After 72-year-old Steve Steele’s life partner passes away, his housekeeper, Elizabeth, offers to work as his caregiver. Over time, Elizabeth takes over Steve’s finances, even persuading him to deed her his homes. It all comes to a head one Christmas Eve, when Elizabeth accuses Steve, who can hardly stand or walk, of assault and the police cart him off to jail for months. When the public defender’s investigator meets Steve, though, she quickly senses this is elder abuse. The judge agrees and releases Steve, but now he faces an even bigger battle: How does he get his homes back? And will Elizabeth be held accountable for her crimes?
[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:02] Bob: What was it like that first night in jail? What were you thinking?
[00:00:06] I just couldn't face the whole thing. It was horrible. I mean uh, just my world just everything was turned upside down.
[00:00:17] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Today we bring you the story of a man who seemed to have lost everything. His love, his home, all his money, even his freedom. But someone listened to Steve Steele when he hit rock bottom and probably saved his life. Here's our story: The Courage of Steele.
[00:00:48] Bob: It was Christmas Eve, and Steve Steele was in a bad place. Only a few months earlier, he lost the love of his life. Struggling to get around with a walker or sometimes a wheelchair, at age 72 he'd accepted live-in help from a caregiver couple. But now, he thinks they're treating him badly. He doesn't understand how badly, not yet. But his situation is bad enough that he drank drain cleaner and tried to commit suicide a few weeks earlier. Back home, but now feeling trapped in a little shed built for him on the side of his property in this small eastern Oregon town of Hermiston, without a thing to celebrate on Christmas Eve, there comes a loud bang that was about to make his life even worse.
[00:01:36] 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?" I was really upset at that point. And I didn't know what I did. And, and anyway, this sheriff's deputy came in and said I supposedly attacked Elizabeth.
[00:01:56] Bob: Elizabeth Avila was Steve Steele's live-in caregiver. She claimed Steve attacked her with his cane and left her with bruises.
[00:02:05] Steve Steele: The deputy believed her, their story that I did this, and I was uh taken away to jail.
(bars slamming closed)
[00:02:14] Bob: Steve Steele's life has had three acts, at least so far. His first act growing up in Eastern Oregon where you can almost say he lived in the trees.
[00:02:25] Steve Steele: The place where I was born and raised was right on the edge of the forest, Walt Whitman National Forest. And my dad was a millworker, logger, farmer, and we lived in a little 17-acre farm, right against the forest. And so, I remember when I was about 8 years old going up with my dad when he fell a tree, and uh, that's what I wanted to do, soon as I got old enough, I wanted to get a saw and go up on the hill and be a log cutter.
[00:03:00] Bob: But in 1970s, after 20 years working in the trees, there was a terrible accident.
[00:03:06] Steve Steele: Yeah, I uh got crushed between a, a rubber tired skidder and a, a big log.
[00:03:13] Bob: Oh my God, that sounds terrifying.
[00:03:15] Steve Steele: Well, I thought I was dead. I thought I was dead. And I could hear all the muscles and the ligaments and everything ripping in my back.
[00:03:25] Bob: So that was the end of Act One. No more felling trees. But as he recovered, a miracle, Steve says, he prayed a lot and decided he'd spend the rest of his life helping others. So Act Two, he became and elder caregiver.
[00:03:41] Steve Steele: I was a CNA, a certified nurse’s assistant. I went into people's homes and lived right with them, and took care of all their needs, whatever they needed, I cooked, I nursed them, I mowed their lawn, I cleaned the house. I did everything. Took them on medical appointments and whatever was needed.
[00:04:01] Bob: I bet they were very lucky to have you.
[00:04:03] Steve Steele: Well I was very lucky to have met all the wonderful people. I, I loved all my people that I took care of.
[00:04:11] Bob: How many people did you live with, do you think, through all those years?
[00:04:16] Steve Steele: Oh gee, 'cause some of them lasted quite a few years. I would say probably 10, 12.
[00:04:25] Bob: Wow. So that's like 10 or 12 families you had.
[00:04:27] Steve Steele: Yeah. I was kind of like a chameleon. I just kind of blended in and be part of their family. They'd become my grandparents and I'd become their grandchild. I mean I, I cried at many funerals. I cried at many funerals.
[00:04:42] Bob: Oh my God. Well what a beautiful calling though.
[00:04:45] Steve Steele: Well, that was my ministry, the way I felt about it. Since I become a Christian, I wanted to dedicate my life to helping people.
