|Photo: Edouard Plante-Fréchette/La Presse|
The shocking fate of Veronika Piela, a Montreal
woman defrauded of her life savings, is symptomatic of a larger problem.
Many seniors are isolated, vulnerable and unlikely to be believed—even
when they're telling the truth.
The case of Veronika Piela
of breath, her face tensed with fear, an elderly woman struggled with
her walker on a snowy sidewalk in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges
neighbourhood. It was February 14, 2014, and, despite the biting cold,
she wore no scarf, gloves or coat.
“Help me,” she asked a
passerby, who was surprised to see the frail woman so underdressed. The
good Samaritan covered her with some of her own clothes and called
When the police arrived, the older woman was
shaking. She had no ID. With a thick Russian accent, she kept repeating
how much she disliked her new apartment. She didn’t want to return
because she wasn’t allowed to have visitors or use the telephone.
officers escorted her back to her nursing home, where they were shown a
court order for 89-year-old Veronika Piela to live at the residence.
“If I stay, I’ll kill myself,” Piela told the police. She had run away by sneaking out an emergency exit.
knew what it was like to be held against her will. During the Second
World War, as an 18-year-old orphan, she was interned with thousands of
other Ukrainians at a labour camp in Germany, unsure if she would make
it out alive. There she met a Polish man named Joseph Piela. Together
they survived imprisonment and, in August 1945, married in the camp
before being released at the end of the war.
In 1948, the couple emigrated to Quebec’s Mauricie region and then on
to Montreal, where Joseph worked as a cook and Veronika as a maid and
labourer. They had no children. With their savings, they eventually
purchased two homes. When Joseph died in 1987, Piela was alone. She
lived on a small retirement pension and, later, on the money from their
properties, which she sold in 2007.
Now, once again, Piela was
trapped. But providence intervened, as it had during the war. Back at
the station, the officers submitted their statement to Elizabeth Kraska,
an elder-abuse case investigator for the city’s police department.
“I immediately connected it to another incident that had occurred two weeks earlier,” she said.
January 28, Alissa Kerner, a social worker in private practice, had
called the police to report an Alzheimer’s patient named Veronika Piela.
Kerner claimed that Piela was living in squalid conditions and the
social worker was seeking urgent help from the police to remove her from
The call was
transferred to Kraska. Kerner explained that she had been hired by Anita
Obodzinski, described as Piela’s niece and legal representative, to
conduct a psychosocial assessment of the elderly woman. Her conclusion
was that Piela could no longer manage on her own and needed to be sent
to a care facility.
“I told her to come down to the station with
the protection mandate and evaluation reports,” said Kraska. But when
Kerner showed up, she didn’t have any of the documents to prove the
subject’s incapacity or Obodzinski’s legal authority to make decisions
on her behalf. Without them, the police could only transfer Piela to
hospital if they felt she needed help. Yet Kerner insisted that Piela
should not be sent to a hospital.
For Kraska, something felt off.
At that time, she was moving her own 91-year-old father to a care centre
for Alzheimer’s patients, so she was familiar with the process. “He
went through several medical assessments, and I was there every step of
the way. It was clear to me that Ms. Kerner was trying to hide
something,” she said.
On February 5, Kraska raised the alert with Quebec’s human rights commission
and public curator. Then she set to work on the investigation. Kraska
turned her attention to Piela’s police file, where she found evidence of
more suspicious incidents.
On February 2, less than a week after
Kerner’s call to the station, police had been summoned to Piela’s
apartment. According to the report, Kerner and Obodzinski had knocked on
the door, but Piela had refused to let them in. The women soon returned
with Obodzinski’s husband, Arthur Trzciakowski, and forced their way in
to the apartment.
thought they were going to kill me,” Piela had told the officers, in
tears. She had alerted the police to the intrusion before her phone was
unplugged. Kerner, Obodzinski and Trzciakowski were arrested but
released without charges when they showed a protection mandate and
claimed the incident was a misunderstanding.
also found a report from February 12, two days before Piela was
discovered in the street, when officers had been called to help a
bailiff with a Superior Court order to evict Piela from her apartment
and bring her to a nursing home.
