The Probate Murders
“THIS CAN’T HAPPEN HERE”
On a quiet tree-lined street in Redlands, California, in a low, architecturally unremarkable beige building, the war has come home. Nestled behind the Redlands Police Department, the Redlands Superior Courthouse is housing a systematic and covert assault on the lives and life-savings of San Bernardino County’s elderly and disabled.
A smiling, bespectacled security officer, sporting a platinum blonde ponytail, runs the visitors through a metal detector as they enter. One walks into a lobby area, with two courtrooms off to the side: Department E1 and Department E2. Only traffic and probate are now heard in the Redlands Court. At the far end are the filing windows, where smiling and attentive clerks will retrieve files and accept court filings. In the California Superior Court system, one must pay a filing fee in order to enable the court to dismantle one’s life and estate.
Across from the clerk’s office, the East wall is lined with photographs of San Bernardino Court judges, beaming beatifically, and posing in their black robes. However, Judge Michael Welch is not smiling. Welch is one of only two probate judges in the entire San Bernardino County, and as such is the point man for the probate conveyor belt, which is grinding up the elderly and turning them into cash, through the court conservatorship and guardianship programs.
This is how it works: A family member, or even a neighbor, may notice that an elderly person is alone and may be increasingly vulnerable. Depending on the morality and authenticity of the concerned party, that person may contact Adult Protective Services, or may attempt to file for guardianship over the elder, in order to either protect or to gain access to that person’s funds. The police may become involved, if there are allegations of lack of capacity or of financial or physical abuse. This opens the door for the professional conservator, buttressed by her lawyers, to “move in for the kill.”
A linchpin in this system in San Bernardino County is C.A.R.E., Inc.–Conservatorship and Resources for the Elderly– which is located a mere stone’s throw away from the Redlands Courthouse, in a quaint, two story building at 25 E. State Street. The “C.A.R.E. Group” consists of two conservators–Melodie Z. Scott, President and founder of C.A.R.E. and Lawrence Dean II– and their attorneys. Up until last year, Scott was primarily represented by Hartnell, Horspool and Fox, which has split into two firms–Hartnell, Lister and Moore, and Horspool and Parker.
J. David Horspool appears as chief counsel on the lion’s share of C.A.R.E. cases. Horspool, who was born in nearby Riverside, is a Mormon, and was educated at the Mormon stronghold of Brigham Young University, where he received both his undergraduate degree and his J.D. He is a former mayor pro-tem of Moreno Valley, and was implicated in a vote fraud issue there in the nineties, during his campaign for city council.
Bryan Hartnell recently received some national press, as one of the sole survivors of the infamous Zodiac killer, when the “Zodiac” movie hit the big screen. Hartnell had a bit part in the movie. While some detailed crime analysis has indicated that the attack on Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard was a copy-cat and not a bonafide Zodiac attack, this was not brought to light on the silver screen. Hartnell escaped with non-life threatening injuries, but Shepard died as a result of the attack.
A smattering of “independent” attorneys also serve the “C.A.R.E. Group,” such as President of the High Desert Bar Association, Sherri Kastilahn. Some of the court-appointed counsel for potential conservatees are known to regularly lob their clients in the direction of Scott and Dean. These include attorneys Donnasue Ortiz and Lenita Skoretz, among others. By some estimates, the ”C.A.R.E. Group” now has its tentacles in 60-70% of the conservatorship and estate administration cases in San Bernardino County.
One attorney, speaking on condition of anonymity, voiced her opinion that all San Bernardino Probate cases were moved to Redlands recently to accommodate the “C.A.R.E. Group,” most of whom maintain their offices in Redlands, within walking distance of the courthouse.
