The new couple next door, married men who blended their last names, showed what at first appeared to be a helpful interest in their neighbor, a 92-year-old woman who'd never married and seemed to be struggling with old age.
But prosecutors say the couple's concern was only a cover for opportunism that briefly netted them their neighbor's house and control of nearly $2 million she had saved in more than a dozen area banks — until players in the senior services community stepped in.
Orlin Root-Thalman, 37, and Craig Root-Thalman, 29, were charged Tuesday with two counts of theft of more than $10,000 in a business setting and criminal slander to title related to how they got the woman to sign over the deed to her home last year, a transfer later voided by a judge in probate court.
All the counts are felonies, and the theft charges carry a possible maximum penalty of five years in prison. The couple, who own and operate Salon Orlin in Elm Grove, are scheduled to make their initial court appearances next month.
"This case is particularly extraordinary because of the financial abuse and the scale of it, the length of time that this was going on, the vulnerability of this particular older woman," Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun said.
Daun praised the work of Dewey Martin and Catherine Grady, a county attorney and paralegal involved in the case that already briefly landed Orlin Root-Thalman in jail on contempt during a guardianship hearing last year.
Martin said there were a number of "red flags" that the couple was manipulating the woman for their own gain.
"This couple befriended her and they started financially exploiting her," he said.
A new statewide Task Force on Elder Abuse brought together by Attorney General Brad Schimel met last week to discuss bringing more criminal charges in elder financial abuse and exploitation cases, Martin said.
"We're all working to bring these cases more to the forefront," Martin said, so that more criminal charges get filed in cases of elder financial abuse.
According to records:
The victim, a retired Milwaukee Public Schools teacher, lived alone for years at her house on N. 77th St. in Milwaukee. Around 2012, the Root-Thalmans moved in next door. A cousin of the victim, a senior citizen himself, and his wife had been helping care for the woman but as her dementia worsened, it became harder for them.
Around April 2016, the Root-Thalmans began helping the cousin care for the woman and her home. By July 2016, the Root-Thalmans had filed a quitclaim deed purporting to transfer the victim's house to them. Four days later, she signed a power of attorney document naming Orlin Root-Thalman as her financial agent.
The woman's cousin told investigators the Root-Thalmans changed the locks on the house and told him that he and his wife weren't needed anymore to care for the woman.
Despite the woman's considerable assets, the Root-Thalmans didn't hire professional caregivers for her but instead paid untrained friends to assist her.
Orlin Root-Thalman then changed, or tried to change, the payable-on-death beneficiaries on the woman's many bank accounts and wrote checks to himself and his spouse for caretaking services, as well as more than $60,000 for improvements at the woman's house, which has an assessed value of about $123,000.
Martin said they also moved the woman out of her home and into a hotel.
"It was a whole conspiracy," he said. "They had their friends watching her. They had their friends who renovated homes coming in and fixing the home."
In early August 2016, less than a month after she had signed over her house to them, the Root-Thalmans sought to have her declared incompetent at a hospital. She was, but one doctor noted her condition was such that she certainly would have been incompetent 30 days earlier. He had a social worker contact the county's Department of Aging about her and the guardianship proceeding was initiated.
When officials interviewed the woman in 2016 at the nursing home where she'd gone after the neighbors took over her house, she didn't know the day, week, month or year, couldn't name the president or remember her guests' names after repeated introductions.
She showed no memory of signing the quitclaim deed or the power of attorney in July and did not recognize a photo of the Root-Thalmans.
According to the complaint, the defendants knew their neighbor was mentally incompetent before they had her sign over her house and designate Orlin Root-Thalman as a financial agent because "her dementia was obvious, chronic and longstanding."
More than a year earlier, while she was convalescing from a broken hip, doctors found the woman confused, delusional and angry with impaired memory, all due to dementia.
Even a video the Root-Thalmans took of her signing the deed and power of attorney, meant to show she was competent actually shows how she was being directed to read from notes, according to prosecutors.
The woman had planned to leave most of her estate to organizations that care for animals. The Root-Thalmans had two dogs, Walter and Sassy, according to handwritten notes they provided to the woman for the video.
Though guardianship records are sealed, the criminal complaint indicates the Root-Thalmans have appealed Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Borowski's order voiding the woman's transfer of her home to the couple.
Her court-appointed guardian, attorney Eamon Guerin, said the woman is currently doing well, living in an independent apartment with 24-hour available care. He said she would like to return to her family home, but is not sure that will be possible.
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Couple charged with scamming home, cash from 92-year-old neighbor with dementia