Saturday, September 18, 2021

Beyond Britney: Abuse, Exploitation, And Death Inside America’s Guardianship Industry

For people under guardianship, the system can be dehumanizing, dangerous, and even deadly. For the professionals — who can control hundreds of people at a time — it can be very profitable. A BuzzFeed News investigation.

By Heidi Blake and Katie J.M. Baker

They can isolate you: A teenager with cerebral palsy was snatched from the school gates and hidden from his parents.

They can bleed you dry: A successful rheumatologist was declared incapacitated after a bout of depression and lost her million-dollar waterfront home.

And they can leave you to die: A 46-year-old man died under a do-not-resuscitate order that went against the desperate pleas of his wife.

All three nightmares share a common cause: These people had been placed under the care — and control — of legal guardians. America’s guardianship system was designed as a last resort to be used only in the rare and drastic event that someone is totally incapacitated by mental or physical disability. In those cases, conscientious guardians can provide vital support, often in complex and distressing circumstances. But an investigation by BuzzFeed News has found that the system has grown into a vast, lucrative, and poorly regulated industry that has subsumed more than a million people, many of whom insist they are capable of making their own decisions, and placed them at risk of abuse, theft, and even death.

The #FreeBritney movement has drawn international attention to the case of Britney Spears, and wrongdoing by individual guardians has surfaced in the past, but our investigation reveals the systemic failings behind these isolated stories.

In local courts across the country — often woefully unfit for the sweeping power they command — guardians, lawyers, and expert witnesses appear frequently before the same judges in an established network of overlapping financial and professional interests. They are often paid from the estate of the person whose freedom is on the line, creating powerful incentives to form guardianships and keep them in place.

“The judge knows the lawyers, the lawyers know each other,” said J. Ronald Denman, a former state prosecutor and Florida lawyer who has contested dozens of guardianships over the past decade. “The amount of abuse is crazy. You’re going against a rigged system.”

Without being convicted of any crime, those declared incapacitated face some of the most severe measures that the courts can take against any US citizen. Most freedoms articulated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights are denied to people under full guardianship: They can lose their rights to vote, marry, start a family, decide where they live, consent to medical treatment, spend their money, seek employment, or own property.

Thousands of professional guardians, lawyers, and corporations now hold sway over assets totaling tens of billions of dollars. Some guardians have hundreds of people under their control. And despite the public perception that guardianship is a protective measure for older adults nearing death, the system traps huge numbers of young people.

BuzzFeed News has scoured hundreds of thousands of court documents, obtained confidential mental health filings and financial records, examined hundreds of guardianship cases, gathered exclusive data from extensive public records requests, conducted hundreds of interviews, and carried out a detailed review of guardianship laws in all 50 states. Our investigation reveals an opaque, overgrown, and malfunctioning system wielding vast and frightening power in the dark.

  • People have been abused, neglected, and killed while living under guardianship. BuzzFeed News identified 20 cases in which young or middle-aged people died under questionable circumstances, including murder, severe neglect, or malnourishment. A 31-year-old man was abused by care home staff and buried in concrete for months before his guardian realized he was missing. No charges were brought against her and she is still in charge of 130 people.

  • People under guardianship — commonly referred to as wards — have been locked up and isolated from their families and friends, with guardians obtaining restraining orders to keep loved ones at bay. One professional guardian who concealed the whereabouts of a woman’s teenage son declared “I’m mom now” and said she had no problem “taking the noose around” the mother’s “neck and tightening it” to keep them apart, a nurse alleged in court filings.

  • In many states, guardians can force wards to undergo invasive medical procedures including the implantation of contraceptive devices — and in several cases, wards were permanently sterilized.

  • Court clerks have failed to perform vital checks in hundreds of cases, and lax vetting has left vulnerable people in troubling hands. The owner of one major guardianship corporation was given control of hundreds of wards — including young people — despite having been repeatedly accused of domestic abuse and assault involving children.

  • Guardians have had scores of younger people placed under do-not-resuscitate orders (DNRs) — including some who have a mental illness but are physically healthy — blocking their access to potentially lifesaving treatment if they fall seriously ill. Several middle-aged people, including a former space shuttle scientist, have died under these orders, sometimes without the courts being informed.

  • Professional guardians have stolen tens of millions of dollars from hundreds of people and exploited obscure trust fund laws to conceal their financial activity from the courts. One guardianship nonprofit drained the accounts of more than 800 people, while another professional guardian transferred money from several of her wards’ accounts into a trust controlled by her husband.

  • Other wards say they have been trapped under the guardianship of controlling relatives who strangled their ability to have social or romantic relationships, choose where they live, or express their true gender identity.

The public rarely hears from people who have been stripped of their rights given the significant restrictions they live under, but in an ongoing series, BuzzFeed News will report on the cases of wards who endured harrowing ordeals while under the control of private, public, and family guardians.

BuzzFeed News reviewed details of more than 200 guardianships involving young and middle-aged people across more than 30 states. In 130 of those cases — gleaned from court documents, interviews, first-person testimony, and local news reports — we found evidence suggesting that wards were exposed to financial exploitation, and 110 may have suffered abuse or neglect. There were nearly 50 claims that people had been isolated from friends and family, and dozens of reports that people were confined against their will. In scores of cases, people were put under guardianship based on a questionable finding of incapacity. Many cases indicated that wards had experienced several of these alleged harms at once.

No comprehensive data exists on the guardianship system, and courts in many states keep case documents under seal, making it impossible to say for sure how many people are under its control. Estimates have put the number of adult guardianship cases at more than one million — a figure that experts say is rising. BuzzFeed News filed public records requests to all 50 states and the District of Columbia to create an unprecedented dataset on the number of cases being opened across the country each year. Fewer than half of the states had fully usable data, but BuzzFeed News consulted statisticians to develop a national estimate based on the figures provided. Our analysis suggests that as many as 200,000 adult guardianship cases are filed per year.