At the apex of this group is Melodie Z. Scott, who has been referred to as the richest and most powerful conservator in Southern California. A tall, well-dressed blonde with a college education and a Private Investigator’s license, Scott has a reputation as a “high-roller,” and frequently parties with elected officials and other members of San Bernardino’s upper crust. Her resume reads like a poster-girl for an accomplished and respected conservator, and includes expert witness status, college level teaching experience (at California State University at Fullerton) a stint as President of the Professional Conservators of Southern California, as well as serving as a board member for Redlands Family Service. Like her attorney, Horspool, she has also run for public office.
However, behind the tasteful, expensive exterior at 25 E. State Street, an entirely different picture has emerged, revealing a reality as shocking and heinous as what went on behind closed doors in Hitler’s eugenics labs. The “C.A.R.E. Group” is, in fact, preying on the life-savings of its helpless and vulnerable clients, who appear to die very quickly as soon as C.A.R.E. has sucked the lifeblood out of their estates.
According to Jerry Villanueva, an investigator with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office, five separate counties have received complaints alleging criminal activity by Melodie Scott and her crew. Villanueva recently revealed that all incoming reports concerning Scott are being referred to the California Attorney General’s office, which is patently refusing to investigate allegations of criminal activity by Scott’s group.
“I don’t ‘do’ families,” stated a brusque Melodie Scott, in response to a query by this reporter as to the services offered by C.A.R.E. A review of the court files in Redlands Superior Court
largely substantiates this. Time after time, C.A.R.E. has filed for conservatorship of elderly women, left vulnerable after the death of a spouse, with offspring or other family members either out of state or otherwise absent from the picture. When there are family members present to witness the actions taken by Melodie Scott, in concert with other members of the “C.A.R.E. Group,” they generally end up quite upset.
Case in point is the Elizabeth Fairbanks case, on file in the Redlands Court. Mary Beth Fairbanks, the daughter of deceased conservatee Elizabeth Fairbanks, first contacted this reporter in the Fall of 2006. Following what Mary Beth repeatedly referred to as the murder of her mother at the direction of Melodie Z. Scott, the younger Fairbanks organized a demonstration in front of the SB County Courthouse, timed with her appearance in Court on October 13, 2006, to lodge her protest with Superior Court Judge Frank Gafkowski. A number of family members,
conservatorship victims and others impacted by Melodie Z. Scott, showed up at the demonstration, which was covered on the local ABC affiliate and by local press.
A review of the medical records prior to Fairbanks’ death substantiates Mary Beth’s allegation that directives by Melodie Z. Scott, conservator of person and estate for Elizabeth Fairbanks, were instrumental in the elderly woman’s death. Unbeknownst to the family, Melodie Scott had signed a “Do Not Resuscitate” order” shortly after achieving conservatorship over Fairbanks. TAB has retrieved the DNR from the court file, and Fairbanks signature does not appear on this document.
In 2006, Fairbanks fell ill with pneumonia, and at the apparent direction of Scott, received only two doses of antibiotics during the entire course of the illness. At a critical moment in her increasing respiratory distress, she was administered two doses of the opiate, Roxanol, which put Fairbanks into respiratory arrest. Two hours following the administration of the second, more powerful dose of Roxanol, Fairbanks died. Roxanol is contraindicated for patients with respiratory problems.
It was later revealed in the accountings that Elizabeth Fairbanks had no money left to fund the conservatorship.
The following statement was filed by Mary Beth Fairbanks in San Bernardino Court: “I have attempted since 2003 to find an attorney to help me with stopping what Ms. Scott was doing. No attorney would help me due to Ms. Scott’s power in the San Bernardino area….My mother died of pneumonia, which has a good success rate if treated aggressively and correctly. Why would Ms. Scott think if my mother was hospitalized and aggressively treated that she could end up a vegetable? If my mother had a stroke I could understand what Ms. Scott did but not to give my mother a chance is incomprehensible to me.”
Judge Michael Welch wrote a decision in the Fairbanks case, and diligently avoided any questions of possible criminal behavior by Melodie Scott. He took a quick detour around the issue of whether Fairbanks herself actually requested or even knew of the “Do Not Resuscitate” order. He wrote: “Apparently, shortly after Ms. Scott became the Conservator, the Conservatee had requested a “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) order. Ms. Scott’s notes reflect that the Conservatee had the capacity to make such a decision….The children all testified that they did not know their mother had made such a request. In fact, they were adamant that their mother had expressed to them just the opposite….”
