MY VERO: Preying on the sick and lonely in nursing homes

As thefts go, this particular crime – stealing from a nursing home patient with Alzheimer’s and dementia – was about as despicable as it gets. And, yes, a crime was committed.

A 70-year-old man doesn’t plead “no contest” to a felony grand-theft charge and agree to pay $20,000 to a dead woman’s estate if he’s completely innocent.

Still, William Larry Russell, who rents a home in Castaway Cove, did not plead guilty. He didn’t admit to stealing anything.

He didn’t need to.

In fact, Circuit Judge Robert Pegg agreed to withhold any adjudication of guilt in accepting the plea agreement worked out between Russell’s lawyer, Bobby Guttridge, and Assistant State Attorney Brian Workman.

Instead, Russell was placed on probation for 18 months and required to repay $20,000 of the $118,000 he allegedly stole from a Vero Beach nursing home patient who suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

And Russell might already have satisfied the terms of his probation.

“Once he pays back the $20,000, the probation can be terminated,” Workman said. “And I think he’s already done that.”

Therefore, assuming he has paid the $20,000, Russell is a free man – free to reside at home, free to travel, free to live the rest of his life as if none of this had ever happened. He’s not even considered a convicted felon.

And, according to our well-intended-but-imperfect legal system, justice has been served.

So why does this feel so wrong?

Why do I feel as if this elderly and isolated woman, with no family members nearby, was taken by an opportunist who worked at a local funeral home and befriended her after her husband died?

Why do I feel as if Russell got away with something?

Certainly, Sheriff’s Office investigators had built a case, tracking ATM withdrawals from the woman’s PNC Bank account as far back as December 2007 and continuing through August 2010.

In his report, Sheriff’s Detective Lee Evans stated that withdrawals from the woman’s account totaled $39,000 in 2008, $48,000 in 2009 and $24,000 in 2010.

“She made Mr. Russell the person to take care of her financial obligations,” he wrote.

Workman said staff members at the Royal Palm Convalescent Center became suspicious when the woman was unable to pay her bills because her bank account didn’t have enough funds. They then notified the Sheriff’s Office, which arrested Russell in April 2012, after learning of his relationship with the woman.

“He claimed she would ask him to get money from the ATM and he’d either give it to her or take her shopping, where she would buy expensive items,” Workman said. “Thing is, when investigators went to the nursing home, the other people there said they never saw her with any of this stuff.”

So what happened to the money?

“We don’t know,” Workman said. “That was one of the problems we had with the case.”

The biggest problem, though, was the absence of a victim who could testify against Russell: The woman died before the case was resolved.

“But even if she were still alive, we don’t know if she would’ve been competent enough to testify,” Workman said. “She might not have been allowed to testify, given her mental state. So he’d get to tell his side of the story and we wouldn’t have anyone to tell the other side.

“That’s the sad thing about these types of cases,” Workman said. “People get older and some of them don’t have any family watching out for them … They need to be careful, because there are people who will take advantage of them.

“We in law enforcement do what we can, but, honestly, by the time the money is stolen, it’s too late.”

Preying on the elderly is despicable.

Preying on an elderly woman suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is especially heinous.

Preying on an elderly woman suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease – a lonely and isolated woman who trusts you – is deserving of a fate far worse than probation.

Our legal system had its say. We can only hope another judgment from a higher court is coming.

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