People whose capacity is in question are often struggling with physical and mental conditions that make caring for them unquestionably difficult. But guardianship is such an extreme measure that in most states, judges are required by law not to impose it unless no other options are available. Too often, however, they opt for full guardianship in hearings that can last just minutes, without considering any alternatives. Many state laws allow hearings that determine if someone is incapacitated to be held without notifying the person in question, meaning someone can be placed under emergency guardianship without having an opportunity to fight back. Some people are placed under guardianship without even undergoing a medical examination. And people who have been declared incapacitated generally lose the right to appoint their own lawyers or represent themselves, which means that once guardianships are in place, they are often impossible to escape.

The loss of liberty is particularly consequential for people who have not yet had a chance at adult life. Many young Americans with disabilities are funneled into guardianship as soon as they turn 18 as part of what the National Council on Disability calls a “school-to-guardianship pipeline.” Most 18- to 22-year-olds who receive publicly funded services for intellectual and developmental disabilities have guardians.

Others have been declared incapacitated because of conditions that can often be managed, such as depression, PTSD, autism, physical disability, or addiction.

And for professionals who are unscrupulous, younger wards with access to large inheritances or personal injury payments can represent the most lucrative cases of all, because they have decades ahead during which the guardian can keep billing.

With no federal laws to govern guardians, the powers given to them can vary dramatically: In more than 10 states, the law grants full guardians the same powers over a ward as a parent has over an “unemancipated minor child.” Illinois judges may give guardians “custody of the ward's minor and adult dependent children.” Guardians in Arkansas can put wards in the county jail “for safekeeping,” and in Texas, they can lock wards in psychiatric hospitals before asking for court approval.

Many professional guardians work hard to care for clients who genuinely can’t care for themselves. Others are committed family members looking after vulnerable loved ones in exceptionally difficult situations.

But Shannon Butler, a “master guardian” and board member with the National Guardianship Association, said judges are too quick to put people under full guardianship because “It’s just easier for them, and honestly, it's easier for us too.”

The association has clear standards that guardianship should only be considered as a last option. “We should only be using those powers that are absolutely necessary,” she said. “A good guardian is actually working towards getting their wards out of guardianship.”

Yet flaws in the system leave “room for abuse,” Butler said. “If you’re somebody that’s predatory and you get into this business,” she added, “it’s scary.”  


Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News

Elizabeth Hensley was stripped of her rights and put under guardianship by a judge while she was receiving treatment for depression in a Florida hospital.

The 59-year-old acknowledged she had autism and mental health difficulties, but begged the judge not to take away her rights. “I really do not need a guardian!” she wrote to the court, pleading to be allowed to return to her home where her partner, “precious cats and the garden” were waiting for her. But her pleas were denied.

Hensley was assigned a professional guardian who was meant to help her. Instead, she complained, she was kept under “lockdown” while court filings show the guardian paid herself from Hensley’s accounts without court permission.

Florida’s guardianship industry is among the most bloated outgrowths of the system, with more than 500 professional guardians and hundreds more lawyers who draw their income from vulnerable people across the state. Hensley had fallen into the hands of one of the most notorious.

Marion County Sheriff's Office

Rebecca Fierle made millions while controlling the lives and finances of more than 500 people before she was charged last year with abuse and neglect of an older adult ward who died after she had him placed under a DNR and allegedly told doctors to cap his feeding tube. When police raided her office, they found urns containing the cremated remains of nine former wards on display. An analysis of thousands of court records by BuzzFeed News sheds new light on her practices.

Though Fierle marketed herself as a specialist in care for older adults, around a third of her wards at the time of her arrest had been placed under her guardianship in their youth or middle age. She sold people’s homes, cars, and belongings to pay her bills and moved hundreds of thousands of dollars from their accounts into opaque trust funds that shielded her from court scrutiny. More than $660,000 of Hensley’s money was moved into a trust that a 2019 audit found Fierle used to pay herself without court approval. Court auditors were able to track several thousand dollars Fierle had directed to herself and her business from Hensley’s accounts, but they noted that she had failed to provide records for numerous other transactions.

Fierle declined to respond to detailed questions from BuzzFeed News but has previously denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty to the abuse and neglect charges. She told court auditors who flagged multiple concerns about her use of Hensley’s funds that all her spending was “for the ward’s benefit,” but she couldn’t prove it because her paperwork had been seized by law enforcement.

Like Hensley, many of Fierle’s wards were diagnosed with mental rather than physical ailments, including depression, bipolar disorder, and alcohol addiction. But records reveal she had dozens of young and middle aged people placed under DNRs and diverted thousands of dollars from their estates to buy prepaid burial plans from two favored local funeral homes — in one case for an 18-year-old with bipolar disorder and ADHD.

Judges eventually revoked nearly 100 DNRs in Fierle’s cases — but records show it was too late to free at least two of those wards from those orders. Unbeknown to the courts, Penny Pilkington, a 56-year-old woman with developmental disabilities, and Drazen Premate, a 63-year-old former space shuttle scientist who had schizophrenia, were already dead.

Other professions that yield such large financial rewards and power over the lives of vulnerable people — like law or medicine — typically require years of intensive training and extensive vetting. But guardianship generally demands neither.

In some states, guardians (sometimes referred to as conservators) control both a ward’s personal life and their money, while others assign a separate person to manage financial matters. These roles can be assumed without a degree in law, social work, or accounting — and some states require no more than a few hours of education before guardians are empowered to assume control of people’s lives.

Guardians are required to file annual reports on their wards' well-being and financial affairs, often reviewed by low-paid, overstretched court clerks who lack formal training in spotting fraud. Many clerks are also charged with vetting people seeking to become professional guardians — but troubling cases can slip through.

In Minnesota, records reveal the owner of a major guardianship corporation was placed in charge of hundreds of vulnerable people despite pleading guilty to domestic assault in 2004 after her son told police she threw him on the floor, slammed him against the wall, and called him a “shit head.” Rebecca Reich, who owns the firm Guardian and Conservator Services, had also been arrested the previous year for allegedly telling another child to get a knife from the drawer and kill her then-boyfriend, though no charges were brought. Court filings detail other allegations of domestic abuse involving her son.

The Minnesota Judicial Branch declined to comment on Reich’s case but said background checks are run every two years and provided to judges who use them to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to appoint guardians.

