|Linda Magel with picture of Jack Magel|
By Jeremy Thomas
LIVERMORE -- It wasn't until a month after her father died that Linda Magel discovered something awry.
Sifting through boxes of bank statements, she realized $118,000 of her father's life savings was missing, withdrawn from a Chase Bank branch her father had never stepped foot in.
After a months-long investigation, it became clear that John "Jack" Magel, a Livermore resident who suffered from dementia and early onset Alzheimer's disease, had been swindled by a bank employee, who made off with a certificate of deposit worth $105,000 and other withdrawals using forged signatures. Magel, who wanted to pass the money to his heirs, died from cancer and Alzheimer's in March at age 91.
JP Morgan Chase eventually refunded the money but not without putting up a fight, Linda Magel said.
"He was an old man, a great guy, the most honest human being I've ever known in my life ... We haven't even had the emotional wherewithal to be able to mourn his death because this has been so encompassing," she said.
The swindling of Jack Magel is just the latest example of what some prosecutors are describing as a rampant problem, the defrauding of elders suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's disease by people they've come to trust. It comes in the wake of the sentencing of former Pinole police Officer Matthew Messier, who prosecutors say attempted to steal the $1.5 million estate of his Pleasanton neighbor, Jean Phyllis Jones. Through a plea deal, Messier will spend just two months in jail.
In Magel's case, a Pleasanton judge blocked a similar plea deal agreed to by attorneys that would have dropped a felony charge of financial elder abuse.
Former personal banker Alex Ojeda, 28, of Dublin, was set to plead guilty to a felony charge of grand theft on Feb. 11, which would have sent him to County Jail for four months, given him five years' probation, and reduced the felony to a misdemeanor if he reimbursed the bank for the full amount within three years.
However, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Christine Moruza refused to approve it, to the dismay of Ojeda's attorney, Phil Schnayerson, who argued that Ojeda already had put $58,000 into a trust fund with the intent of paying back the full amount.
"So, because (Ojeda)'s paid back half of the $118,000, he doesn't have to take an elder abuse charge?" Moruza said incredulously. "I don't agree ... I'm sorry."
The judge's decision was met with applause from Magel's family, who believe Ojeda should have a criminal record precluding him from working at another bank.
Ojeda, who is due back in court March 2, refused to talk about his case. His attorney said the plea deal came as a result of an agreement with prosecutors that the crime was more a case of theft than elder abuse.
Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jerry Herman would not comment on the case.
The district attorney charged Ojeda, who left Chase in 2013, with three felony counts of financial elder abuse in December.
In early 2013, according to a police report, Ojeda, with the help of other tellers, made two cash withdrawals totaling $13,600 and later withdrew the exact amount of Magel's CD just two days after it matured, using it to purchase a cashier's check for $105,237 at the Chase Bank branch on First Street. That check was immediately split into two cashier's checks, one for $70,000 and the other for the remainder, which Ojeda deposited into his mother's bank account.
Magel's driver's license and debit card information were manually entered by the employees, and Magel was not present for the transactions, the report concludes.
In the report, Ojeda later admitted to investigators that he had taken the money but said that it had been a gift from Magel, whom Ojeda claimed had been present at the time of the transactions. Ojeda also told detectives he had used some of the money to invest in real estate, according to the report
According to Livermore police Detective Elaine Briggs, police and a Chase fraud investigator tracked the activity to Ojeda through his personal key code, which had to be put in for each transaction. Ojeda, she said, was able to cash in the CD using forged signatures, even though the checks required a manager's approval.
Briggs said supervisors had relied on Ojeda's word and likely overlooked the approval. Linda Magel is convinced other employees were involved in the scam, but Briggs said there wasn't enough evidence to charge any others.
As disturbing as the thefts were to Magel, equally so was the response she received from Chase, which initially denied any responsibility and wouldn't allow her to file a claim to get the money back. After Magel reported the crime to police, bank officials wouldn't allow employees to be interviewed by police without a Chase fraud investigator present, according to the police report.
Magel then filed an affidavit with Chase's claims department, and in July the bank denied the claim in a form letter saying too much time had passed for the funds to be eligible for reimbursement. Magel responded by filing a complaint with Department of Treasury and sent a letter to JP Morgan Chase CEO James Dimon threatening legal action. The following month, Chase refunded the money with interest, but Magel contends that the bank should have paid additional interest that would have accrued had the money been left untouched.
Local bank employees said they were not authorized to speak about the case. JP Morgan Chase officials said they would not comment on an active legal case but issued the following statement: "When we learned about the customer's concern, we investigated and worked with police. We reimbursed the amount with interest and apologized to the customer."
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Livermore case puts spotlight on elder abuse