The court order had been granted
in December 2013. Piela—described as an Alzheimer’s patient incapable of
living alone—was not present during these proceedings. The judge ruled
in favour of eviction, and Piela was sent by ambulance to a nursing
home. The lawyer representing Obodzinski for the hearing was Charles
Gelber, Kerner’s husband.
Kraska had seen
enough. On February 17, she and four officers went to Piela’s nursing
home. There they discovered that the elderly woman had been placed in a
small, stark basement room. Her only possessions were the clothes on her
Kraska walked toward Piela
slowly, as she did with her own father, and spoke to her in Polish, a
language she had learned from her parents. “Her face lit up,” said
During their exchange, Piela appeared mentally sound and
exhibited no signs of Alzheimer’s disease. The only medication Kraska
found in the room was a prescription to treat Piela’s rheumatism.
“Help me,” said Piela, “or I’ll commit suicide.” Kraska put her arm around the elderly woman and promised to get her out.
“She’s only interested in the money from the two homes I sold,” Piela said of Anita Obodzinski.
to Kraska’s intervention, Piela was quickly placed in another care
centre, the location of which was kept secret for her own safety. But
she had another urgent problem: she’d been stripped of all her money.
When Piela checked her bank accounts, she discovered that $474,000 had
been transferred to a trust registered to Charles Gelber, on behalf of
Obodzinski. In order to get her money back, she had to regain her legal
autonomy. Piela hired a lawyer.
proceedings to invalidate the protection mandate—which provides someone
control of another person’s physical and financial care in case of
their incapacity—began at the end of February 2014 and continued for two
years. During that time, Piela had to go to court 20 times. The anxiety
she experienced caused her to develop heart problems and high blood
pressure, for which she was hospitalized. Despite her poor health, Piela
was determined to provide her testimony.
“I met Anita Obodzinski
in 2007,” she explained to Superior Court judge Hélène Langlois in
November 2015. “She showed up at my house with her mother, an
acquaintance of mine, and wanted to buy one of my duplexes.”
sale fell through, but Obodzinski offered to take Piela to her medical
appointments and help her with chores for $100 a week. Their arrangement
came to an end in June 2013, when Piela said she accused Obodzinski of
stealing from her purse.
defence, Obodzinski claimed she was officially mandated to care for
Piela and manage her property. But the protection mandate, dating from
March 2013, when Piela had undergone knee surgery, was shown to have
been forged. An expert witness from the forensic-science laboratory
testified that the signature on the document wasn’t Piela’s.
Quebec law, the protection mandate requires both a medical assessment
and a psychosocial report to be put into effect. Kerner had supplied the
latter. And she had asked Dr. Lindsay Goldsmith, a Montreal family
doctor, to conduct the medical evaluation. Goldsmith claimed that she
had carried out her evaluation in November 2013, in Piela’s kitchen,
with Obodzinski translating the questions and answers to and from
Russian. Goldsmith concluded that Piela wasn’t able to take care of
herself or her property and that she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Piela, however, maintained that she had never met with a doctor.
court, geriatric physician Dr. Catherine Ferrier disputed Goldsmith’s
findings. After completing her own medical tests, she found that Piela
was capable of making decisions and administering her affairs. Ferrier
told the court that it was unlikely that Piela was suffering from
Alzheimer’s in November 2013, since the disease may stabilize, but it
The court ruled
that the reports by Goldsmith and Kerner were unreliable. The mandate
was revoked in November 2015, and Piela was declared able to take care
of herself and her property and exercise her civil rights. She was free,
and her money was returned to her.
Not an isolated incident
Piela’s attorney contacted Quebec’s order of social work, urging them
to investigate Alissa Kerner. In September 2014, they suspended her.