Several points need to be made here. First, to state that “Apparently” Fairbanks had requested the DNR does not resolve the issue that there is no indication, other than the statement by her Conservator, that Fairbanks did so. Second, Fairbanks was under an LPS conservatorship, which was initiated because of her lack of capacity. She had a medical diagnosis of substantial mental illness. To state that a person who has been deemed incompetent has capacity to make a decision of this magnitude is a contradiction in terms. As Welch waltzed into a veritable legal briarpatch he only revealed his own intent —to exonerate Melodie Scott, no matter how absurd his own statements became.
Welch then quickly moved on. In a manner reminiscent of former President Bill “I feel your pain” Clinton, Welch wrote, “The last few days and, later, the last few hours before (Fairbanks’) death were very painful for her children. I could not help but note their grief and sorrow at the news of her passing.”
That being said, Judge Welch summarily approved all accountings and actions by the Conservator, Melodie Scott, and closed the case.
TAB has retrieved the DNR order, signed by Melodie Z. Scott and dated at the inception of the conservatorship. This is echoed by the DNR order issued and signed by Victoria Rains, MD, on July 13, 2005, and featured here. In tandem, these orders amount to Fairbanks’ death warrant.
Dr. Rains is one of the doctors generally used by Melodie Scott, to care for her elderly clients. A review of death certificates reveals that Dr. Rains has listed “pneumonia” as cause of death for a number of C.A.R.E. conservatees. Calls to Dr. Rains requesting input as to whether she regularly withholds life-saving antibiotics from her elderly patients went unreturned.
“JUST DO IT!”
After gaining conservatorship over an elderly or disabled individual, Scott, as a matter of course, applies to the court for a “Power of Health Care.” Armed with this legal sanction to
make life and death decisions, Scott usually signs a DNR order, thus cementing her power to withhold medical care at the point when her client is no longer of financial use to her.
In the case of Stevie Price, Scott used this “Power of Health Care” both to limit medical care and to issue directives for medical procedures which proved unnecessary and life-threatening for her disabled client.
At age nine, Stevie Price was critically injured in an emergency room foul-up, which left him with a permanent brain injury. His parents, Steve and Fae, sued Loma Linda Hospital and won.
A couple of years after the incident, Steve and Fae separated. It was during a custody hearing in 1997, in San Bernardino, when the elder Steve Price noticed an attorney sitting in the back of the courtroom, taking notes. The attorney, he later discovered, was one Walter Moore (now a partner in Hartnell, Lister and Moore), one of the attorneys who regularly appears as counsel for Melodie Scott.
Before they knew it, the court had determined that an ‘impartial’ third party was needed to represent Stevie. Judge Kathleen Bryant appointed Walter Moore as Stevie’s attorney, who immediately nominated Melodie Z. Scott as guardian of Stevie’s person.
Scott soon gained control over Stevie’s trust, as well. After being appointed temporary guardian, Ms. Scott used $300,000 of Stevie’s trust, in attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, etc., to achieve the status of permanent guardian in a trial inexplicably held in a different city, before a traffic court judge, Judge Frank Heene of Chino Municipal court.
It should be noted that Heene was subsequently brought up on nine counts of misconduct, and retired from the bench.
According to Steve Price, the “C.A.R.E. Team” manipulated Fae in order to gain control of the Trust, promising her standing in the case, which never materialized. Steve Price ended up in a protracted legal battle with Scott, in an attempt to protect his son’s life and the funds so necessary to care for the child.
On the very same day that Melodie Scott was finally removed from the case, Stevie Price died. The elder Price was then to discover, to his further horror, that Scott had run through the entire multi-million trust.