[00:04:55] Bob: Steve was also lucky enough during Act Two that he found the love of his life. He spent a couple of decades swapping stories and sharing everything with Patricia. She took care of the finances, Steve took care of the patients, and then in September 2016, another tragedy struck.
[00:05:13] Steve Steele: I was out at the garden one day, and my wife come out of the house and came by where I was at, and she said she was going to go to Hermiston and to buy some groceries at Safeways. Well, I quit puttering around in the garden and went in after a while. It seemed like she had been gone a while, and I was setting in there wondering where she was. I tried calling her phone, but I didn't get no answer. And then all of a sudden, I had a, a knock on the front door and this gentleman came and he says, I, I got some bad news for you. Your wife was in a bad accident.
[00:05:47] Bob: Patricia survived the crash, but was badly hurt. Then a series of other health problems complicated her recovery. But even as she was in failing health, Patricia was still taking care of Steve. She left everything she had to Steve in her will, including a $1000 a month annuity payment; the end result of the car accident. And she started to pester Steve about getting his own caregiver to help around the house in case Patricia wouldn't be able to take care of him anymore. Sadly, she was right to prepare for that. By mid-2016, doctors told Patricia she didn't have long to live.
[00:06:24] Steve Steele: Well, she came home and uh, she wanted to come to home to die, she said, so uh, I needed some help, because at that point I was confined to an electric wheelchair, a walker. And so I answered the ad out of the want ad paper...
[00:06:40] Bob: Elizabeth and Pedro Avila had placed that ad and arrived just as Patricia was nearing the end.
[00:06:46] Steve Steele: They showed up, and I thought they was real nice, and my wife passed away in about 10 days. They seemed so nice that uh, you know, I, uh, I called them when she passed away to tell them and, and they come over and hugged me, and all this stuff. Well, they said that after she was gone, they said, we want you to come live at our house because you can be our grandfather.
[00:07:13] Bob: And that begins Act Three.
[00:07:20] Bob: Brent Smith is Steve Steele's lawyer.
[00:07:22] Brent Smith: After Patricia dies, Steve who is, I think 72 or 73 at the time, he has a lot of physical problems. He has to get around with a walker or a wheelchair, so he's got some health problems, and he contacts the cleaning service to ask for assistance, and Pedro Avila and Elizabeth Avila come out to his house and help him clean it up.
[00:07:50] Bob: At first the arrangement seems to work for everyone.
[00:07:53] Brent Smith: Later on, Steve says that Patricia had told him that, you know, he was going to inherit a good amount of money from her because she had written him into her will, and that he should find a deserving family to help support. And Steve’s a very loving and giving person, and he was very lonely. His longtime partner had just passed away. He was living in this home by himself. And so, you know, it's really both sides are ingratiating themselves to the other.
[00:08:25] Bob: As time goes by, Steve moves to a smaller, not as nice home he also owns a few miles away and lets the Avila and their family stay in his real home. It was Steve's way of caring for the Avilas, Steve's way of honoring Patricia's wish that he find a family to care for.
[00:08:42] Brent Smith: This is what Steve wanted to do at the time. You know, essentially Steve loves the Avilas. He's happy to support them, and they are going to care for him, and Elizabeth is going to bring him lunch and that sort of thing. And that's kind of the plan at that point, but it starts to deteriorate almost immediately.
[00:09:03] Bob: There is conflict over the quality of care Steve is getting and over money issues. Within six months, Steve grants Elizabeth Power of Attorney, and her name gets added to Steve's bank accounts. Elizabeth is in charge of Steve's life now.
[00:09:18] Brent Smith: Elizabeth is providing some care for Steve. He is getting bathed on a somewhat regular basis and there are some meals coming. He's very frustrated with the, the type of care he's getting from Pedro and Elizabeth, and he says things to them about it. So there is some conflict between them, but again, he's completely out of control, right, he has no control over his own affairs at this point.
[00:09:41] Bob: And there's something else going on. Steve begins expressing romantic feelings for Elizabeth, even writing her love letters. He says she was very flirtatious. Steve's lawyer says the elderly man was experiencing a lot of complex feelings.
[00:09:57] Brent Smith: Steve sometimes would talk about Elizabeth Avila as if she was his long, lost daughter. You know there was a little bit of delusional thinking happening. Now Steve's in his 70s and he has these um, physical problems getting around, and Elizabeth showered Steve with attention, and Steve liked it. And so, that becomes part of the story.
[00:10:21] Bob: There are different versions of what else happened between September 2016 when the Avilas met Steve, and Christmas Eve 2017 when Steve hears that knock on the door. But there are pictures of Elizabeth with bruises on her face, and police show up and take Steve into custody.
