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County trying to reclaim elderly woman's home in abuse case

February 10, 2001|By MARCY MISNER, Staff Writer

For the first time that officials in the county can remember, the county Public Administrator's Office and others in the county government are seeking to return ownership of a house to an elderly woman they think was victimized.

Since taking office in January 1999, county Public Administrator Norma Saikhon said her employees have learned of numerous cases of elder financial abuse in which an elderly person is being taken advantage of by someone else.

In one matter, Saikhon and the County Counsel's Office are alleging a Brawley real estate agent embroiled in a high-profile embezzlement case borrowed $65,000 from an 83-year-old Brawley woman and transferred ownership of the woman's house, all without her consent.

The public administrator is now handling the affairs for the Brawley woman, a longtime teacher.

The public administrator handles financial affairs of those unable to do so and the probate of estates of deceased people who don't have family connections. The office is responsible for finding survivors and heirs of the deceased. The public administrator also assumes the conservator/guardian role for people who cannot make decisions for themselves, which could include the elderly, mentally incompetent and physically disabled.

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Saikhon and her staff are taking a stand against those who would bilk elderly people of their life savings and assets. A two-day workshop sponsored by the Area Agency on Aging that ended Friday in the county's Health Department educated law enforcement officers and caretakers about what to look for in cases of elder financial abuse.

"At this point we'd like to have cooperation between all city police departments so they are able to investigate successfully, so the District Attorney's Office has the information they need to prosecute," Saikhon said.

Elder abuse cases are often difficult to prosecute because the elderly sometimes can't contribute much to their cases, particularly if they are ill or their memories are failing.

"We have to rely on witnesses," Saikhon said.

"We have found that the caretaker is often in a position of responsibility and trust. These are the very people who take advantage of them," she said.

In one such case, the Public Administrator's Office received concerned phone calls from a number of people last spring about an 83-year-old Brawley woman they believe was being victimized.

The woman, a longtime Brawley teacher, has lived in a retirement home for several years and has no family in the area. She does have aging family members in Texas, Saikhon said.

The woman had given Brawley real estate agent Teri Smelser complete power of attorney in February 1996, according to county documents.

That power of attorney was revoked in a letter signed by the Brawley woman in May, and a judge appointed the Public Administrator's Office to represent the Brawley woman in June.

Smelser has declined to speak to a reporter from this newspaper.

Smelser is facing a criminal charge of elder abuse in connection with activities connected to the woman. Smelser has pleaded not guilty to the charge. Smelser faces a number of other criminal charges including embezzlement from several organizations in which she had been treasurer.

A deed dated May 14, 1996, shows the Brawley woman sold her house, in the 400 block of North El Cerrito Drive in Brawley, to Smelser and her husband, Roger. County officials are alleging the Brawley woman did not receive any money for the sale and they don't think the woman was capable of understanding the sale of the house, if she even knew about it.

In a complaint for damages filed in Superior Court on Jan. 30, Deputy County Counsel Kris Malec alleged that Smelser drafted that new deed without the Brawley woman's consent, then, in another deed dated April 8, 1998, the Smelsers transferred ownership of the house to Roger's Smelser brother-in-law and sister, Michael and Brenda Spear, who live in the house.

In fact, said Malec and other county officials, the Brawley woman thought Smelser was renting the property and didn't know Teri Smelser's in-laws lived in the house.

The County Counsel's office is alleging no money changed hands between the Smelsers or the Spears in the second property transfer.

The deeds indicate taxes were paid on the property at the time both deed transfers were filed. In the May 1996 transaction, $94.60 was paid in documentary transfer tax, indicating the property was valued around $85,500. A county Recorder's Office employee explained the tax is calculated using $1.10 per $1,000. The April 1998 deed shows $82.50 was paid. The county employee said the value of the property would then be about $74,500.

The complaint also alleges in February 1997, Smelser borrowed $65,000 from the Brawley woman, who lacked the capacity to consent to the loan.

A promissory note included with the complaint shows the signatures of both Smelser and the Brawley woman. Smelser promised to repay the loan in two payments a year of $3,758.96 over 15 years with 8 percent annual interest.

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