Given the allegations, the order initiated a review of the social
worker’s assessments of other seniors. Thanks to that inquiry, three
more stories were brought to their attention and investigated.
of those cases involved Rose Stein Brownstein. In 2011, when the
Montrealer was 76, her son had encouraged her to sign a protection
mandate in case of incapacity. The following year, social worker Alissa
Kerner had performed an assessment that determined Brownstein had
trouble managing her finances and making rational decisions. In October
2012, despite inconclusive medical reports, the protection mandate was
put into effect, with her son as mandatary.
just two months later, Brownstein’s son died of cancer. The replacement
named on his mother’s protection mandate was his close friend: Charles
Gelber. Over the course of the following year, Brownstein stopped
receiving her financial statements, which had been rerouted to Gelber.
When she requested copies, she noticed that money was disappearing from
her accounts. In December 2013, Gelber had paid himself $17,000 for
“administrative services rendered.” Additionally, regular payments,
amounting to thousands of dollars, were being transferred to an account
belonging to Alissa Kerner.
Brownstein reported the incident to
the police and took legal action to prove she wasn’t suffering from
Alzheimer’s. She hired a lawyer to demonstrate that the protection
mandate should be nullified, and a new medical assessment proved that
her cognition was just fine. In March 2015, over Gelber’s objections, a
judge found in Brownstein’s favour and she regained her autonomy. The
court has yet to rule on the amounts in dispute, but no criminal charges
Justice is served
her misconduct, Alissa Kerner faced 11 ethical violations before her
professional order—six of them for her involvement in Piela’s case.
Another seven disciplinary charges were filed against her in July 2015,
and in August 2016, Kerner was suspended for three years and ordered to
pay $2,000. She has admitted fault on most counts but expressed no
“This is the first time
we’ve seen collusion and such serious transgressions against seniors by
one of our own members,” said Marcel Bonneau, trustee of Quebec’s order
of social workers.
In criminal court in September 2017, Kerner
pleaded guilty to mischief and breaking and entering into Piela’s home.
She was given six months’ probation and ordered to pay $2,000 to the
Crime Victims Assistance Centre.
In January 2018, Obodzinski
pleaded guilty to a number of charges, including mischief and
obstruction of justice. Her husband, Arthur Trzciakowski, also pleaded
guilty to one count of unlawful entry and mischief. Obodzinski was
sentenced to two years’ house arrest, three years’ probation and 240
hours of community service. Trzciakowski received a conditional
discharge and 170 hours of community service.
rendering his decision, Justice Pierre Labelle read from a statement:
“You latched on to an elderly victim and altered her life. You falsely
used the court’s authority to have the victim declared incapable of
taking care of herself. You took her life savings, and then you had her
forcibly thrown out of her own home. I have no words to express the
disgust I feel.”
In October 2018, Charles Gelber was suspended for
18 months by the Quebec bar after he pleaded guilty to seven
infractions. The disciplinary committee ruled that his actions “were a
direct infringement of Mrs. Piela’s fundamental rights.” Gelber did not
appeal the decision.
March 2014, Piela’s lawyer submitted a complaint against Dr. Lindsay
Goldsmith to the province’s order of physicians. No charges were laid.
However, Goldsmith, Kerner, Gelber, Obodzinski and Trzciakowski are all
named in a civil suit that has been filed by Piela’s estate. The court
documents indicate that each party will defend the claims against them.
The case is scheduled for November 2019.
With her until the very end
Unfortunately, Veronika Piela can no longer testify.
by the proceedings, she died following a stroke in December 2016, at
the age of 92. She spent her final months in a Montreal residence for
Ukrainian seniors. But she couldn’t shake her suspicion of others.
was afraid of becoming a victim of fraud again,” explained Kraska.
“When she had to renew her lease or sign documents, she’d call me to
make sure everything was in order.”
Piela would tell the officer that she had saved her life.
“I just did my duty,” said Kraska. She was with Piela until the very end.