Judge says document "doesn't pass the smell test"
By: Adam Walser
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A Pinellas County man is fighting against his stepmother in a guardianship case over how to best care for his dad.
The ABC Action News I-Team has learned that the case involves questionable documents submitted to the court, a new Maserati and a costly legal battle that has dragged on for more than a year.
St. Petersburg resident Wayne Beckford is at the center of the dispute. Beckford, a Jamaican immigrant who worked for more than a quarter of a century as a radiology technician, raised his only son Charles as a single father.
Wayne supported Charles through an IB magnet high school program, college, and later law school at Florida State University.
“I think he’s what everyone should aspire to be. He cares about his family,” Charles Beckford said. “We didn’t have much, but he was putting things aside so he could take care of me.”
“There is an army, a village Wayne has”
Wayne has three loving sisters who all reside in Florida.
“We only have each other. Our parents are gone. We are everything to each other,” said Wayne’s sister Desrine Beckford.
His sisters said Wayne has almost five dozen cousins and countless colleagues and friends, who have played an important role in his life for decades.
“There is an army, a village Wayne has,” said Wayne’s sister Paula Beckford Harrilal.
But his son and siblings said the court has ignored their pleas. Wayne suffered a major brain bleed in June of last year, leaving him unable to talk, walk and perform other tasks of daily living, according to a doctor’s report.
“Everything is in place for Wayne to be declared essentially as an incapacitated man,” Paula said. “He has not been. And we are now talking about since the process started in October of 2020.”
Wayne’s sister Paula said she doesn’t believe the judge knew all the facts at an Emergency Temporary Guardianship hearing for her brother held more than a year ago.
“We are at the hearing to basically say here’s this man’s situation, we need you to intercede and help us while we sort through this. And we didn’t get that,” she said.
The Emergency Temporary Guardianship Process
Guardianships in Florida are often requested when family members disagree over how to best care for a loved one. The court’s role is to protect alleged incapacitated people from potential exploitation, danger, abuse, or neglect.
Over the past eight years, the ABC Action News I-Team has uncovered significant problems with Florida’s guardianship system.
A judge can appoint an Emergency Temporary Guardian to care for someone for up to 90 days while a committee of three health care professionals assesses whether the person at the center of the case is incapacitated.
If a committee rules that a person is incapacitated, then the judge can appoint a permanent guardian, which can either be a family member or a professional guardian who doesn’t represent any party.
Pinellas County Probate Judge Pamela Campbell ruled against Charles’ request to be Wayne’s emergency temporary guardian, saying Charles and other witnesses offered no proof that Wayne was endangered.
The judge allowed Wayne’s wife Donna to continue to care for him, instructing her to allow other family members to visit him and to be informed of decisions regarding his care.
Charles alleges Wayne’s wife was estranged when he became ill
Charles alleged in his petition that Donna and his dad were estranged and had not lived in the same home since January 2020.
“The reason for the concern, and the immediate need for the establishment of a guardianship over the person and property, is because the Father's estranged wife, Donna Beckford, is improperly taking or moving his assets, with a real fear of dissipation of the Father's monies,” Charles’ petition said.
Charles testified in court that Donna and his dad split up months before his illness. But Donna denied that during the ETG hearing, saying she only moved out of the home before his aneurism due to COVID concerns.
In a video deposition of Donna Beckford recorded on May 26, 2021, she admitted she didn’t stay at the home from April until his illness in June 2020.
“There’s some concerning issues for me with Donna Beckford and the issues about the marriage. Would this be a good case for a professional? Perhaps, but that’s going to be for another day,” Judge Campbell said at the ETG hearing.
Donna’s criminal past
Donna and Wayne met online and married in 2003. Donna had multiple felony arrests before meeting Wayne, including the Battery of a Law Enforcement officer, which she listed on her application to be Wayne’s guardian “happened 27 years ago.”
Court records indicate that she entered a plea in January 1998, less than 24 years ago.
“Under penalties of perjury, I declare that I have read the foregoing, and the facts alleged are true, to the best of my knowledge and belief,” reads the application Donna signed.
She did not list a second felony. When asked about other crimes in her sworn deposition, Donna admitted she left it off her application.
“I think the charge was robbery,” Donna testified.
That charge from 1991 was resolved by a “no contest” plea and resulted in Donna being placed on probation for two years, according to court records obtained by the I-Team.
Last November, Charles’ attorney filed a motion to disqualify Donna from serving as Wayne’s guardian. That motion said, “On June 27, 1991, DONNA BECKFORD, under her maiden name of Donna Alene Johnson, plead guilty to a felony for robbery, with an adjudication withheld. The charge was based on an armed carjacking that occurred in Pembroke Pines, Florida.”
“Donna Beckford, due to her pleading guilty to a charge of a felony, for a crime related to robbery, regardless of her adjudication, is disqualified to serve as a Guardian in the State of Florida,” the motion to disqualify her said.
Judge Campbell never ruled on the motion.
More than a year later, Donna’s attorney filed a motion asking Judge Campbell for an exemption from criminal disqualification to serve as Wayne’s guardian, saying “The events took place twenty-four (24) and thirty (30) years ago, and should not be a lifetime disqualification barring Donna from serving as guardian for her own husband.”
That motion said Donna already received exemptions from the state to obtain a certified nursing assistant license and to operate a home care business.
Donna’s Devoted Healthcare
Donna Beckford’s company, Donna’s Devoted Healthcare LLC, had 43 employees, according to a PPP loan application she filed with the US Small Business Administration.
Florida Secretary of State Records indicate she registered the company with the state in 2019. The company received a PPP loan of $307,200 which was forgiven.
Wayne assisted her in setting up the company and was on the payroll when he got sick.
