, someone took advantage of you. That just seems like a terrible irony. Do you ever think about that?
[00:26:04] Steve Steele: Well it, it, I've spent so many nights laying awake thinking of all this. Didn't dwell on, on the good I did for other people. I, I felt it was our duty as fellow humans to help one another. I feel like it's our, our duty to do that, and if I can help somebody, I got so much gratification about being able to take care of people. I, I don't think I lost anything during all that time I took care of people. I have wonderful memories and wonderful people that I took care of.
[00:26:44] Bob: It just seems unfair that when it was your turn that people didn't take care of you. That just seems unfair to me.
[00:26:49] Steve Steele: Yes, well that's, that's the thing of it is that be sure before you trust somebody. Don't put your uh, life in the hands of somebody that's going to abuse you. Like I said, get professional help before you make decisions because uh, you're going to do the wrong thing. There's too many people out there ready to help you do the wrong thing.
[00:27:20] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Producer, Brook Ellis; Associate Producer and Researcher, Megan DeMagnus; and, of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
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