Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Abusing the Helpless

by Eric Wolff

In her day, Pilar Ladran, a Filipino immigrant, was quite the catch. She'd had two husbands who took care of her until the second one died in the 1990s. For decades she played bingo, cooked and raised her children out of her Imperial Beach home. When her grandson, Jay, needed a supplemental parent, she was there to bring him up.

Rolando, Jay's uncle, had been collecting Pilar's mail, and he started to notice the bank letters coming in with "Urgent" stamped all over them. By the time he figured out the problem, the mortgage company was preparing to foreclose on the house. Rolando recalls his confrontation with Jay.

"Jay said to me, ‘The money's gone.'" Rolando related the story through his attorney, Seth Bobroff. "I said, ‘What do you mean the money's gone?' He said, 'It's all gone.' I said, 'Why didn't you come to me earlier? I could have helped, now I can't help. This is crazy.' At that point he was very nonchalant about it, very condescending, almost."

Jay finally owned up to his crime when the Sheriff's Office called. He turned himself in on May 30 and pleaded guilty to charges of grand theft fraud and elder abuse on June 12. He now awaits sentencing and would not comment for this story.

When sheriff's detective Bridget Cartier discussed the Ladran case with CityBeat, she was impressed by the amount of money Jay stole, but not by his behavior. Apparently this kind of fraud has been happening to San Diego's elderly with increasing frequency.

"We're overwhelmed,"

in his 11 years working these cases, seen a jump from 16 prosecutions for elder abuse with financial fraud in 1996 to an anticipated 220 for 2007. And this figure represents a tiny fraction of the overall problem, he said.

The population both nationally and in San Diego is aging. San Diego's median age is projected to rise from 33.7 to 36.8 between now and 2020, while the percentage of people over 65 will rise from 10 percent to 15 percent. Many older people have lived in their homes for dozens of years, through an astonishing boom in housing prices, and they have accumulated equity. Increasingly, they are victims of fraud in general and real estate fraud in particular.

"The hard criminals who are out there, who have been caught several times, they're wondering, ‘How do I steal?' Well, they've figured it out," Greenwood said.

Kulinski and Cartier believe the current generation of elderly—the World War II survivors—are particularly susceptible to scams because of their "trusting nature."

"They come from a different era," Cartier said.

Greenwood argues that the problem lies partly in the difficulty of detecting the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of dementia—symptoms so subtle we just refer to them as "getting old." Complicating matters, the elderly sense their loss of faculties, which makes them less likely to report their victimhood.

"We're fighting the crooks, but we're also fighting this wall of silence," Greenwood said.

"How could he do this to her?" he said. "He took advantage of his grandmother, who raised him, and that's just wrong."

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