Reich’s father, a retired local judge who now represents her guardianship firm, responded to questions from BuzzFeed News on her behalf. He said she had pleaded guilty to assault only to spare her son the distress of testifying in court and the case was dismissed without an adjudication of guilt after she met her parole conditions. Reich’s father said she disputed all the allegations, which arose during a messy divorce, and reiterated that no charges had been brought against her. She had been fully vetted, he said, and currently serves on the statute committee of the Minnesota Association for Guardianship and Conservatorship. “The background concerns that you raise are incomplete, contested, and do not reflect years of subsequent competent and compassionate service,” he wrote.

In Florida, Fierle’s wrongdoing went unchecked for more than a decade. Court clerks had failed to raise warning signs, and regulators did not respond in a timely manner to reports about Fierle’s suspect practices. After her arrest, the head of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs said that the Office of Public and Professional Guardians — whose four employees were tasked with overseeing the conduct of hundreds of guardians across the state — had a backlog of 80 open investigations.

This spring, the comptroller of Orange County, where Fierle controlled the lives of more than 100 people, issued a damning 86-page report warning that overworked and ill-qualified court clerks were failing to subject guardians to basic scrutiny, such as criminal records checks. Some guardians had failed to report on the well-being of their wards for years without the clerks raising any concerns. Guardians had paid themselves from wards' estates without court approval and moved money into trusts without filing mandatory paperwork. The Orange County Clerk of Courts told BuzzFeed News she disagreed with many of the report’s findings, but had made recent improvements including adding more deputy clerks to the guardianship team and providing training in general accounting principles and reviewing internal procedures.

BuzzFeed News identified more than 130 cases across the country in which evidence suggested young or middle-aged wards were exposed to financial malpractice, including 50 cases involving trust funds, which can be used to shield guardians from court scrutiny.

One professional guardian moved money belonging to several of her wards into Florida trusts before successfully petitioning the courts to release her of any obligation to account for future spending because she said the money was no longer under her control. But in three of those cases, the funds had been moved into a trust controlled by her husband. The conflict of interest was highlighted in the report by Orange County investigators this spring, without naming the guardian concerned. BuzzFeed News has identified her as Theresa Barton, a professional who has controlled the lives of wards in Florida for 25 years. Her husband, Nick Barton, runs a non-profit that controls a pooled special needs trust used by guardians across the state to store wards’ funds. The Bartons did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Another Florida guardian, Teri St. Hilaire, has faced scrutiny over alleged financial irregularities involving more than 60 of her wards — including a 29-year-old man with funds of more than $2 million following a personal injury settlement. Records show St. Hilaire established a trust with his money and charged fees of more than $70,000 by the time regulators launched an investigation into the “wellbeing and financial affairs” of scores of people in her care last year. The probe concluded in May, and a report was sent to the Office of Public and Professional Guardians, but its findings have been designated confidential. Meanwhile, St. Hilaire continues to wield power over the wards who remain in her control. She did not respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.

Guardians are often legally empowered to liquidate wards’ assets to pay their own bills — and BuzzFeed News identified cases where people lost almost everything they owned. Among them was a rheumatologist in her 50s who was placed under guardianship after experiencing a bout of depression during acrimonious divorce proceedings in 2019. Her professional guardian had her placed against her will in a lockdown facility while arranging the sale of her $1 million waterfront home and other belongings. By the time she was released from guardianship eight months later, the guardian and her lawyers had charged more than $100,000 in fees and expenses. The guardian refused to comment.

In New Mexico, the owners of the nonprofit Ayudando Guardians embezzled around $10 million from more than 800 clients, spending the stolen funds on expensive cars, luxury homes, Las Vegas shopping sprees, and exotic holidays to the Caribbean and Hawaii. Court clerks had spotted no red flags in any of the firm’s financial filings, leaving the abuse to continue unchecked for more than a decade until junior employees blew the whistle. The firm’s president was finally sentenced to prison in July, but by then there was almost nothing left in the accounts of any of Ayudando’s wards.

As well as serving as guardian, conservator, or trustee for hundreds of “private pay” clients, Ayudando was paid millions of dollars by New Mexico’s Office of Guardianship to take over the lives and finances of people living in poverty.


Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News

Private guardians can profit from wards with access to large amounts of cash and valuable assets, but people with little money who get sucked into the state-run guardianship system are also vulnerable to abuse — and may be more easily overlooked.

Carl DeBrodie was a happy and high-spirited child with multiple developmental disabilities when he was first placed under the guardianship of Mary Martin, who said she raised him in a loving home with his own pet horse. But she didn’t realize she and her husband had to apply to be his guardians after he became an adult, she told BuzzFeed News, so DeBrodie eventually came under the control of a public guardian named Karen Digh Allen.

In Missouri, elected public administrators handle the cases of incapacitated people without financial resources or anyone else to care for them. Allen has overseen hundreds of wards in Callaway County since 1997. As DeBrodie’s guardian, she was responsible for ensuring he received proper medical care and lived in a safe and comfortable setting.

Debrodie was placed in a group home named Second Chance. While he lived there, Martin reported seeing him covered in cuts and bruises. After she reported the alleged injuries, she was banned from seeing DeBrodie, according to her testimony in confidential court records obtained by BuzzFeed News. Martin applied to adopt him as an adult, but Allen filed an objection.

A law professor named Mary Beck who was appointed by the court to determine DeBrodie’s best interests in the adoption case concluded that he wanted to live with Martin and her husband, who he knew as “Mom” and “Dad.” In the confidential report, she also noted what she saw as a “conflict of interest”: Allen’s longtime deputy had a second job working for Second Chance. Allen later said that homes like Second Chance had a financial incentive to hold on to clients, according to the Fulton Sun: "The amount of money paid almost creates a scenario that invites deception if you don't have good people in there.”

The judge ruled against the adoption, and the Martins said they never saw DeBrodie again.

“Why keep him from a home where he was loved, where he wanted to be?” Beck said to BuzzFeed News regarding Allen’s objections.

Carl DeBrodie
DeBrodie had been missing for around seven months when his remains were found encased in concrete in a storage unit in April 2017. He had been made to sleep in a staffer’s basement, and denied medical care when his health deteriorated. He died just two blocks from Allen’s office. Second Chance staffers hid his body and then falsified medical documents describing him enjoying snacks and dancing to music in order to keep collecting over $100,000 from Medicaid for his care.