[00:10:38] Brent Smith: Steve is arrested on Christmas Eve of 2017. He is lodged in the Umatilla County Jail, and on December 27th of 2017, he is indicted by a grand jury on an 8-count indictment; 6 felonies, 2 misdemeanors. The alleged crimes are assault in the second degree, unlawful use of a weapon, coercion, menacing, and attempted sexual abuse. The attempted sexual abuse and coercion charges are related to Steve in writing, propositioning Elizabeth. And so Steve is in the jail.
[00:11:13] Bob: What was it like that first night in jail? What were you thinking?
[00:11:16] Steve Steele: It was horrible. I mean uh, just my world just everything was turned upside-down.
[00:11:21] Bob: His first visitor is Mara Fregoso, an investigator for the Umatilla County Public Defender's Office. At this point, Steve has no money, that's why he's assigned a public defender. She says, he seems really unhealthy and confused.
[00:11:37] Mara Fregoso: So when we get assigned to a case, we usually see the client within 24 hours of being assigned to it. That's normally me; I usually go out to the jail, I meet the person, go over what the charges are, get basic information like where they live, contact phone numbers, get a brief description of what the situation was or what they're being charged with. Once I get that information, I I do a quick report, and that gets passed along to the attorney that is assigned to them.
[00:12:08] Bob: And this sounds like pretty hard work. I mean it's probably, a lot of times it's probably kind of the stories are sad or depressing and frustrating, right?
[00:12:16] Mara Fregoso: Well, yes. Um, so they're sad and, and it depends on, on the individual, you know, sometimes you will have clients that are mad and angry, and they don't want to see you, or they refuse to talk to you. Obviously, you can't really do anything there. And sometimes you have clients that are upset, and you know they're crying out of control and it's just kind of difficult. You don't know what you're walking into when you walk in to that visit.
[00:12:43] Bob: But what she walked into that day to meet Steve, well it struck her as strange, right away.
[00:12:49] Mara Fregoso: When I originally met him, Mr. Steele is older, so when he walked in, it was kind of surprising as to what his charges were, and why he was in there just because he was an older fellow. If I remember correctly, he walks or walked in with a walker. So somebody that's charged with an assault 2 charge, it's like what really happened? This person needs help with mobility, right. So talking to him, there was a little bit of a hunch as to is there something wrong with him, because he didn't seem to remember what the incident was or what happened. Like he didn't know why he was there. So when somebody doesn't know why they're in jail, sometimes they tell you, I don't know why, and they really do know what happened. But with his case, because he is, was older, the question was, was it some sort of form of dementia that wasn't diagnosed yet? I mean what was the issue?
[00:13:49] Bob: But one of your first impressions was, here's a man with a walker; how could he have committed a serious assault.
[00:13:54] Mara Fregoso: Right. So what's the real story? So when I go in and I see somebody, I am only given what they're being charged with. I'm not told anything else. I don't know anything else. I don't know, I don't have the police reports. I don't have any of that. So that's why, when I go in, I talk to them, and I get like that basic information. I get their side of the story. So at the point when I met Mr. Steele is I'm getting his side of the story as to why he's there. So I didn't know any details at that point.
[00:14:24] Bob: And it sounds like it was hard to get his side of the story because a lot of what he said was, I don't remember, or I don't know, right?
[00:14:29] Mara Fregoso: Right. Right.
[00:14:31] Bob: But the one message she gets from him over and over is... "Well, if they say I did it, I must have done it."
[00:14:38] Bob: So what did you have by the time you left that first meeting with him?
[00:14:40] Mara Fregoso: Like I said, basic information, that the reason he was in there is that he thought he, from what he was told is that he had hit Ms. Avila, but he didn't recall it. So he wasn't really sure what happened. One of the things that he said was, "Well, if she says I did it, I must have." But when I left there, the initial visit, there wasn't anything else. At that point is when we start, I came back to the office, and I'm like, I think we need an evaluation.
[00:15:13] Bob: So she sends Steve for an evaluation by a psychologist. And she starts gathering paperwork on the case: the police report, the power of attorney, the financial records. Meanwhile, as the days go by, Steve starts to feel a little bit better, and he's able to talk a little bit more about everything.
