October 9, 2017... From "How the Elderly Lose Their Rights" by Rachel Aviv
Acting as her own attorney, Williams filed a racketeering suit in federal court against Shafer and the lawyers who represented him. At a hearing before the United States District Court of Central California in 2009, she told the judge, “They are trumping up ways and means to deem people incompetent and take their assets.” The case was dismissed. “The scheme is ingenious,” she told me. “How do you come up with a crime that literally none of the victims can articulate without sounding like they’re nuts? The same insane allegations keep surfacing from people who don’t know each other.”
In 2002, in a petition to the Clark County District Court, a fifty-seven-year-old man complained that his mother had lost her constitutional rights because her kitchen was understocked and a few bills hadn’t been paid. The house they shared was then placed on the market. The son wrote, “If the only showing necessary to sell the home right out from under someone is that their ‘estate’ would benefit, then no house in Clark County is safe, nor any homeowner.” Under the guise of benevolent paternalism, guardians seemed to be creating a kind of capitalist dystopia: people’s quality of life was being destroyed in order to maximize their capital.
When Concetta Mormon, a wealthy woman who owned a Montessori school, became Shafer’s ward because she had aphasia, Shafer sold the school midyear, even though students were enrolled. At a hearing after the sale, Mormon’s daughter, Victoria Cloutier, constantly spoke out of turn. The judge, Robert Lueck, ordered that she be handcuffed and placed in a holding cell while the hearing continued. Two hours later, when Cloutier was allowed to return for the conclusion, the judge told her that she had thirty days in which to vacate her mother’s house. If she didn’t leave, she would be evicted and her belongings would be taken to Goodwill.
The opinions of wards were also disregarded. In 2010, Guadalupe Olvera, a ninety-year-old veteran of the Second World War, repeatedly asked that his daughter and not Shafer be appointed his guardian. “The ward is not to go to court,” Shafer instructed his assistants. When Olvera was finally permitted to attend a hearing, nearly a year after becoming a ward, he expressed his desire to live with his daughter in California, rather than under Shafer’s care. “Why is everybody against that?” he asked Norheim. “I don’t need that man.” Although Nevada’s guardianship law requires that courts favor relatives over professionals, Norheim continued the guardianship, saying, “The priority ship sailed.”
When Olvera’s daughter eventually defied the court’s orders and took her father to live at her seaside home in Northern California, Norheim’s supervisor, Judge Charles Hoskin, issued an arrest warrant for her “immediate arrest and incarceration” without bail. The warrant was for contempt of court, but Norheim said at least five times from the bench that she had “kidnapped” Olvera. At a hearing, Norheim acknowledged that he wasn’t able to send an officer across state lines to arrest the daughter. Shafer said, “Maybe I can.”
Shafer held so much sway in the courtroom that, in 2013, when an attorney complained that the bank account of a ward named Kristina Berger had “no money left and no records to explain where it went,” Shafer told Norheim, “Close the courtroom.” Norheim immediately complied. A dozen people in attendance were forced to leave.
One of Shafer’s former bookkeepers, Lisa Clifton, who was hired in 2012, told me that Shafer used to brag about his political connections, saying, “I wrote the laws.” In 1995, he persuaded the Nevada Senate Committee on Government Affairs to write a bill that allowed the county to receive interest on money that the public guardian invested. “This is what I want you to put in the statute, and I will tell you that you will get a rousing hand from a couple of judges who practice our probate,” he said. At another hearing, he asked the committee to write an amendment permitting public guardians to take control of people’s property in five days, without a court order. “This bill is not ‘Big Brother’ if you trust the person who is doing the job,” he said. (After a senator expressed concern that the law allowed “intervention into somebody’s life without establishing some sort of reason why you are doing it,” the committee declined to recommend it.)
Clifton observed that Shafer almost always took a cynical view of family members: they were never motivated by love or duty, only by avarice. “ ‘They just want the money’—that was his answer to everything,” she told me. “And I’m thinking to myself, Well, when family members die they pass it down to their children. Isn’t that just the normal progression of things?”
After a few months on the job, Clifton was asked to work as a guardian, substituting for an absent employee, though she had never been trained. Her first assignment was to supervise a visit with a man named Alvin Passer, who was dying in the memory-care unit of a nursing home. His partner of eight years, Olive Manoli, was permitted a brief visit to say goodbye. Her visits had been restricted by Shafer—his lawyer told the court that Passer became “agitated and sexually aggressive” in her presence—and she hadn’t seen Passer in months. In a futile attempt to persuade the court to allow her to be with him, Manoli had submitted a collection of love letters, as well as notes from ten people describing her desire to care for Passer for the rest of his life. “I was absolutely appalled,” Clifton said. “She was this very sweet lady, and I said, ‘Go in there and spend as much time with him as you want.’ Tears were rolling down her cheeks.”
The family seemed to have suffered a form of court-sanctioned gaslighting. Passer’s daughter, Joyce, a psychiatric nurse who specialized in geriatrics, had been abruptly removed as her father’s co-guardian, because she appeared “unwilling or (more likely) unable to conduct herself rationally in the Ward’s best interests,” according to motions filed by one of Shafer’s attorneys.
She and Manoli had begged Norheim not to appoint Shafer as guardian. “Sir, he’s abusive,” their lawyer said in court.
“He’s as good as we got, and I trust him completely,” Norheim responded.
Joyce Passer was so confused by the situation that, she said, “I thought I was crazy.” Then she received a call from a blocked number. It was Terry Williams, who did not reveal her identity. She had put together a list of a half-dozen family members who she felt were “ready to receive some kind of verbal support.” She told Passer, “Look, you are not nuts. This is real. Everything you are thinking is true. This has been going on for years.”
Steve Miller, a former member of the Las Vegas City Council, said he assumed that Shafer would be the next indictment after Parks, who is scheduled to go to trial next spring. “All of the disreputable guardians were taking clues from the Shafer example,” he said. But, as the months passed, “I started to think that this has run its course locally. Only federal intervention is going to give us peace of mind.”
Read the full article in'The New Yorker"