This is the final installment of a five-part Albuquerque Journal series: Who Guards The Guardians?
Blair Darnell died on Nov. 18, 2015, at the age of 85. After a lifetime spent as a cowgirl and raising champion quarter horses with her husband, Casey, the last five years of her life were spent under a court-ordered guardianship and conservatorship program approved by District Judge Beatrice Brickhouse.
After Blair Darnell’s eldest daughter, Kris Darnell-Kreger, disagreed with her siblings about what was best for their widowed mother and took the matter to court in January 2010, the once close-knit family fractured.
Blair, suffering early stages of dementia, was declared “incapacitated” by Judge Brickhouse, who appointed a team of for-profit professionals to, literally, take over every facet of Blair Darnell’s life. As a “ward” of the court, Mrs. Darnell lost her civil rights to make her own decisions.
The Darnell estate, estimated at $5 million when the court stepped in, dwindled to less than $750,000. The monies were spent to pay for Blair’s simple living expenses – even though she had trust and Social Security income – and for a team of court-appointed guardianship professionals. The finances were administered by a powerful court-appointed conservator named Darryl Millet.
Today, Casey and Blair Darnell’s three youngest children – Cliff, Emily and Mary – continue to seethe about how their parent’s beloved 17-acre ranch was divided up, dismantled and finally sold off without their consent by conservator Millet – even though a family trust was in place. Kris Darnell-Kreger has declined Journal requests to be interviewed.
Millett told the Journal he was faithful in his duties to do what was best for Blair Darnell. Court officials said Judge Brickhouse could not comment on the case.
The Darnells’ cherished childhood ranch was a prime bosque property with an extensive pasture and access to the Rio Grande. It has been described as beautiful, unique and supportive of migratory bird habitat. The events that led to the family’s losing the property can be tracked by court documents and other information uncovered by the Journal during a 10-month investigation. It is a complicated legal trail that, the three Darnell siblings say, was fraught with emotion and frustration and was extremely expensive for them to traverse.
Property saleOn March 20, 2013, Darryl Millet filed a motion with Judge Brickhouse requesting a hearing to approve his plan to sell the bulk of the Darnell ranch, about 15 acres. Under rules of the Uniform Probate Code, all guardian proceedings in New Mexico are strictly sequestered, kept secret, to protect the privacy of the ward.
Despite the secrecy, and the rule that a conservator may act independently of the family and is only required to report to the judge, Cliff, Mary and Emily Darnell learned that Millet had received a $1.54 million offer on the property from a man named Jay Rembe. Mary, who has had her real estate license for 20 years, felt that price was way too low. Through her attorney, Mary let the judge know of her professional opinion and that there was someone ready to offer much more for the ranch.
• On April 8, 2013, a sworn affidavit was filed with the court informing the judge that the Darnells’ longtime neighbor, Denny Gentry, was prepared to offer $1.7 million for the 15-acre plot held in Casey Darnell’s “A” Trust. Gentry told the court he had expressed an interest in buying the property years earlier and that Blair Darnell had “indicated that when the property was listed, we would have first right of refusal against any offer.”
• On April 10, Mary Darnell asked the court to hold a hearing on the matter. The next day, she filed an emergency motion to force the conservator to reveal documents related to his proposed sale.
• On May 13, Judge Brickhouse held a closed hearing on conservator Millet’s motion for approval of sale. Also on this day, Cliff Darnell filed his opposition to the proposed plan.
• On June 25, after a flurry of back-and-forth pleadings and affidavits, Judge Brickhouse approved the $1.54 million offer from Rembe.
Despite that, there was no sale at this point. Because there is no transparency in this process, there is no public information available to explain why a higher offer was not pursued. And there is no way to determine why both the $1.54 million offer and the $1.7 million proposal ultimately fell through.
‘Suspect’On July 31, Mary Darnell, confused and concerned about the process, received an opinion from a real estate lawyer she consulted about the conservator’s fiduciary responsibility to her family. In an email reviewed by the Journal, the Albuquerque attorney wrote that after reviewing all the information Mary had sent, he considered the sale proposal Millett had submitted to the court to be “suspect,” and said Millet should have engaged a Realtor as an independent third party.
In his letter to Mary Darnell, John Lieuwen wrote, “It is blackletter law that a trustee owes a fiduciary duty to both the present income beneficiary (Blair Darnell) and the remaindermen (the heirs). Even if the trustee’s primary charge is the current beneficiary, he cannot do anything which will compromise the remaindermen’s interest.”
On Oct. 29, Mary, with the blessing of brother Cliff and sister Emily, filed a motion asking Judge Brickhouse to require Millet to produce financial information or, in the alternative, to remove him as conservator/trustee.
The next day, before the judge could consider the motion, Millet closed on a deal to sell the Darnell ranch to Tom L. Stromei for the even lower price of $1.4 million.
According to the purchase agreement, the sale included the entire ranch – all 17 acres, including Blair Darnell’s home and the two-acre parcel on which the home still sits. This, even though the two-acre parcel and home were protected separately in the family’s “B” Trust.
Included in the cash deal was a life estate deed allowing Blair to remain in her home on a fenced-in, one-acre parcel until she died. Upon her death, the home and land would automatically pass to Stromei.
The three youngest Darnell children call it “a suspect, sweetheart deal,” but they were powerless to stop it.
When contacted by the Journal, Stromei said he knew nothing about the back story of the land. “The property was put on the market by a real estate broker, and I purchased the property, and that’s the end of it,” he said. Stromei said he had never had any other dealings with conservator Millet, and as the conversation abruptly ended, he added, “I don’t appreciate the accusations those people make around here.”
At the beginning of the Darnell saga, Kris Darnell-Kreger’s attorney, Greg MacKenzie, provided a verified petition to the court saying the Darnell land was worth some $300,000 an acre. That’s about $5.1 million. (Click to Continue)
Full Article & Source:
Families feel steamrolled as estates disappear
Who Guards the Guardians? Part One
Who Guards the Guardians? Part Two
Who Guards the Guardians? Part Three
Who Guards the Guardians? Part Four