Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Summer Reads in Elder Abuse

I’m not a fan of pulp mystery writer Sue Grafton, but when I heard that her latest book, “T” is for Trespass, was about elder identity theft, I was curious and grabbed a copy I found in a discount sales bin. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Grafton’s alphabet mystery series, beginning with “A” is for Alibi, which features plucky private eye Kinsey Millhone. As a sometimes writer of fiction myself, it occurred to me that by the time Grafton got to T, she may well have regretted her decision to use the alphabet device and dubbed her latest “T” is for Tedium.

I’m always interested in how service providers are portrayed in the popular media and had planned to cut to the point in the story where Kinsey seeks their help (after checking out the acknowledgments to find out who she’d talked to). But in the first few pages, Grafton paints a chilling portrait of the sociopath as a little girl, which got me hooked:

She operated as a creature apart, without empathy. She pretended to be like the little girls and boys in her grade, with their bickering and tears, their tattling, their giggles, and their efforts to excel. She observed their behavior and imitated them, blending into their world until she seemed much the same. She chimed in on conversations, but only to feign amusement at a joke, or to echo what had already been said. She didn’t disagree. She didn’t offer an opinion because she had none. She expressed no wishes or wants of her own. She was largely unseen—a mirage or a ghost—watching for little ways to take advantage of them.

The set-up reads like many of the cases we review at MDT meetings. The victim is Kinsey’s elderly neighbor, Gus, whose great-niece hires the perp to provide care after he’s injured in a fall. Even Kinsey is duped at first; she’d helped the niece screen workers and hadn’t realized that she’d mistaken the fake Solana Rojas for the real one, a licensed vocational nurse with impeccable credentials. Kinsey, however, eventually realizes her mistake, unlike the APS worker assigned to investigate who sides with the fake Solana against Kinsey. And when the fake Solana files to become Gus’ conservator under yet another fake name, the court appoints her. The story dissolves into utter lunacy as Kinsey turns action hero and literally disarms one of her adversaries (don’t ask).

The book reminded me of Hastened to the Grave, a true crime novel about a real abuse case here in the Bay Area in the early 90s. Dubbed the “Foxglove Case” by police because the perpetrators poisoned their victims with digitalis, a common heart medication made from the foxglove plant, it too starred an intrepid blond PI. I interviewed Faye Faron, who was known professionally as Rat Dog Dick, years ago about the case and Elder Angels, a non-profit she started that offered pro bono private investigations in elder abuse cases.

Hastened to the Grave stuck pretty close to the real case, which needed no embellishment. Faron was originally hired to investigate the alleged abuse of an 82-year-old woman who'd been befriended by a younger man who insinuated himself into her life and talked her into signing what she thought was a simple tenancy lease. It turned out to be a joint-tenancy agreement, which entitled him to take possession of her home when she died. Her sudden subsequent death prompted the executor of her estate to hire Faron, and by the time the executor called off the investigation, Faron was well on her way to unearthing a con game that included the younger man’s mother, sister, and sister’s boyfriend and the death of four men under their care. Undeterred by the lack of a client, Faron continued to investigate as she attempted to get the police, APS, and DA involved. Olsen’s portrayal of the real life professionals involved in the case was no more flattering than Grafton’s, except for Faron, with whom he was obviously infatuated. He especially sticks it to San Francisco’s PD and DA, whose handling of the case was clearly not their finest hour. There were blunders made at every point.

But it turned out to be a landmark case that highlighted the myriad real life problems involved in prosecuting sweetheart scams, which often involve lonely, isolated victims who are too embarrassed to admit they’ve been had. Until recently, cases like these were seen as civil matters at worst, and those that were investigated by police or prosecutors were bounced back and forth between homicide and fraud units. Cases fell apart if victims died, and perpetrators finessed quick cremations to destroy evidence. The Foxglove case was further plagued by politics, changes in departmental administration, allegations of racism (the perps were Rom), and police misconduct.

As I thumbed though the Olsen book, I was struck by how much progress there's been in the last decade thanks to the pioneering work of police, prosecutors, judges, forensics experts and researchers, policy makers, and many others. Today, hundreds of these cases are being successfully prosecuted and a case like Foxglove would undoubtedly be handled differently.

To anyone who's seen the suffering these cases cause, the notion of elder abuse as entertainment may seem perverse. But you have to admit that some real life cases have every bit as much suspense and drama as say, a Sue Grafton novel. If we’re ever going to see positive portrayals of colleagues and coworkers though, it’s clear we’re going to have to create our own heroes.

Happy reading.

For more on elder identity theft, visit my Web site at http://lisanerenberg.com/learn/idtheft.html.