Multiple Second Chance staffers went on to plead guilty in connection to DeBrodie’s death in what a judge called “one of the most deplorable, depraved and disturbing” cases he’d ever heard.

Allen refused to answer questions about her role in DeBrodie’s case. “In 25 years, I’ve always been neutral,” she said, adding that it was the judge’s decision to deny the adoption she contested, not hers. She said she was involved in efforts to strengthen guardianship policy both state and nationwide. She was originally named in the civil lawsuit but was dismissed as part of a settlement agreement with the county. Her lawyer argued she could not have known about DeBrodie’s abuse or death given Second Chance’s elaborate cover-up.

She still holds her elected office and currently oversees 130 people. In May this year, Allen was named Missouri’s public administrator of the year as well as Callaway County's April employee of the month. “Allen is a great example of an employee who goes above and beyond every day,” the announcement said.

Public guardianships for people who have little or no money form a significant part of the industry. Across America, young people in group homes, specialist schools, or foster placements have been pushed straight into guardianships as soon as they turn 18.

“In a lot of cases, it’s just reflexive,” said disability rights attorney Viviana Bonilla López. Parents of children with disabilities turning 18 are often told by doctors, teachers, or lawyers that they will lose any say in their care unless they get a guardianship. What they don’t know is that, as soon as they’re in the system, the judge can push the parents aside and appoint a professional — even a stranger — in their place. “Parents say, ‘I don’t know how this happened. I didn’t mean to do this. Help me get them out,’” Bonilla López said. But by then, it’s often too late.

Public guardians are typically paid by the state to take on wards only if no one else is willing to do so. In such cases, judges frequently favor the total removal of the ward’s rights. Young adults who enter guardianship can find that they are in it for life.

BuzzFeed News reviewed details of 19 cases in which wards were allegedly abused, neglected, isolated from friends or family, wrongly stripped of their rights, or killed while under the control of public guardians.  (Click to continue reading)

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Friday, September 17, 2021

Memphis man charged with impersonating a mechanic, scamming the elderly

by: Quametra Wilborn

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Memphis man is in jail after police said he spent months swindling drivers out of hundreds of dollars in the Midtown area.  MPD said Joe Boyce pretended to be a mechanic but never made any repairs.

Memphis Police say back in August, Boyce approached a woman leaving The Home Depot on Poplar Avenue. Court documents said he told her that her transmission fluid was leaking.

After looking under her hood, police say Boyce told her he was a mechanic and could repair her vehicle. 

MPD said Boyce drove the victim to a store where he told her the parts would cost $1,400. Documents said the victim paid Boyce more than $1,800 dollars for parts and repairs. 

Reports say the victim eventually took her car to her normal mechanic who found absolutely no work had been done to her vehicle. 

MPD said this was not the first time they heard of Boyce’s antics. On another occasion, police said Boyce approached a man in another parking lot with a similar story.

Documents said Boyce requested six hundred dollars for those repairs but settled on sixty-eight, some gas for his vehicle, and a pack of cigarettes.

Boyce has now been charged with theft and financial exploitation of the elderly.

According to court documents, Boyce told investigators he was done scamming people, and this would be his last time. He went on to say if he thinks of anyone else that he owes money to, he’ll make sure to give them a call.

Quametra Wilborn spoke to a legitimate mechanic who said he’s very familiar with this alleged fraud.
Joey Barton Owner of Barton’s Car Care in Midtown says he knows a thing or two about cars. He also knows a thing or two about scams especially since he said many of his customers have been scammed by this man, 62-year-old Joe Boyce.

“Sometimes stuff does happen. You may go in a store and come out and something really did happen to your car and it needs to be worked on,” Barton said. “Nine times out of 10 that’s not the case.”

“It didn’t look like anything got taken out of any of them. Almost every time it was just like fluid had been dumped underneath it,” Barton said.

“Anywhere that’s certified, go have them look at your car,” Barton said. “They’re who do it day in and day out. They’re not going to lie to you just to get a dollar.”

Full Article & Source:

Leader of International Robocall Scam Sentenced for Defrauding Over 4,000 U.S. Victims Out of More Than $10 Million

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Eastern District of Virginia

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Leader of International Robocall Scam Sentenced for Defrauding Over 4,000 U.S. Victims Out of More Than $10 Million

RICHMOND, Va. – An Indian national was sentenced today to 22 years in prison for conspiracy and identity theft in connection with his operation of an overseas robocall scam that defrauded thousands of victims out of more than $10 million.

“This defendant has been sentenced to 22 years in prison for being the mastermind and leader of an extensive multimillion-dollar robocall scheme that, from overseas, exploited over 4,000 American victims,” said Raj Parekh, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “The impact of the harm inflicted on the victims of these robocall schemes can be devastating. The victims, many of whom are elderly, continue to endure significant financial hardship from the defendant’s vast fraud enterprise. The defendant operated and supervised the call center, was the ‘closer’ when speaking to victims, and managed the money couriers who illegally sent millions of stolen and hard-earned funds belonging to the victims back to his call center. When you consider the sheer number of victims this defendant extorted and the magnitude of their losses, the scale of harm and pain he caused is enormous. As this case demonstrates, we will continue to work closely with our partners to investigate, apprehend, and prosecute transnational criminal enterprises that steal from vulnerable American victims, and will bring the perpetrators of these scams to justice no matter where they are located.”

According to court documents, Shehzadkhan Pathan, 40, operated a call center in Ahmedabad, India, from which automated robocalls were made to victims in the United States. After establishing contact with victims through these automated calls, Pathan and other “closers” at his call center would coerce, cajole, and trick victims into sending bulk cash through physical shipments and electronic money transfers. Pathan and his conspirators used a variety of schemes to convince victims to send money, including impersonating law enforcement officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and representatives of other government agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, to threaten victims with severe legal and financial consequences. Conspirators also convinced victims to send money as initial installments for falsely promised loans.

