Retired Los Angeles Police Department Captain Glenn R. Ackerman on California probate judges failing to protect his abused, 82-year-old mother
I discovered that my then-82-year-old mother’s life savings—about $150,000—had been stolen by a relative. My mother, Jonnye Ketchum, was left penniless, except for a $900 per month pension; she was fortunate in that her home, in Camarillo, California, was fully paid for.
I immediately filed an elder abuse crime report with the Camarillo station of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, naming the relative, whom I shall call the “perp” for brevity, as the suspect. The detective assigned to the case had never before handled an elder abuse case and literally had no idea how to proceed. As I was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Elder Abuse Unit and a former commanding officer of the Financial Crimes Division, of which the Elder Abuse Unit is a part, I was able to bring in two expert detectives from that unit to assist in the investigation.
Their tests and interviews of Mrs. Ketchum revealed that she was suffering from significant mental impairment and that the perp had obtained her savings through an ongoing pattern of threats and browbeating; even as the investigation was being conducted, there was evidence that the perp was helping herself to the bulk of Mrs. Ketchum’s pension. The perp admitted to receiving large sums of money from Mrs. Ketchum, but characterized these takings as freely proffered “gifts” and “loans.”
When the case was submitted to the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office for filing, it was summarily rejected on the basis of a seemingly willful failure to understand the fundamental elder abuse concepts of diminished capacity and undue influence. In effect, Mrs. Ketchum was deemed competent to divest herself of every asset and die in the gutter.
I told my mother at the time that since she had only one remaining asset, her home, that would be the perp’s next target.
My prediction was realized. I received a call from my mother telling me that the perp, using a power of attorney that she had coerced my mother into signing, was selling my mother’s house out from under her; my mother told me she loved her home and begged me to stop the perp from selling it.
This time I simultaneously filed an elder abuse crime report and retained private counsel, probate attorney Marc Hankin.
What ensued over the next several years (Mrs. Ketchum passed away in October of 2003) was as bizarre as anything Alice encountered after her trip down the rabbit-hole.
Once again I was able to bring in an expert detective from the LAPD Elder Abuse Unit to assist in the criminal investigation while Mr. Hankin pursued civil remedies. We found that Mrs. Ketchum’s home was already in escrow and that the perp had succeeded in getting herself appointed temporary conservator over Mrs. Ketchum in order to assuage the real estate brokerage firm’s mounting concern over Mrs. Ketchum’s continuing refusal to acquiesce to the sale of her home.
As Mrs. Ketchum’s home was already in escrow, we were unable to prevent its sale. During a probate court hearing in Ventura County Superior Court in early April 2000, the judge denied a request by the perp’s attorney that she be allowed to wire the proceeds from the sale of Mrs. Ketchum’s home to Nevada so that she (the perp) could use the money to buy herself a large home there. The judge instead ordered the perp to place the funds in a blocked account.
Wire transfer records obtained in the continuing investigation revealed that the day after the hearing, the perp defied the judge’s order and wired the money (all of it) to an escrow account in Nevada. For this defiance she ultimately received a 30-day jail sentence in a Ventura County criminal court and was ordered to repay the $7,000 it had cost Mrs. Ketchum’s estate to retrieve her money from the escrow account in Nevada.
This was the only significant sanction that the perp was ever to receive for her victimization of Mrs. Ketchum.
Mr. Hankin was quickly able to break the perp’s conservatorship over Mrs. Ketchum; no doubt he was aided in this effort by the investigation’s revelation that the perp was a convicted felon. Mr. Hankin eventually succeeded in having me appointed permanent conservator for my mother. This was literally the last success we ever had in securing justice for Mrs. Ketchum.
The probate court in Ventura County Superior Court appointed a geriatric psychiatrist, the highly respected Dr. Roland Jacobs, to assess Mrs. Ketchum’s competency.
After an appropriate interval, he produced a 28-page report in which he concluded that Mrs. Ketchum was significantly demented due to Alzheimer’s syndrome; she had suffered from such dementia for several years. Most tellingly, Dr. Jacobs concluded, without reservation, that the perp had used undue influence to steal Mrs. Ketchum’s life savings.
Meanwhile, back in the probate court, the perp and her attorneys were doing almost as they pleased. The perp lied, stonewalled, and obfuscated with impunity. Mr. Hankin’s efforts to get the court to enforce its own orders were routinely ignored or denied. A specific example: The court ordered the perp to produce a detailed financial accounting for the period during which Mrs. Ketchum’s savings were stolen. The accounting was never produced. When Mr. Hankin introduced a motion for sanctions, it was denied. This happened over, and over, and over again.
After I became conservator for my mother, I found in her personal belongings some $60,000 in checks that she had issued to the perp; they were all endorsed by the perp. The checks were duly catalogued, annotated, and introduced to the court. When the perp was deposed concerning the checks, she claimed never to have laid eyes on any of them. The judge found nothing amiss in this contradiction.
The LAPD Elder Abuse Unit detective re-interviewed Mrs. Ketchum as part of his investigation and secured a videotape of her quietly sobbing, while stating, in between sobs, that she hadn’t wanted to give the perp her life savings, but that the perp had browbeat her until she couldn’t resist anymore.
The detective also located a witness—a relative—who stated that during the time the perp was selling Mrs. Ketchum’s house out from under her, she (the perp) constantly overmedicated Mrs. Ketchum with tranquilizers to keep her under control. The witness also stated that the perp had created an endless-loop audiotape that she forced Mrs. Ketchum to listen to hour after hour. On the tape, the perp’s voice told Mrs. Ketchum that she didn’t have a home anymore, it had been sold, and she had better shut up about it. The detective had videotaped the interview, and it was entered into evidence.
With this evidence in hand, Mr. Hankin and I pursued justice for Mrs. Ketchum across two venues (Ventura County Superior Court and Los Angeles County Superior Court), multiple judges, some 40 hearings, and the accumulation of $300,000 in legal fees by Mr. Hankin, almost all of it pro bono.
And what did we accomplish? After achieving the very basic goals of rescuing the proceeds from the sale of Mrs. Ketchum’s home from the clutches of the perp and having me appointed conservator for Mrs. Ketchum—nothing. Absolutely nothing. The perp did receive a 30-day jail sentence, but that was for a contempt so egregious it couldn’t possibly be ignored. It was as if, having saved what remained of Mrs. Ketchum’s estate and appointed an honest conservator, the courts decided that their responsibility had ended; no need to trouble themselves further.
The attitude of the probate courts toward Mrs. Ketchum’s victimization was nicely summed up by a probate judge at one of our last hearings. Mr. Hankin stood before the judge with the $60,000 in checks in hand, with the videotape of Mrs. Ketchum sobbing out her story of despair, the eyewitness account of the perp’s abusive coercion of Mrs. Ketchum, and with Dr. Jacob’s report naming the perp as the criminal who had relieved Mrs. Ketchum of her life savings. Mr. Hankin’s plea was simple. He only wanted justice for Mrs. Ketchum. And the judge’s response? “But Mr. Hankin, parents give their grown children large sums of money all the time. That doesn’t constitute a crime.”
We received the same degree of justice on the criminal side. The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office rejected our case, stating that we hadn’t produced sufficient evidence to convince them that a crime of elder abuse had occurred.
Alice would have understood. She might even have applauded.
[Written by retired Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Captain Glenn R. Ackerman, who co-founded LAPD’s Elder Abuse Unit and who later served as a devoted conservator and advocate of his elderly mother abused by a relative]