Editor’s note: Investigative journalist Diane
Dimond, whose weekly syndicated column on crime and justice appears in
the Journal, is preparing a book on the nation’s elder guardianship
system. It’s a system designed to protect the elderly from the
unscrupulous. But as Dimond discovered, it can be dominated by a core
group of court-appointed, for-profit professionals who are accused of
isolating family members and draining the elders’ estates. New Mexico is
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.
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
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.
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.
Darnell property was sold to a buyer in the fall of 2013 in what
family said was a “sweetheart” deal. The buyer sold it in April 2015
the New Mexico Game and Fish Department for double the price.
On 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
• 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.
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
Darnell with her partner, Dick Churchill, and their son, Casey. Mary
was the primary caregiver for her mother, Blair Darnell, until her
was placed under state guardianship. (Courtesy of the Darnell
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
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