“The Trust should have been banking, not losing money,” states Steve Price. Prior to Melodie Scott’s appointment, Price had carefully researched his son’s options, and had made decisions which would guarantee excellent medical care, while protecting the Trust, which was anticipated to last Stevie’s lifetime. Price saw no reason that his son should not live to a ripe old age, if given appropriate care.
He had enrolled Stevie in a medical insurance plan which was funded by state tobacco taxes– MR/MIP (Major Risk Medical Insurance Program) with Medi-Cal as a secondary insurance.
A chunk of Stevie’s malpractice settlement had gone to settle his Medi-Cal bill, and to enable his enrollment with MR/MIP as his primary. With less than $100 as a monthly premium and no pay-back requirement on death, MR/MIP also provided a far higher standard of care than the bare bones, minimal coverage provided by Medi-Cal. Upon achieving guardianship, Melodie Scott voluntarily removed Stevie from this program, thus severely restricting his medical care to what the limited Medi-Cal program would cover. This also unnecessarily incurred a Medi-Cal claim of $532,607.39 at Stevie’s death. What remained in Stevie’s trust at that point in time was inadequate to cover this claim.
Steve Price claims that this action by Melodie Scott “seem(s) to have intentionally defrauded Medi-Cal into paying Stevie’s medical expenses and exposed both him and his estate to harm.” In a report to the California Attorney General’s office, Price also states that “we believe that this was a major factor in his death.”
In another aggressive move, which Price believes was an effort to remove Stevie from his father’s watchful eye and to place him further under Scott’s control, she ordered that Stevie undergo a tracheotomy in 2000. Most institutional facilities which would be appropriate for someone with Stevie’s injuries generally only accept patients with tracheotomies. Scott failed to provide any diagnostic proof of the necessity of this procedure, and in defiance of the opinion of Stevie’s long term pulmonary specialist and home-health nurses, applied for and received court permission to have the tracheotomy performed.
Perched on the corner of a pleasant Yucaipa street, Steve Price’s sprawling, ranch-style home is a virtual shrine to personal tragedy. The walls are bedecked with photographs of his young son, surrounded by family and friends. A framed poem, by Stevie’s former nurse and now Price’s fiancée, Tammy Hull, urges those on this side of the grave to remain strong and loving, even in the face of such wrenching loss. But for Steve Price, justice has become elusive. The California Attorney General’s office expressed disinterest in his meticulously documented complaint, which included evidence of Scott’s attempt to further pad her pocket by taking out TWO burial plots on young Stevie, one of which went unreported to the court, and was to be cashed in by Scott on the death of her client.
“EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER THE LAW?”
The California AG’s office received another bundle of complaints this past March. The carefully documented complaints alleged embezzlement, property theft, perjury, denial of due process by judges in C.A.R.E. cases, attempted murder and continued suppression of reports received by lower level justice agencies, including the Redlands and Temecula Police Departments and a local District Attorney’s offices. These reports powerfully buttress the perception that the “C.A.R.E. Group” is wielding undue influence all the way up the California justice system.
These reports were received by Senior Assistant Attorney General Mark Geiger on March 6, 2007 and put back into the mail to the senders the same day. Casting around for a plausible explanation to explain his failure to act, Geiger lamely states, “….these are matters beyond my area of developed criminal expertise.” In a shocking effort to continue to cover-up C.A.R.E. criminal activity, he also falsely states that “…. the statute of limitations has run on many of the alleged offenses,” in direct contradiction to the evidence supplied in the March reports that the alleged crimes were reported well within the proscribed statutory time limits to local law enforcement agencies, which dutifully and consistently dropped the ball. Most tellingly, Geiger also neglected to assign a complaint number to the March reports.
As a matter of course, and for tracking purposes, an incoming complaint to the Department of Justice is always assigned a complaint number. By first omitting then stubbornly refusing to assign a number, Geiger tacitly revealed that he buried the reports. Legally, he put himself at risk for prosecution as an accessory after the fact.