“Fraud targeting the elderly has a uniquely harmful effect on a segment of the population that is often amongst society's most vulnerable. This conspiracy, which defrauded over 4,000 victims, many of whom were elderly, out of at least $10 million, is again an unfortunate reminder of the type of devastation these fraud schemes can wreak,” said Wayne A. Jacobs, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Washington Field Office Criminal/Cyber Division. “Pathan, a leader of this scheme, which relied on impersonating law enforcement to threaten victims, is the 4th individual sentenced in this investigation and represents a step forward in our efforts to hold those who engage in these scams accountable to the fullest extent of the law. The FBI's work in this area is far from over as we remain steadfast in our commitment to relentlessly pursue these types of investigations to ensure the protection of the hard-earned livelihood of our nation's elderly.”

In addition to operating the call center, Pathan recruited and supervised a multitude of money couriers, whom he directed to receive money sent by victims. Pathan’s network of money couriers was located in multiple states, including but not limited to Virginia, New Jersey, Minnesota, Texas, California, South Carolina, and Illinois. Pathan assigned various aliases to these individuals and supplied them with hundreds of counterfeit identification documents to facilitate their receipt of victim cash shipments and money transfers. Pathan then directed the couriers to send the money to himself and other conspirators through various means, including cash deposits into numerous bank accounts and via informal money transmitters known as Hawalas.

Pathan is the fourth of six defendants in this case to be sentenced for their role in the conspiracy. Co-defendants Pradipsinh Parmar, 41, and Sumer Patel, 38, both of Ahmedabad, India, acted as money couriers during the conspiracy, and are scheduled to be sentenced on September 20.    

Combatting elder abuse and financial fraud targeted at seniors is a key priority of the Department of Justice. Elder abuse is an intentional or negligent act by any person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to an older adult. It is a term used to describe five subtypes of elder abuse: physical abuse, financial fraud, scams and exploitation, caregiver neglect and abandonment, psychological abuse, and sexual abuse. Elder abuse is a serious crime against some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, affecting at least 10 percent of older Americans every year. Together with our federal, state, local, and tribal partners, the Department of Justice is steadfastly committed to combatting all forms of elder abuse and financial exploitation through enforcement actions, training and resources, research, victim services, and public awareness. This holistic and robust response demonstrates the Department’s unwavering dedication to fighting for justice for older Americans.

Raj Parekh, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, and Wayne A. Jacobs, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Washington Field Office Criminal Division, made the announcement after sentencing by Senior U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson.

The Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Police Department provided significant assistance with this investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brian R. Hood and Kaitlin G. Cooke are prosecuting the case.

A copy of this press release is located on the website of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Related court documents and information are located on the website of the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia or on PACER by searching for Case No. 3:19-cr-160.


Probation ordered in stealing, fraud case

A Jefferson City man pleaded guilty to charges of stealing from an elderly person.

During a hearing before Cole County Judge Dan Green, Jeffrey Randolph, 46, pleaded guilty to felony charges of stealing and fraudulent use of a credit device. A charge of financial exploitation of an elderly person was dismissed by prosecutors. As a condition of his probation, Randolph is to not have any contact with the victim.

The crimes occurred between late December 2018 and late January 2019, according to a Cole County Sheriff’s Department probable cause statement.

The victim, who lived in the 1200 block of Freedom Boulevard, said she went to her credit union to withdraw funds from her account but found she had insufficient funds to make a withdrawal.

The woman said the account she was trying to use belonged to her and her husband and had not been used since August 2016. Money from her husband’s prior military service went into the account.

Investigators found several charges had been made on the account at the Hy-Vee gas station on West Truman Boulevard. Video footage at the station reportedly showed Randolph using the account to purchase fuel.

Investigators also found Randolph had used funds from the account for pest control services for his home.

When questioned by authorities, Randolph admitted to using a credit card that belonged to the victim.

Full Article & Source:

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Inventory Lists: a loophole in Florida guardianships

The CBS12 News I-Team continues to investigate the guardianship system in Florida. Digging deeper into the case of Lynrod Douglas, we discovered that he repeatedly left items off of his wards inventory lists, concealing large sums of money from the court and stealing them for himself.

Lewis County judge suspended for 30 days after ethics complaint

by Chuck Morris
Lewis County General Sessions Court Judge Michael Hinson

NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - A Lewis County judge has been suspended for 30 days by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct after an ethics complaint was filed against him.

The Board of Judicial Conduct issued the order calling for Judge Michael E. Hinson, the general sessions judge in Lewis County, to serve the suspension beginning Oct. 2 through Oct. 31.

Hinson heard an order of protection matter in which a wife was seeking an order of protection against her husband on June 4, 2021. Both parties and their attorneys were present in court. At the conclusion of the hearing, Hinson ruled there was insufficient evidence to issue the order and the filings would be addressed by the court handling their divorce. In a reference to the parties’ divorce and child custody related issues, Hinson stated that “Judge (Michael E.) Spitzer would wade through the bulls**t,” with multiple people present in the court room.

In another case on June 4, 2021, docket, Hinson stated to the parties that they were putting their child custody dispute “in the hands of a guy who wears a costume” to work, a reference to his judicial robe. Multiple people in the courtroom heard this comment as well.

In a notice dated June 24, 2021, Hinson was advised of the investigation into the complaint.

In a response dated July 9, 2021, Hinson acknowledged making the comments. He explained that he did not intend to make the comments “in a derogatory manner,” but rather as a way of encouraging the parties to resolve their differences without judicial intervention in order to achieve the best outcome for themselves and their children.

The Board of Judicial Conduct said in its ruling that, “judges are expected to maintain the highest standards of conduct and dignity of judicial office at all times.” It also said that while Hinson “may not have intended to be disrespectful or demeaning to any litigant or to the legal process, those who heard his comments have no way of determining his intent apart from the words used. Once such comments are made, the damage is done.

“In short, as the occupant of an honored position of public trust, a judge’s role includes cultivating respect for the judicial process and its participants in both words and deeds. The comments at issue did just the opposite.”

Tuesday’s ruling is the second time in the past year Hinson has been disciplined by the Board of Judicial Conduct.