[00:15:31] Mara Fregoso: Yeah, so he was starting to perk up. And you know we went into more, into detail like, you know, who are these people? Like how did he meet them? What is it that they did for him? Where was he living then when this incident happened, because that's also when I found out that he had a different home, but then that they had moved and they were going to all live together, so he was actually in a different location, but the Avilas had moved to this other location, like he ended up being moved out of his house, you know. And I'm like, it's not sounding like just at that point, when I started talking to him, after we got the evaluation is when I'm like, this doesn't sound right. None of this sounds right.
[00:16:13] Bob: None of this sounds right. But what's the real story? Weeks pass. Steve can't pay bail, so he's still in jail, and the Avilas still in his home, and Mara still doesn't have medical records from Elizabeth's injuries, so she has to subpoena them. And that's when the criminal case again Steve Steele takes a dramatic turn. On that Christmas Eve when Elizabeth Avila showed up at the hospital with injuries, she told doctors a very different story than she had told the sheriff's deputies.
[00:16:46] Mara Fregoso: She had reported that she was in a car accident instead of what she reported to the officer where she was hit with a cane.
[00:16:55] Meanwhile, county property records came in and showed that Steve had actually transferred ownership of his two homes to Elizabeth. In fact, the second property transfer was completed just a few days before the alleged assault. And there was something else, remember that annuity that Patricia had left for Steve to make sure he had a way to take care of himself? The cash value had been withdrawn, all $120,000.
[00:17:22] Bob: And, when the psychologist evaluation comes back, it says there is no evidence of dementia. Instead, it directly raises a possibility that Steve is a victim of elder abuse. Still, though Steve has been in jail for a couple of months now, the district attorney doesn't go down without a fight.
[00:17:41] Mara Fregoso: It's the DA that kept pushing. The DA at that point was adamant that the Avilas were "credible witnesses" is what her words were. I know that the DA's office here, you know, they stick to their guns, I guess you could say. The DA's office is there to protect the victims, or to be voices for the victims. There are victims out there, I just think that in this case, they had the wrong, the DA's office had the wrong victim.
[00:18:13] Bob: Eventually, three months after his incarceration, the public defender's office submits a 72-page motion for his release. It details everything; the real estate records, the car accident, the psychological exam, the money, and the judge agrees. Steve is free to go, almost immediately. As he walks out of the jail with help from a walker, Mara is struck by how different he appears than he did on their first meeting.
[00:18:41] Mara Fregoso: Initially, when I first seen Mr. Steele, and that, you know, I told you he walked in with the walker and stuff like that, he seemed very fragile. It's hard to explain it, and what I could say is from the time that I'd seen him in there when he first was in there to the day that he was released, it was, it was a big difference. Going in there, you know, he wasn't, he, I, I'm not a doctor, so I can't say he was like malnutrition or anything like that, but I kind of think he was. So I don't know if that affected his memory. I don't know if medical things that he was going through, if that would have caused anything, any of those kinds of issues.
[00:19:23] Bob: And just to be clear, it sounds like, I'm going to try to complete your thought and make sure I understood it, that after being in jail for three months, he actually looked healthier.
[00:19:32] Mara Fregoso: Yes.
[00:19:34] Bob: So whatever conditions he was living under, jail was better.
[00:19:39] Mara Fregoso: Yes. I honestly think that, I hate to say it, but that, I feel like if he would have stayed in the same situation that he was then, I don't think he would be here now.
[00:19:50] Bob: Another big difference, Steve Steele has a smile on his face.
[00:19:54] Mara Fregoso: Yes, I can't explain, I guess the joy like, that day, that's the day that I seen him, like I said, from the day that I seen him the first day in jail to that day, there was, I can't put it really in words, but the, the joy, the joy in his face, the color of his skin, like he was, he was different.
[00:20:18] Bob: It, it must have been amazing for him to have you believe him.
[00:20:22] Mara Fregoso: I'm sure. I don't know. I, I guess I never really asked him. I know that he was thankful. We did not hug because I was working. But I don't think he could find the word, I don't think he found the words to, I, I know that he was thankful, and I know, I know he did tell me I would give you a hug if you weren't working or something like that. Um...
[00:20:45] Bob: Oh my god, that's very sweet.
[00:20:47] Mara Fregoso: Yeah. Um, he wanted to, I, you could tell, but yeah. It warms your heart. That, that's the way I could explain it, like it warmed my heart.
[00:21:01] Bob: But now that Steve Steele is free, he has nowhere to go. He can't go home; the Avilas are living there. They legally own his home. His financial accounts are entangled with the Avilas. His annuity is gone. All his money is gone. So, what happens to Steve Steele and his caregivers next? That's next week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:21:31] 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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