Kathleen Prunier, 59, had been charged with theft by unauthorized taking for misleading the elderly Trenton property owner that a parcel of land she purchased from him was worth far less than its assessed value. The case was heard during a three-day bench trial in August in Hancock County Unified Criminal Court.
The judge in the case, Justice Michael Roberts, handed down the verdict Tuesday, saying that he could “not find beyond a reasonable doubt” that Prunier committed a crime.
Roberts called the case “somewhat unusual” in that it hinged upon the mental state of the property owner, Richard Royal. Prunier, who was friends with Royal, purchased the property in 2014. He died in July at the age of 85.
“Mr. Royal suffered from cognitive impairment from 2012 forward,” Roberts noted. “The impairment became more substantial as time went on.”
Testimony during the trial revealed Prunier brought Royal to the home of Trenton’s administrative assistant, who is a notary, on a day his caretaker was absent to have the sales contract notarized. Under the contract, Prunier bought the 5.27-acre property with right-of-way to the shore for $4,000, with a payment plan where she was to pay $49.38 per month with no interest.
Royal’s cognitive decline led his doctor to conclude that he needed help with financial transactions. In response, his niece Lisa Harriman was given power of attorney. But according to a July 2015 letter from the doctor, Royal was still “capable of making decisions,” Roberts said.
The value of the property was questioned during the trial. Roberts described the evidence presented as “all over the place.”
Roberts stressed that Prunier was charged with a criminal act, which has a higher standard of proof than a civil action.
Outside the courtroom, Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, who prosecuted the case, said this was the first case involving a theft from an elderly person that the financial crimes division has prosecuted.
“This is new ground here,” she said. “Elder financial exploitation is growing. I think it was important to bring to trial.”
Robbin described Roberts’ decision as “reasonable and well-thought-out.” She agreed that evidence regarding the true value of the property was “muddled.” Citing the town’s valuation, Robbin said it wasn’t simply a matter of showing that Prunier bought a $75,000 property for $4,000.
Robbin said Prunier still faces a civil suit brought by Royal’s family and echoed Roberts’ comment that there is a lower standard of proof required in civil cases.
Harriman also faces a criminal charge. She was indicted by a grand jury in October 2016 on a theft charge. She is charged with taking control of cash in excess of $10,000 during the period between November 2012 and July 2015. Robbin said the case “hopefully” will go to trial before the end of the year.
Prunier is a veterinarian who once operated Your Pet’s Next Best Friend in Bar Harbor.
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Trenton woman not guilty of elder theft