Hinson was issued a reprimand by the board in December for not following COVID-19 plans for his judicial district. According to the reprimand, Hinson allowed his courtroom to be filled to capacity, even to the point of members of the public having to stand shoulder to shoulder along the walls because all the seats are taken. Hinson also made a comment to the courtroom audience that he wished Justice Jeff Bivins would win an award so that the COVID-19 mandate from the Tennessee Supreme Court would end.

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Second arrest made in Taney County abuse case

by Jason Wert

A Forsyth home where a woman and her son are accused of abusing two people.

A second arrest has been made in the abuse and prostitution case involving two disabled victims in Forsyth.

Andrew Dennis Vandorn, 40, has been charged with Financial Exploitation of an Elderly or Disabled Person, Trafficking for the Purposes of Sexual Exploitation, First Degree Rape or Attempted Rape, and other sexually based offenses.

Court documents state that Vandorn “neglected the mental and physical health” of T.B., an adult woman who had been described in court documents by a witness as having the mentality of a 12-year-old.

Vandorn is the step-brother of the female victim in this case.

Investigators claim that T.B. stated she was often hungry because Vandorn and his mother, Ann Schilling, would use T.B.’s $583 a month Social Security payments on drugs and then not provide her with food. Vandorn did not work and lived off the income of T.B. and a second victim, Vandorn’s step-father. 

 T.B. told investigators that when the money ran out for drugs, Vandorn and Schilling would prostitute her to men for drugs. The second victim in the case told investigators that he would see up to ten people a day coming into the home, and several would go into T.B.’s bedroom where he claims they engaged in sexual activity.

“I feel like someone is going to just come in my room, pull my pants down and just have sex with me,” T.B. told investigators.

Court documents show investigators alleging Vandorn prostituted his step-sister from 2015 through 2021 “in furtherance of his drug trafficking.”

According to Branson Tri-Lakes News archives, a witness told investigators that in February 2021, he saw T.B. walking on the street and stopped to give her a ride in the cold weather. The witness said T.B. smelled so bad that he had to keep the car windows down. T.B. told the witness that her step-brother Vandorn and a friend of his named Drew had been having sex with her.

Multiple witnesses described the home where T.B. was being kept as being “full of trash and dog feces” to the point that some days the witnesses could not go inside due to the stench, according to the probable cause statement.

Investigators noted that because of T.B.’s “cognitive disabilities” she is unable to “alter the circumstances of her existence.” 

Another witness told investigators that T.B. told her Vandorn would touch her “under her clothes” and that because Vandorn has molested the witness’s child she believes that Vandorn was also molesting his step-sister.

Court documents from 2013 show that Vandorn was initially charged in 2012 with First Degree Child Molestation after multiple victims between 10-years-old and 14-years-old claimed he had touched them “in a sexual way” while swimming in a pool, or playing “hide and seek,” at the same residence where the alleged abuse to T.B. also took place.

An adult cousin of Vandorn had told investigators in September 2012 she was aware of “Andy and his sexual behavior,” that he “always had a sexual problem,” and that she was also a victim of his behavior.

Vandorn took a plea deal with prosecutors, where instead of first degree child molestation which could have brought a prison term of up to 15 years in prison, he pleaded guilty to second degree child molestation and was given a suspended execution of sentence of one year in county jail, with two years on supervised probation. That probation was revoked in May 2015 by Judge Laura Johnson and the jail sentence was reinstated minus time already served awaiting his court hearing. 

Vandorn is listed on the Missouri Sex Offender Registry.

If convicted, Vandorn could be sentenced to five to 15 years in state prison on the Financial Exploitation of an Elderly or Disabled Person. The remaining charges are considered “unclassified”, meaning that Vandorn could be given maximum sentences of life in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Just as with the case of Ann Schilling, who is charged with crimes against the same victims, the prosecution is being led by Assistant Taney County Prosecuting Attorney Kelli Anderson. Vandorn is defended by public defender Christopher Hatley. 

Vandorn’s next scheduled court appearance is Sept. 30, 2021 before Judge Renee Tiffany Yarnell.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

How One Woman Got Her Father Out Of A Dangerously Financial Conservatorship


A California woman drove off in the middle of the night, crossing state lines to get her father out of a financially dangerous conservatorship. NBC News’ Isa Gutierrez shares her story.

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Assisted Suicide?! Arrest Made in Alex Murdaugh Shooting

by Pilar Melendez, Blake Montgomery

via Facebook

In a stunning turn of events, a South Carolina man was charged with assisted suicide and insurance fraud in connection with the shooting of troubled attorney Alex Murdaugh three months after the deaths of his wife and son.

Curtis Edward Smith, 61, was also charged with distribution of methamphetamine and possession of marijuana, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division announced on Tuesday.

Police did not say how Smith and Murdaugh know each other, but Murdaugh has already admitted to having a drug problem.

Smith’s arrest and the charges are the most astounding development yet in a saga with more twists than a Lowcountry backroad that already included a double murder, drug addiction, and allegations of embezzlement.

Murdaugh, 53, is the scion of a powerful legal dynasty and was a partner in the firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth, Detrick, which was founded by his great-grandfather.

In 2019, the clan—which controlled the local prosecutor’s office for decades—was thrust into the headlines when Murdaugh’s son Paul was charged with a drunken boating accident that killed a young woman.

Then in June, Alex Murdaugh discovered Paul Murdaugh, 22, and his mother Maggie, 52, shot to death near the dog kennels of the family’s sprawling hunting estate.

As the double homicide remained unsolved, Alex Murdaugh’s life appears to have spiraled out of control.

Two weeks ago, he called 911 from a country road to report that he had been shot in the head, reportedly while changing a tire. The circumstances were shrouded in confusion—and then things got even murkier.

Murdaugh suddenly announced that he was entering rehab for drug addiction and resigning from his law firm, saying that he had made “a lot of decisions that I truly regret.”

That intriguing statement was then followed by the firm’s announcement that Murdaugh was under investigation for allegedly misappropriating funds—a matter that state police are also now probing.

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Amanda Bynes to remain in conservatorship to 2023

Click to Watch

by Taryn Ryder

Amanda Bynes will remain under a conservatorship for another year and a half — for now. A judge made the ruling after a recent status hearing. Details surrounding the decision are not part of the public record. 