Scott’s influence appears to go all the way up to federal. The head of the Civil Rights Division for the Riverside F.B.I. told one complainant that there were “massive civil rights violations” substantiated by the complainant, but that agency took no action.” An agent in the Los Angeles office of the F.B.I. stated, with brazen inaccuracy, that conservatorships were a “civil” matter and that the F.B.I did not investigate civil matters. When that complainant provided evidence that crimes were being committed under the mantle of “civil” court procedures, she was funneled into a telephonic “black hole,” and was refused any more access to a duty agent.
“KEEP IT IN THE FAMILY”
Melodie Scott’s business dealings have regularly benefited members of her family. Her mother, Jo Williams, aka Anna Williams, works out of the 25 E. State Street offices as a “Client Care” specialist. Williams’ name also appeared on the property at 26735 Redlands Blvd, which was formerly the site of Orange Blossom, an unlicensed Assisted Living center, previously owned by Melodie Scott. The property, which burned to the ground recently, was subsequently sold to Loma Linda Hospital for a cool seven figures. Scott’s sister, Dona Zinck, has appeared on accountings as being reimbursed for grocery go-fer services. Another family member, Alvin Zinck, has been the recipient of at least one property transfer, which he apparently received free of charge. In 1994, Alvin and Lois Zinck were the recipients of a 1958 Terry Trailer, which had previously belonged to one Lois B. Nightingale, who was under conservatorship with Melodie Scott. The Bill of Sale, signed by Melodie Scott as Conservator for Lois Nightingale, notes that “This trailer traded for yard clean-up services and labor.”
“THE FAMILY HOME”
Under the laws governing conservatorships of estate, Scott has total access to all the conservatee’s bank accounts and may, with the court’s approval, sell the conservatee’s property, in order to further pay for her services. An unusual pattern has emerged concerning the sale of real property, which is always approved by Scott’s judges. Probate property, as it is called, be it under a conservatorship case or under the estate administration of the “C.A.R.E. Group,” is generally substantially under-appraised and sold at a still deeper discount from the initially low appraisal.
Here is a short list of such transactions, garnered from the Redlands Probate files and matched up with the San Bernardino’s tax assessor’s office:
Elmer Archie Heath 23538 Court St, San Bernardino
Appraised at $60,000
Sold at $28,600
Heath’s vacant lot on Joshua Road, Palm Desert
Appraised at $8,000
Sold at $1,000
Mary Titus 49888 Senilis Ave, Morongo Valley
Appraised at $35,000
1/2interest sold at $3000
Evelyn Townsend 1244 Ramona Drive, Redlands
Appraised at $140,000
Sold at $110,000
Mattie Kirby 1028 W. 9th, San Bernardino
Appraised at $65,000
Sold at $43,000
After selling off property at bargain basement prices, many of these properties suddenly and without explanation dramatically increase in assessed value. For example, the “C.A.R.E. Group” handled the estate administration for Rachel Norris, whose single family home in Victorville, California, was appraised at $2,788. No , that’s not a misprint. The home was sold to a Gary Salonsin, in November of 2004.
Incomprehensibly, the assessed value then jumped to $76,000, and Salonsin quickly sold it in a “flip” to Ilona Winegarden, where it was re-assessed at $96,900. Conservatee Arthur Gurley’s vacant Victorville lot jumped in assessed value from $7,273 to $44,880 when it passed into the hands of Eagle Assets & Management LLC in 2005, and his Victorville cabin also skyrocketed in value from $8,312 to over $57,000 when Eagle acquired this property, also in 2005.
The list goes on and on. Lena Peden’s retail business, appraised at $15,392, jumped in appraisal to over $81,000 as soon as it was acquired in 2006. The jumps and flips are too numerous to list here; however, it should be noted that the San Bernardino Tax Assessor, Bill Postmus, is currently under Grand Jury investigation.
