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Money Gone, Jefferson County Ward Wants Answers

Jim Ash

A 62-year-old Jefferson County widow is living in a group home after her husband’s death led to a nervous breakdown and an involuntary commitment. Meanwhile, her former legal guardian is behind bars until she accounts for $400,000 in missing cash, real estate and personal property. Advocates say it’s an example of a faulty system, and a warning flag for a rapidly aging Sunshine State. 

A tiny woman with salt-and-pepper hair and a cheerful smile, Dolores Caracci is a popular resident at Maxwell House, the nondescript group home where she’s lived in rural Jefferson County since 2014.

From a dining room table littered with ashtrays, Caracci struggles to describe the psychotic break that forced her to be declared legally incompetent.

“Well, my husband died and I had a breakdown….I don’t know how to explain it…..I lost touch with reality.”

Caracci says her oldest daughter, Laura Cooper, came to live with her in Quincy when her husband was dying from cancer a few years ago. After Caracci was hospitalized, Cooper petitioned a court to become her mother’s legal guardian.

Caracci says Cooper eventually stopped returning her calls after she went to live in the group home and she was devastated when she learned her bank accounts were drained, her home was sold, and all her possessions were gone.

“The daughter-mother relationship is destroyed," she says. And she wants the legal system to handle it. "Well I would like to happen now is to see her go to court for it. To be sued for it. And to spend time in prison if that’s what it takes.”

Caracci went to Legal Aid for help and is now represented by Tallahassee attorney Monique Richardson. Caracci’s new guardian and his attorney, elder law specialist Twyla Sketchtley, are trying to figure out where all the money went.

Caracci is completely powerless and practically penniless. Her only income is a 1,000 dollar monthly Social Security check. Even if Caracci could afford to live on her own, Sketchley says she couldn’t sign a lease.

“You basically are the equivalent of a legal baby…and you have this parent over here who is supposed to make sure that your money is taken care of, that your property is taken care of and that your person is taken care of.”

Last week, Circuit Judge Robert Long ordered Caracci’s daughter and former guardian held in the Leon County Jail until she accounts for some $400,000 in cash, cars, real estate and other belongings her mother says is missing.

A legal guardian is supposed to maintain a separate account for the “ward,” money that goes for housing, food, medicine, and daily living. But Sketchley says the paper trail suggests Cooper went on a spending spree with her mother’s money.

Sketchley says Caracci’s guardian account paid a $1,200 room charge at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and $1,800 to Disney Resorts in Anaheim, California.

And the travel expenses don’t stop there.  

“She went on a Pacific Rim vacation using the ward’s… the debit card on the guardianship. You can see the itinerary, from Phuket Thailand, to places in the Philippines, to Kuala Lumpur.”

Documents also show the guardian account paid for home improvements, I-Tunes and to retire a $20,000 student loan.

Florida law has safeguards to prevent guardian abuse, but Sketchley says they didn’t work in Caracci’s case.  She says Cooper didn’t file a required Level II background check and she was named guardian even though a court appointed expert recommended against appointing a family member.

“Nothing was done when these things weren’t filed. You can issue as many orders that say file this, you missed your deadline, file this, you’ve missed your deadline.”

Cooper was supposed to inventory her mother’s assets when she became guardian, but a court appointed monitor says Cooper failed to list one of her mother’s checking accounts containing $180,000. The monitor says Cooper misled the court about the sale of her mother’s home.  

The monitor also recommended a criminal investigation. Tallahassee Police Department spokesman Dave Northway says his department is conducting one, but he’s not allowed to discuss the details.  

“The timelines in these cases are not something that we can give a specific date or even hour to, due to the fact that all of the facts have to be gathered prior to us deciding to move forward or not move forward with a case.”

Cooper has not been charged with a crime, but she is being held in the Leon County jail on civil contempt charges until she accounts for the missing money and property. Inmates are not allowed to give interviews.

But in a May 1st email, Cooper’s lawyer, M.B. Adelson, promises the court monitor to turn over financial records as soon as Cooper provides them to him.

“Every penny of the Ward’s assets have been properly conserved for the Ward’s benefit,” Adelson wrote. He did not respond to phone messages requesting an interview.

Meanwhile, it’s difficult to say how many Floridians become wards of the court, or are victimized by their legal guardians.

“We’ve heard a lot of different anecdotes from different areas, but the overall number, how common it is, our office doesn’t have any information on that," says Ameila Milton,  deputy director of the newly minted Office of Public and Professional Guardians. The department just this week rolled out new guidelines for professional guardians, but it doesn’t regulate  family members who are appointed guardians.  

A recent Palm Beach Post investigation showed there were 2,800 open guardianship cases in that county alone last year. The Legislature recently beefed up penalties for guardian abuse, at the advice of a panel that included Sketchley, the Tallahassee elder law specialist.

In the 15 years Sketchley has practiced elder law, she’s documented $18 million stolen from elderly clients.

“And the vast majority of those cases are never prosecuted. I currently have four open litigated exploitation cases in my office right now. This one is the only one law enforcement is contemplating charging someone in," she says.

Sketechly says some people have told her it’s not a big deal, because children who steal their parents’ assets are only stealing their own inheritance.

But she says taxpayers end up carrying the burden when the victims are forced to apply for Medicaid and other public assistance. With 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, Sketchley says the problem isn’t going away.

“In our current situation where we have these pending huge cuts from Medicaid at the federal level, well what’s going to happen with people like Ms. Caracci? Where are they going to go? And if we don’t prosecute the people that do this to them, we as a society just made it a positive career choice. I can make $200,000 a year stealing from an elderly person with no consequences.”

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.