According to court documents viewed by Yahoo Entertainment, the conservatorship must file its next update by Jan. 25, 2023. The next status hearing is scheduled for March 8, 2023. Amanda's mother, Lynn Bynes, serves as conservator. 

A lawyer for Amanda tells Yahoo Entertainment it's "misleading" to categorize the conservatorship as extended.

"Because Amanda's person is conserved for medical reasons only, a health status report is required to be filed every two years with the court. The recently filed status report was approved by the court," David A. Esquibias explains to Yahoo. "Should the conservatorship continue, the next status report is due in two years. This does not mean the conservatorship was extended for two years. The conservatorship can be terminated at any time for good cause."

The 35-year-old actress was placed in a temporary conservatorship in 2013 after multiple run-ins with the law. Amanda previously opened up about mental health and substance abuse challenges. She stayed mostly out of the spotlight and enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM). In 2019, she relapsed. She met fiancé Paul Michael while at a sober living home. 

The She's the Man star celebrated 14 months of sobriety in March 2020, but had a challenging year. Amanda's lawyer confirmed she checked into a treatment facility, but denied it had to do with substance abuse.

"Any reports that Amanda is suffering from drug or alcohol addiction issues are completely false. She is seeking treatment for ongoing mental health issues," her attorney told Yahoo. "We ask for privacy during this time, and for any speculation about her personal life from the public and the media to cease so Amanda can focus on getting better."

After spending two months in treatment, Amanda returned to Instagram to tell her fans she was "back on track and doing well!" The child star "worked on coping skills to help with [her] social anxiety that caused [her] to drop out of school months ago." Amanda said she re-enrolled at FIDM. 

"I'm now living in transitional living and doing therapy during the week," she shared.

Amanda stayed mostly out of the spotlight aside from a few social media posts. She was photographed holding hands with Michael in Dec. 2020.

This story was originally published on Sept. 14, 2021, at 1:24 p.m. ET and has been updated to include a comment from Amanda Bynes' lawyer.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Teacher fights for right to see former special needs student

by Angie Ricono

Rita Richards is a special education teacher in the metro area. She’s taught hundreds of students, but some occupy a special place in her heart. Zach is one those. Submitted

LIBERTY, MO (KCTV) -- Rita Richards is a special education teacher in the metro area. For 22 years, she’s worked to help her students be the best they can be. She’s taught hundreds of students, but some occupy a special place in her heart.

Zach is one those. He was in Richard’s class for four years. He’s 26 years old now. He loves cheeseburgers, cool trucks, and always waves “hi” to police officers.

“Our relationship has changed just like other people's relationships through life change,” said Richards. “We started out with a teacher/student relationship, and then we became friends. Then it just kept evolving into where the more time we spent together, the more a part of our family that he became.”

When Zach’s mother couldn’t give him the care he needed, Zach became a ward of that state. That means the County Public Administrator became his guardian, in charge of taking care of his needs. It’s an elected position.

Richards and her family stepped up to provide support for Zach. It started with Zach visiting a couple of times of month. Richards would often get his former classmates together at her house. They had birthday parties for him and shared holidays together.

“He started seeing us as his family and we see him as a part of our family,” said Richards. “We love Zach.”

A few years ago, Rita says, things “started to go south.” Rita says things changed when a new public administer, Sarah Mills Rottgers took office in 2017.

Rita noticed some changes in Zach, he was losing weight and his personal hygiene was being neglected. She started visiting Zach in his group home more frequently. She found the house was lacking in certain foods. She found wet clothes on the floor.

“He had toothpaste, but no toothbrush,” said Richards.

She started documenting problems and asking questions. That’s when she says the Public Administrator pushed back. She invited Richards to a meeting with a lawyer.

“The attorney asked me rhetorical questions,” said Richards. “’Are you a doctor? Are you a dentist?’ I felt like that was trying to put me in my place.”

Then Rita showed up at Zach’s house one day, Zach was gone. He’d been moved. And Richards was banned. She didn’t understand why. The move stunned fellow teachers, her supervisor and the parents of other Richards’ students.

She wondered, “Why wouldn’t they want someone else looking out for their wards?” 

At that point, Richards dug in. She knew she had to fight to continue caring for Zach. She hired a lawyer to get her visitation rights restored. Richards says she never thought it would get to this--a lawyer and a fight that has consumer her.

It’s been a long battle—more than two years now. Finally, a court date was set for a bench trial in July, but then, that was delayed. In the meantime, Sarah Mills Rottgers submitted her resignation.

Last week, another court appearance. This time, to set a new bench trial date. Richards and the “Zach Pack” turned out in force. Carrying signs to bring awareness to their cause.

“Rita was just asking valid questions,” said Heather Tice, Richards’ former co-worker. “Questions family would be asking if they were in his life.”

“I think from Zach’s perspective, it’s pitiful,” said Sally Morgan Smith, another supporter and former supervisor. “Does he even know Rita and Ron are fighting so hard to see him?”

It’s likely he does not. But Richards says she’s committed—she’s “never going away.”

“I'm sure he misses us just as much as we miss him,” said Richards.

It’s important to remember that no one has broken any laws. Everything that has happened concerning Zach was perfectly legal. But the Zach Pack believes that it doesn’t make it right.

There is another court date set for October. Rita vows she’ll be there, the Zach Pack will be there, and we’ll be watching.

KCTV5 reached out to the public administrator by phone, through email and on social media. We never heard back.

What does an expert think?

KCTV5 connected with author and Senior Director for Law and Policy of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University in New York. Jonathan Martinis was somewhat familiar with the case and said what’s happening Clay County is not surprising, but it is concerning.

Martinis says guardianships should not be dictatorships.

He says court appointed guardians and administrators have very little oversight and people with disabilities often have fewer rights than an axe murderer. Pointing out if Zach was in a prison, people could easily communicate and visit with him. Right now, that’s not the case.

“There's nothing wrong with a guardian saying you should not be hanging out with child molester or if we have evidence that a person is dangerous. The problems are when a guardian decides that you should not see someone you want to see and who wants to see you, who poses no threat to you, because the Guardian doesn't like the person,” said Martinis.

