Sunday, February 28, 2010

Elder Financial Abuse Often Gets -Slap in the Wrist

$340K theft nets defendent only 30 days in jail

The Press - News
Written by Jim McGauley

A Macclenny woman believed to be the mastermind of a scheme to bilk her elderly and infirm sister-in-law out of $340,000 in cash and other assets will spend a month in county jail and be on probation for 10 years.

Francis Claudette Gray, 48, who now lives in Lake City along with co-defendant and husband Jimmy, 77, will also be required to repay $227,212 back to the estate of Margarete Gray, who died last fall of cancer in a Jacksonville nursing home.

A sentencing hearing in circuit court the afternoon of February 22 thus wound up a significant portion of the criminal case that has languished in the court system since August, 2006 when the allegations first surfaced.

A civil lawsuit on behalf of the victim’s estate still pends, and the Jacksonville lawyer who is handling it was in court this week alleging the restitution amount falls short of what the Grays actually took from the victim.

Mr. Gray, who also appeared in court Monday, has been deemed incompetent to proceed though Judge James Nilon mentioned during the hearing that experts who examined him raised the possibility that he is a “malingerer” and may be exaggerating both physical and mental incapacities.

He is subject to re-evaluation at a later date.

The Grays were not charged criminally until September, 2008, when assistant state attorney Geoff Fleck filed counts of felony grand theft and exploitation of the elderly. Sheriff’s investigators had completed an investigation two years earlier, and former prosecutor Mel Bessinger was hesitant to file because he feared there was little proof the couple coerced the elder Mrs. Gray to sign over power of attorney.

Prosecutor Fleck contended that’s exactly what they did in a blatant grab for the ailing relative’s assets. The chain of events that immediately followed in the summer of 2006 including systematic looting of Mrs. Gray’s bank accounts, cashing in of certificates of deposit, sale of her north Jacksonville house and the theft of $37,000 cash from inside the house.

The thefts coincided with purchases of vehicles, a boat and two homes in west Macclenny. The defendants have since declared bankruptcy and their home was foreclosed.

Mrs. Gray, of German descent and a survivor of both the Nazi and Russian occupations during and after World War II, fell into ill health following the death of her husband Fred. By the time the Grays moved her to Macclenny Nursing and Rehab in the summer of 2006, she was malnourished and near comatose.

Nursing home employees became alarmed at the behavior of the defendants and their son Jimmy Jr. in forcing the patient to sign over power of attorney, which they told her was necessary to salvage the value of her home in Jacksonville. At the time, it was subject to condemnation.

The Grays always contended there was no coercion and that their relative wanted them to have her assets, a claim that her estate’s attorney Ron Davis calls patently false.

“She had told her friends she didn’t want to have anything to do with them, and before her husband died of cancer he advised her not to trust Jimmy Gray,” said Mr. Davis following Monday’s hearing.

The attorney said that before Mrs. Gray died last year, she nonetheless said she didn’t want the defendants to go to prison — and he believes that figured largely in Judge Nilon’s acceptance of the plea agreement.

Earlier, the judge rejected a plea pact and told the stunned defendants that, based on his reading of the information, the case called for prison time.

Prosecutor Fleck had since passed the case onto Mary Michelle Bevillelambert, and the Grays had counsel at public expense — George Nelson for the wife and Jeffrey Siegmeister for Mr. Gray.

Attorney Davis addressed Judge Nilon during the hearing on the restitution question, saying his analysis of bank statements gives a clear picture of what the couple transferred out, but it remains fuzzy as to where many of the funds went.

“I’m okay with the criminal case [the sentence] and the civil case is still pending. I still have a problem with the restitution amount,” he told the judge.

“Given the MO [modus operandi or past history] of this couple I have a pretty good feeling they won’t pay this back,” asserted Mr. Davis.

Later, he claimed there has never been an accurate accounting of where the money went — citing an extravagant trip to Disney World, thousands spent on furniture, payoff on a student loan and even a $14,000 cash donation to their onetime church, Calvary Baptist of Macclenny.

Judge Nilon held the amount in abeyance until later this year upon completion of interrogatories of the defendants under oath.

Mr. Davis said the late Mrs. Gray has no known descendants and expressed a desire that re-paid funds be donated to children’s charities. She gradually regained her mental faculties following that summer and retained them until her death.

Defendant Claudette Gray, the former director of the Community Action Agency and one-time court clerk, began her sentence later that evening.

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