“She wanted him under the care of her home companion care company,” Charles Beckford said.
The company emailed Charles and his father multiple invoices for Wayne’s care, charging $456 a day for 24/7 care. Charles said he never paid the bills. Wayne’s sister Paula said employees of the company prevented her and her sisters from spending time alone with her brother.
“It’s this entity, this companion care organization that has taken hold of my brother,” she said.
Donna’s attorney, Hamden H. Baskin III, who declined an interview, said in an email, “Donna has and is paying for caregivers…Wayne receives all therapies and caregiver support recommended.”
“Everything that I’m billing for Wayne comes off of my taxes at the end of the year,” Donna said during her deposition.
After Wayne was released from a rehab center, Charles and his aunts wanted him moved into a facility with intensive on-site therapy.
“He needs to get the most amount of therapy every single day. Every doctor that we’ve talked to said that six month to one year period for his type of brain injury was the most crucial,” Charles said.
“He’s gonna have more success at home. And I truly believe he’s gonna get better,” Donna said in her deposition.
“I sleep at the house with him each night. I’m a C.N.A.,” Donna said, referring to her license as a certified nursing assistant.
But starting months before Wayne’s illness and continuing at least through August of 2021, Donna was spending time at a condo left to her in a will by one of her former clients, according to private investigators Charles hired to follow Donna and account for her whereabouts.
“Private investigators over five to six weeks saw her at the condo 25… somewhere around there… 25 days,” Charles said.
A report prepared by private investigation firm Apex Surveillance and Investigations shows Donna’s Maserati parked in the driveway of the condo during that surveillance period. Investigators also shot video of Donna accompanied by a male companion.
During her deposition, Donna testified she began seeing that man in 2018 and is still in a relationship with him. Donna also testified that in September 2020, she used money from Wayne’s bank account for a down payment on her Maserati.
Wayne was in a rehab center at the time and Donna’s name was not on any of his bank accounts.
“Did you talk to Wayne about using $2,000 from his account to make your Maserati down payment?” Charles’ attorney asked her during the deposition.
“I did not,” Donna replied.
“Wayne didn’t have the capacity to know the difference between a Fisher-Price toy and an actual car,” Wayne’s sister Paula said.
Judge: It doesn’t pass the smell test
The legal fight between Charles and Donna started on October 13 last year, when Charles petitioned to be his father’s guardian.
“Someone is in control of my Dad’s life. We’re filing for guardianship to basically say that someone should come in under the guise of the court and protect him,” Charles said.
The day after Charles petitioned to be his father’s guardian, a lawyer who Donna contacted showed up at Wayne’s home, saying he represented Wayne and brought a 14-page power of attorney agreement with him.
That agreement would allow Donna to control his real estate, bank accounts, vehicles, and other assets and according to the language in the agreement “shall not terminate, should I become disabled or incapacitated."
The document Wayne signed indicated that by signing the agreement he declared he was “of sound mind and under no constraint or undue influence.”
“My brother did not call this lawyer to come to his home and bring those documents,” Paula said.
She said Wayne wasn’t able to call anyone at the time.
That attorney, who was not Donna’s attorney Baskin, also brought a health care surrogate designation and a living will for Wayne to sign. He was accompanied by a witness who listed the lawyer’s office address as her address and a notary.
Wayne’s sisters said Wayne has been unable to read anything since his aneurysm. Wayne did not sign his full name on any of the documents.
“The signatures are all over the place. They’re scribble,” Paula said.
During the Emergency Temporary Guardianship hearing, the attorney who prepared the document confirmed he was contacted by Donna, not Wayne, and testified Wayne “couldn’t speak, but he could nod yes or no,” according to the Emergency Temporary Guardianship hearing transcript.
The attorney testified he held a clipboard for Wayne “and he had some difficulty sometimes, you know, getting -- quite often actually, getting right on the line.”
During Donna’s deposition, Charles’ attorney asked, “On October 15, 2020, do you believe Wayne had the mental capacity to understand a Power of Attorney and Health Care Surrogate document?”
“Absolutely,” Donna replied.
“On October 16, the very next day, you filed a petition to be appointed guardian. Do you recall that?” Charles’ attorney asked.
“I think this is where we should bring Hamden in. This is some things that he was directing us,” she replied.
The petition for guardianship that Donna filed under oath said Wayne, “is an incapacitated person.”
In his email response to the I-Team, Baskin wrote, “Donna asserts no guardianship is needed, but if one must be entered, that she should be appointed.”
The transcript said Judge Campbell reserved ruling on the validity of the documents until later and responded… “It’s not a good look. I’ll just put it that way. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”
But the judge denied Charles’ petition.
“Caring cannot be litigated in court”
The case has since gone through depositions, mediation and multiple hearings.
Charles said the case has so far cost him more than $100,000, with no decision made about whether his father would be appointed a guardian.
Attorney Baskin blamed the delays and the excessive cost on Charles, who he said in an email has issued, “unnecessary discovery… designed to harass Donna or members of her staff.”
Baskin said Charles “has run up fees beyond reason, funds which should have been used for Wayne’s well-being.”
We went to Wayne’s home in late October to try to talk to Donna. A Maserati was in the driveway, but nobody answered the door.
Charles’ attorney filed a motion to withdraw from the case on November 17, citing “irreconcilable differences” with his client.
Charles said he will continue to fight until all his options run out.
“Who wouldn’t if they love their father,” he said.
He has no financial incentive to continue the court battle because most of Wayne’s money has been spent.
“If we’re not fighting for money, then what are we fighting for? I guess love cannot be litigated in court. Caring cannot be litigated in court. So those aren’t terms that they’re used to,” Paula said.
The case is scheduled for trial in mid-December.
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at email@example.com