Martinis says people with disabilities should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness like all Americans. He points out the person being harmed in personality conflicts in generally the ward.

He says 40 years of science reveals people with disabilities lead fuller lives and are much happier when they can engage in supported decision-making.

“If a guardian takes away someone's friend on a whim, or because they just don't like that person. The Guardian becomes a dictator, then the guardianship becomes about the Guardian, and that's the exact opposite of what's supposed to happen,” said Martinis.

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Prominent lawyer whose wife, son were killed, misappropriated millions from law firm, attorney says

by: Chase Laudenslager

HAMPTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCBD) – An attorney for Alex Murdaugh — the disbarred South Carolina lawyer whose wife and son were killed just three months ago — was ousted from his family law firm after misappropriating company funds, Murdaugh’s attorney says.

Murdaugh’s removal from the law firm came just days before he was shot in the head while changing a tire. The attorney says that Murdaugh “is accepting full responsibility for his conduct.”

Murdaugh’s attorney said that “Alex is deeply sorry for his actions,” and plans to pay back all of the monies he misappropriated, which was confirmed to be in the millions.

Murdaugh previously issued an apology for a series of recent mistakes and announced that he plans to enter rehab, which his brother Randy indicated was for a drug problem.

Murdaugh said that his recent behavior was exacerbated by the June 7 murders of his wife and son, who were found shot to death at a family hunting lodge.

On Saturday, Alex Murdaugh told police someone shot at him as he changed a tire on the side of a rural road. A family attorney has suggested someone cut the tire before Murdaugh left. 

The attorney also said that Murdaugh “hopes that his conduct does not distract from law enforcement’s efforts to find who murdered his wife Maggie and son Paul.”

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Vulnerable patient’s death at private hospital is a ‘scandal’, says mother

Report calls for greater regulation at facilities for those with learning disabilities after three deaths at Norfolk site

Ben King
Ben King, 32, who had Down’s syndrome, died at Cawston Park hospital near Aylsham, Norfolk last year after going into cardiac arrest. Photograph: Family Handout/PA
by Andrew Gregory, health editor, and agency

Private hospitals receiving millions to care for adults with learning disabilities and autism should face greater regulation, a report has warned, as a mother whose son was among three people to die at a facility in Norfolk said his death was a “scandal”.

The failures at Cawston Park Hospital near Aylsham should prompt a review to prevent further “lethal outcomes” at similar sites, the report, commissioned by Norfolk Safeguarding Adults Board (NSAB), concluded. It suggested that such facilities should “cease to receive public money”.

Ben King, 32, who had Down’s syndrome, died at Cawston Park hospital near Aylsham, Norfolk, last year after going into cardiac arrest.

The report’s author, Margaret Flynn, said that King had put on weight at Cawston Park, exacerbating his sleeping problems, and the day before he died his mother had pleaded with clinicians to get an ambulance for him.

No ambulance was sent and CCTV images shared with his inquest show he was subjected to rough handling and was slapped, Flynn told a virtual press conference.

The hospital closed earlier this year.

King’s mother, Gina Egmore, said his death was a “scandal”, adding: “If you ill-treat an animal, you get put in prison. “But people ill-treated my son and they’re still free.”

An independent report into the deaths of King, Nicholas Briant, 33, and 36-year-old Joanna Bailey, who all died at Cawston Park, said their relatives described “indifferent and harmful hospital practices”.

The report, published on Thursday, makes reference to “excessive use of restraint and seclusion by unqualified staff” and a “high tolerance of inactivity”. “Unless this hospital and similar units cease to receive public money, such lethal outcomes will persist,” the report said.

It added that “not a great deal has changed” since the abuse scandal at the former Winterbourne View private hospital near Bristol, which was exposed in an undercover BBC Panorama documentary in 2011.

The report into the deaths at Cawston Park has made 13 recommendations to a series of agencies including the Law Commission, suggesting a review of the law around private companies caring for adults with learning disabilities and autism.

“Given the clear public interest in ensuring the wellbeing and safety of patients, and the public sponsorship involved, the Law Commission may wish to consider whether corporate responsibility should be based on corporate conduct, in addition to that of individuals, for example,” the report said.

Flynn, who was commissioned by NSAB, said her report highlighted “failures of governance, commissioning, oversight, planning for individuals and professional practice”.

She said the three deceased “all had aspirations”. “They wanted to be near their families, to have friends and jobs or things to do each day,” she said.

“Their lives at Cawston Park hospital were characterised by unhealthy lifestyles of long-term under-occupation and were not shaped by their goals or interests. The distress of their parents sets an agenda that cannot be ignored.”

An inquest into King’s death heard he had been allowed to gain weight, there was a failure to diagnose the breathing condition obesity hypoventilation syndrome, and inadequate consideration was given to the use of the sedative promethazine.

Briant, who had learning disabilities, died at the hospital in 2018 after swallowing a piece of a plastic cup. His inquest heard he had a history of swallowing objects.

Bailey, who also had learning disabilities, died at the hospital in 2018. The charity Inquest said she died of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy and was not checked for two hours despite 30-minute checks being in her care plan.

Cawston Park was placed into special measures by the Care Quality Commission in 2019 and was closed by its owners, the Jeesal Group, earlier this year, NSAB said.

Joan Maughan, chair of NSAB, said: “This is not the first tragedy of its kind and, unless things change dramatically, it will not be the last. There will always be occasions when some people with learning disabilities and/or autism require specialist support for their very complex needs.

“This calls for a determined and robust commitment from all health, social care, housing and other agencies, at both a national and local level, to develop bespoke services matched to the individual, services that ensure safety, respect, care for their physical and mental health wellbeing, stimulating activities, and plans for a meaningful life in the future.”

A Norfolk police spokesperson said: “The circumstances surrounding Joanna’s death were fully investigated and a case was submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service against several staff members for the offence of a care worker wilfully neglecting an individual.

“However, due to insufficient evidence concerning Joanna’s time of death, it was not possible to proceed with the case because it could not be established whether Joanna was still alive when staff failed to provide CPR.

“The investigation into Ben’s treatment is ongoing and a number of inquiries have been carried out in an attempt to trace the suspect who is wanted by police.”

PA Media contributed to this report

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