RENO, NV - Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks says elder exploitation is not reported and not well understood, and victims don't know where to turn. The crime is where child abuse was 30 years ago. Most seniors you talk to say they can't believe they were duped.
“I never cheated anyone. I never cheated anyone in my life," said Leonard Onesty
A 91-year-old veteran lost his leg in 2009. That's when Shirley Crawford came into his life. A caretaker, she would embezzle $119,000 from Onesty. She would eventually leave him stranded at the VA Medical Center for a follow-up appointment.
In Washoe District Court she would not make eye contact with Onesty, and could barely get out these words at the judge's urging.
“I'd like to apologize to you," Crawford said as she turned to Onesty in District Court.
Not much consolidation for an honest man left with only $60 in his bank account. Onesty would die just 3 months after Crawford's sentencing.
“They can be a handyman, caretaker, nurse, sometimes family member, friend, it can be anybody,” says Roy Stralla, Washoe County Deputy District Attorney.
Stralla has handled his share of elder exploitation cases in his 20-year-plus career. He tells us about Steve Miller, who stopped a retired school teacher in a CVS parking lot in town. Miller told her he could repair her broken bumper. Within two weeks Miller asked to borrow $6,000, then $15,000, later $35,000, and then $70,000.
“He faked his death,” Stralla says of Miller.
In all, Miller would get away with nearly $400,000 before his arrest and conviction.
“It's satisfying to help people get these parasites out of their lives,” says Stralla.
But sometimes victims are out more than just money. Stralla points to the Sharnel Silvey case.
“That case was one of the most satisfying I've had as a prosecutor in my 20 years. Because I think in her own mind, she believed she didn't do anything wrong. And the jury disagreed with that,” says Stralla.
Silvey would befriend 70-year-old Leonard Gunderson at their apartment complex in Reno. He eventually signed over power of attorney to Silvey.
“That was the biggest mistake he could make because, basically, she took all of his money. She was suppose to take care of him. She let him die on his couch in his apartment in his own feces. He looked like a prisoner of war when he was dead, just skin and bones,' says Stralla.
“If you find that a parent, a senior, has formed a close relationship to what you would consider a stranger, they have never come up before. You should make some inquiries, gentle inquiries. By the way, is this some I should know about?” says Keith Tierney, and attorney with Civil Rights for Seniors.
Tierney handles cases he calls financial abuse of the elderly. He says inquiries into a senior's life can look intrusive, but relatives and friends need to go over finances with seniors every year.
“If there is more than a year void, the person becomes more ripe for exploitation or financial abuse to occur. Because no one knows what is happening,” says Tierney.
Tierney says steps like power of attorney, or getting two signatures on a checking account, are good ways to ward of predators. Because as he and others know, swindlers will go the path of least resistance.
“With these criminals, they take all the money they can. There is nothing left to take, they move on---looking for the next victim," says Stralla.
Seniors are embarrassed about being financially exploited and often don't report the crime. Sadly, that allows the culprits to go after other victims. And with our aging population, there will be more for the taking.