A man whose story prompted an I-Team investigation that led to reform in Florida and drew national attention to the problem of guardianship abuse has died.
Willi Berchau passed away peacefully Wednesday at a local hospice facility at age 101.
He became a friend to all of us on the I-Team for his courage, his graciousness and his fight against what he perceived as injustice.
Those closest to Berchau spent the day packing up 101 years of his memories.
“I was given his case. It was a privilege to do that,” said Jane Barr, who was a volunteer ombudsman for the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.
She was contacted after Berchau complained his rights were being violated by a court appointed professional guardian.
Barr arranged for him to be allowed by the court to attend church with her neighbors Heather and Jimmy Riley.
“One night we got back from seeing Willi and he told us he didn't want to live anymore because he was so unhappy,” said Heather Riley.
The Rileys contacted the I-Team after Berchau was wrongly placed in a locked Alzheimer's unit.
“You see nobody. You have no contact with anybody. It's no socialization,” Berchau told the I-Team in September 2013.
“If you would have stayed there any longer, you would go down mentally,” he said.
After our interview, Berchau didn't have to stay much longer.
He was freed from the unit by his guardian and eventually freed from guardianship by a judge.
“I feel like I lost all the problems in my life,” Berchau said when he left the assisted living facility where he was being held.
“I don't think he would have gotten his freedom back without your help,” said Riley.
From that moment, Willi raised his fist in victory whenever we saw him, celebrating his freedom and his brave fight against guardianship abuse.
“The trouble is, if you have nobody behind your back, then they can do whatever they want with you,” said Berchau, who had no living relatives in the United States after his wife passed away.
He was able to returned to his home at the Fountains in St. Petersburg after his release from guardianship.
“I almost lost hope. I figured I would never be back at this place,” Berchau said at a homecoming party held in his honor.
He served as the inspiration for a guardianship law that passed last year.
“Willi's story is what prompted it. We heard that story and it was so compelling,” said the bill’s sponsor Jeff Brandes.
Just last month, Willi raised his fist again as he spoke to the I-Team about the necessity of new guardianship reform legislation.
He thanked his many supporters when he turned 101 last month.
“They are the best of the best I have ever met in my life,” Berchau said.
“He always used to say to us that we were the best of the best, but it was Willi who was the best of the best,” Barr said.
“He was the best of the best, a gift from God,” Riley said.
Berchau had planned to travel to Tallahassee this legislative session to champion the latest guardianship reform bills, but his health failed him.
The bills passed and are now just awaiting the governor's signature to become law.
If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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Man who helped shine spotlight on guardianship abuse in Florida dies at age 101
The Passing of Willi Berchau