As the sole heir of the estate of conservatee Una Haley, Sheryl Morgan received absolutely nothing. Morgan, who was Haley’s granddaughter, had applied to be her conservator, only to have this strong-armed away from her by the “C.A.R.E. Group.” Morgan has stated that this group outright stole the proceeds from the sale of Haley’s home. The court file reveals that conservator Lawrence Dean and his attorney Craig Parker (of Hartnell, Horspool and Fox) did an even divvy of the remains of Haley’s estate. In the final distribution, Dean and Parker declared to the court on August 26, 2003 that they each received $4,775.15. This poses some alarming questions. Parker’s fees as an attorney are roughly in the $200-$250 range, while Dean’s services are generally in the neighborhood of $40.00 an hour. There is simply no probable mathematical equation which could have resulted in the even divide of the remaining money.
TAB has uncovered another source of potential fraud. This reporter has unearthed partial General Ledger reports on two C.A.R.E. conservatorships– Dora Pakuts, in San Bernardino and one from a Riverside case. In both ledgers, there are numerous skipped check numbers, with no explanation provided, such as a “Void” notation, should a check be cancelled out. TAB has been able to obtain a copy of one of these checks, written by Melodie Scott on a conservatee’s account for over $4,000 and never reported to the court or noted in the General Ledger.
TAB subsequently contacted Melodie Scott, with questions about skipped check numbers, but she did not respond to these calls.
A phone call to C.A.R.E. attorney Sherri Kastilahn, however, was indeed returned. After poring over the conservatorship file of William F. Burke, now deceased, I had some concerns about what appeared to be a substantial amount of unaccounted for money. Burke had gone under conservatorship with C.A.R.E. conservator Larry Dean in late 2000, and had died in January of 2003. There was some ambiguity in the court file on a number of issues. Kastilahn and Dean reported to the court the sale of Burke’s residence in September of 2001, but were still listing the house as an asset in March of 2002. The house had sold for $130,000, but Kastilahn and Dean reported only $45,000 left in the estate in February of 2003. To further confuse matters, Judge Pro-Tem E. Joan Nelms documented as estate assets over $87,000—nearly twice what Dean and Kastilahn had just reported– two months later, in April of 2003.
Two months after Burke passed away, Kastilahn requested the court approve her placing $30,000 of the decedant’s estate into her own State Bar attorney-client account, for “further conservator compensation, costs and attorney fees to be incurred in the administration of the conservatorship proceeding.” (direct quote from court file) I wanted to ask Ms. Kastilahn
what possible conservatorship services could be offered a dead man.
I was also intensely curious as to the distribution given the sole heir, one Lester Leroy Lorge. Kastilahn and Dean had declared to the court that it took them two years to locate Lorge. In an unusual departure from the typical receipt, Lorge only signed for his “full distributive share.” I could find no notation in the court file as to what that might be, and had never before seen a receipt for distibution in these files which failed to note how much was received.
It only took me one call to a Private Investigator and forty-eight hours to locate Lester Lorge. He expressed surprise that Dean and Kastilahn seemed to have such trouble locating him. He stated that he had been close to conservatee William F. Burke for about fifty years, and was called by the hospital the day he died.
Lorge revealed to me that his “full distributive share” was, in fact, $25,940—a mere fraction of what Kastilahn and Dean had declared as the remainder of the estate.
Attorney Sherri Kastilahn’s response to my call is recorded on my voicemail. She threatened me with a lawsuit, a Restraining Order and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was not a reporter, and had no standing to ask questions about this case. It should be noted that none of the above questions were ever tendered to Ms. Kastilahn. When I spoke with her secretary I merely imparted that I had questions about “financial irregularities” in the Burke file.
So much for the First Amendment. And how about that “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” stuff?
Well, maybe the Founding Fathers weren’t referring to the elderly. Or, as an alternate explanation, maybe our country is in battle mode. With the U.S. government waging wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and wars now spreading like forest fires across the globe, maybe what we are seeing is another war, against those least able to protect themselves, right under our very noses.