Janet C. Phelan
A San Bernardino County judge will preside over a case this coming January which has massive implications for the future of property rights.
On January 24th, a petition will be heard which was filed by a conservator requesting the court to revoke a twenty-eight-year-old deed of sale, notarized and recorded, in order to return the property into the name of the person who sold the property. Lois Risse of Yucaipa, California, is now under a conservatorship and the conservator, Melodie Scott, seeks to get a reverse mortgage on the property to pay for her fees as conservator of Risse.
Twenty eight years ago, Risse sold her house to her friend, Glenn Neff, with the provision she could live in it for the rest of her life. Risse is now 101 years old and was put under a conservatorship a year ago in a hearing in San Bernardino Court, a hearing at which she was not present. Neff has been paying the taxes and insurance on the property while Risse lives in the house, rent free.
In pleadings filed in support of her petition to take Neff’s house away from him, Scott cited a number of checks that were written to Neff by Risse over twenty five years ago. Neff has stated that there is nothing improper with the checks, most of which constitute checks which he took to the bank and cashed for his friend, Lois.
Scott alleges that Risse did not know that she was selling the property to Neff, an allegation belied by the notarized deed of sale, signed by Lois Risse. Melodie Scott also alleges that Neff took from the house other property, including a gun and pewter collection.
Curiously, Melodie Scott has virtually ignored the evidence that someone did indeed prey on Lois Risse. This reporter has reviewed documents from Scott’s own files that list a number of withdrawals from Risse’s accounts made by a neighbor from August/September to December of 2011. The neighbor’s name is being withheld from publication at this time per legal advice.
According to Scott’s records, “Mr. X” made over thirty thousand dollars of ATM cash withdrawals from Risse’s account and also received thousands of dollars in questionable payments via check.
MISSING POLICE REPORTS
Last year, at least two of Risse’s friends and neighbors reported to Adult Protective Services concerns that the elderly woman was being taken advantage of by a neighbor, prior to the imposition of the conservatorship. According to a party close to the case, Melodie Scott has also stated she reported this to the police.
However, the San Bernardino County Sheriff drew a blank when asked if Mr. X’s name came up as a suspect in any reports. In fact, he does not come up on any report whatsoever in over twenty years, according to the media relations representative with the Sheriff.
Some of these allegations of systemic misconduct are alluded to by attorney Mel Friedland, who is representing Risse in the conservatorship case. In a report filed with the court on March 7, 2012, Friedland states that he was contacted by a former caretaker who had concerns about Lois Risse. Friedland writes:
The informant further indicated that there had been two referrals to Adult Protective Service… On February 16 2012 I contacted Adult Protective Services and asked for information regarding the two alleged referrals and told I would be contacted. To date, I have had no contact from Adult Protective Services.
Melodie Scott’s records clearly indicate heavy third person withdrawals from Risse’s accounts during the period of Fall through Winter of 2011, none of which involve Glenn Neff. The lack of any concomitant report in the Sheriff’s files raises some serious questions as to the functioning of the SB County APS.
Another conservatorship matter raised alarm recently when it was revealed that a report made to SB County APS was drastically altered by the time it got into the hands of the police agency to which it was referred. The initial report going into APS had alleged that conservatee Charles Castle had been deprived of his rights to due process in the initiation of the conservatorship and had also been represented by the same counsel, Bryan Hartnell, who was also representing the conservator in this same case.
However, by the time the Pomona Police went out to investigate APS’s allegations, the report had been strangely altered. The documents that Pomona P.D. Officer Catanese had in hand only stated that the conservator had misappropriated a social security check in July of 2011. As conservators take control over the finances of their wards, a report of this nature would be considered a non-issue and would result in a quick “case closed.”
A second report on the Castle matter was subsequently made to San Bernardino County, due to the fact that the first report had been tampered with. Apparently, that report was buried and no one ever went out to visit Mr. Castle from San Bernardino County APS. That agency has declined to discuss their dispensation of either Castle report.
A series of articles on the Castle case resulted in the resignation of both attorney Hartnell and the conservator.
The response from the County as to queries of a possible cover up going on within the ranks of San Bernardino County APS workers met with a stiff reply from County media rep David Wert, who called the allegations of a cover up “ridiculous, insulting, and childish.”
The Risse case is particularly troubling due to the plethora of documentation that the elderly woman was heavily preyed upon by others in the past year. The fact that no police report exists, in the face of multiple contacts with the authorities, coupled with the persistence of the conservator in attempting to seize the property Risse legally sold to her friend decades earlier, ramps up alarm that government agencies may be working hand in hand with private conservators in order to obscure bona fide instances of abuse and bleed money out of whomever may have it.
And in this case, that would be Glenn Neff. Neff reports he has already paid his attorney at least $16,000 to defend his house in a case which appears to be a farcical perversion of justice. And the end is not in sight for Neff, who has not yet been hit with the bill for the deposition and faces further legal costs as his attorney prepares for the January hearing.
DEPOSING THE INCAPACITATED
To add to the nutty mix, Lois Risse has now been deposed by the counsel for Glenn Neff, Jack Osborn. Risse has been deemed incapacitated and had trouble remembering much of anything during the deposition. Elder attorney Marc Hankin has called relying on the memory of an incapacitated person to substantiate a claim of this nature : “irrational.”
Osborn has represented Melodie Scott in the past and has filed questionable documents in this case, including a response to the petition to return assets which was not even legally executed , lacking a date and place on the verification. Calls to SB Court questioning how the clerks could have possibly accepted such a document into the file have not been answered. Attorney Osborn has not returned calls from this reporter.
While the devil is in the details, and the details of the Risse case are individual and therefore unique to this case, a larger issue remains. If a conservator or anyone else with a power of attorney over an elder can revoke a decades- old deed of sale simply because they wish to drain the money off the property now, then no deed of sale can be considered final and no one’s property is safe from seizure by a court of law.
COURT GONE WILD
Court watchers have cited numerous irregularities in cases heard in San Bernardino probate court. In one instance, a man was permanently restrained from his own father without a hearing when he took photographs of his father which allegedly revealed that the father was being physically neglected by the conservator. Sitting probate Judge Michael Welch ordered the photographs destroyed and issued a permanent restraining order against the conservatee’s son, William Horspool, without ever calling the matter to hearing, a clear violation of due process.
In another instance, Welch approved the actions of a conservator who had “pulled the plug” on a mental health conservatee who had come down with pneumonia. The conservator decided—over the protests of the family– not to give the woman any treatment for the lung infection and instead to ply her with morphine. The woman quickly succumbed.
The Risse case may be considered a precedent setting case. During a time when foreclosures are rampant and allegations of mortgage fraud are escalating, we now must be concerned that our deeds of sale may, in fact, prove to be worthless.
History will be made in this hearing, which is open to the public and will take place at 1:30 pm in department S 15 on January 24, 2013 in San Bernardino Superior Court, located at 351 N. Arrowhead in San Bernardino, California.
Janet Phelan is an investigative journalist whose articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The San Bernardino County Sentinel, The Santa Monica Daily Press, The Long Beach Press Telegram, Oui Magazine and other regional and national publications. Janet specializes in issues pertaining to legal corruption and addresses the heated subject of adult conservatorship, revealing shocking information about the relationships between courts and shady financial consultants. She also covers issues relating to international bioweapons treaties. Her poetry has been published in Gambit, Libera, Applezaba Review, Nausea One and other magazines. Her first book, The Hitler Poems, was published in 2005. She currently resides abroad. You may browse through her articles (and poetry) at janetphelan.com