Famed pop artist Peter Max’s family is locked in a fierce battle over his guardianship. Sarah Wallace reports.
Famed pop artist Peter Max’s family is locked in a fierce battle over his guardianship. Sarah Wallace reports.
|Edward Tricomi and Libra Max hold a picture of artist Peter Max. Stephen Yang|
Born Nazi Germany. Refugee, fled before the Holocaust. American immigrant. Now — finances dwindling — under New York City court-appointed guardianship.
I have reported this before. Now daughter Libra asks to help what she calls a seemingly “over-medicated Peter” and “involuntary daylong isolation” and “family members requiring formal written request even for time limited, surveilled visitation.” Phone’s removed. Pets removed. Health care proxy family members are allegedly no longer privy to his medical information.
Cited is camera surveillance 24 hours a day, no permission to visit
his own art studio, lifelong friends needing to sign an NDA before
by Anisa Snipes
Chief Executive Officer of Charles Lea Center Jerry Bernard said in a statement:
“The well-being of the men and women who receive services at the Charles Lea Center is, and always will be, our number one priority. We hold all staff to exceptionally high standards and have a zero-tolerance policy for abuse. Such behavior does not reflect the level of care and compassion the Charles Lea Center has been committed to providing for more than 50 years. Charles Lea Center policy specifically prohibits any abuse, neglect, exploitation or any form of mistreatment of the people we support and will not permit the continued employment of anyone who violates this policy."
Earlier today, the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office announced the charges.
A witness said she said a police report a client with special needs asked Mishanna Ortega D'Wan Armour, a caretaker at the Charles Lea Center, for her prescribed medicine several times. Armour said that she would get it in a minute. The client asked again and stated she would call the house manager if Armour didn't get her medicine, according to the witness.
The police report then says the witness saw Armour standing with her hand's up in a fighting stance. The client then walked to Armour and Armour hit the client a minimum of three times in the head.
The witness said she broke up the fight and Armour stormed out of the facility. A facility nurse checked on the client and stated that they began to have a seizure.
Armour has been charged with abuse or neglect with great bodily injury of a vulnerable adult and second degree assault and battery.
This much is agreed upon.
On the day after Thanksgiving 2018, Marvin Stein’s two adult sons removed him from the home he shared with his third wife and took him to three banks, where he withdrew nearly $400,000. Then they transferred the money to a trust account that they controlled.
Within days, the sons — who came from Marvin’s second marriage — helped him change his will to make them the only beneficiaries. Two months later, twin sisters from Marvin’s wife’s family, his grandnieces-in-law, petitioned the court to declare him legally incapacitated, and to appoint a guardian to manage both his person and his finances. And, they argued, they were the right people for the job. They were 23.
Here is where things become more contentious.
On a recent afternoon, Todd Stein, 56, the younger of Marvin’s two sons, showed a photograph of his father, taken shortly after that Thanksgiving, that he said revealed Marvin’s condition at the time. Shot from behind, Marvin, then 88, appears shirtless, his skin mottled and loose on his frame.
Is this just the body of a man in late life? Or is it, as his son maintains, evidence of potentially life-threatening neglect that Marvin, a lifelong fitness buff, had suffered at the hands of his wife’s younger relatives?
Had Todd and his brother saved their father? Or had they, as the twins claimed in court papers, taken advantage of his frail state to kidnap him and siphon off his life savings?
In the months after the bank tour, police officers, a judge, a court evaluator, a dozen or so lawyers and two very assertive families would all throw themselves at these questions, setting the trajectory of Marvin Stein’s late years and consuming hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Now Todd Stein, who runs a management company for actors, is trying to make a documentary series about the battle between the two families.
He proposed calling the series, “Fight of His Life: The Marvin Stein Story.” The production company that bought the rights preferred something juicier: “A Mafia Marriage.”
Marvin Stein, who was born in 1930, grew up poor in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he said he was the only Jewish kid boxing at the Flatbush Boys Club. His father was an alcoholic who left the family before Marvin was 10. Marvin was small but tough, fighting his way to Golden Gloves lightweight championship titles in 1946 and 1947. Boxing brought his first contact with organized crime figures.
“These underworld characters, they wanted to take advantage of me, so they drove me to Philadelphia, and I fought in Philadelphia, and they drove me back home again,” Marvin, 91, said in late September, in the Upper East Side apartment where he lives with Todd and Todd’s mother. His managers had chosen Philadelphia because the betting was “very loosey-loosey,” Marvin said. His voice was soft but even in his clipped phrasing, the grit of the episode seemed still fresh. “Real characters,” he said.
It was not his last encounter with gangsters.
“No,” Marvin said.
Marvin sat low in a wheelchair at one end of a table piled with shrimp, grapes and other noshes. Felicia Stein — Todd’s mother — sat in a wheelchair in a leopard-print blouse at the other end.
Marvin and Felicia, who divorced in 1986, sleep in separate bedrooms, each with a second bed for a home attendant. Todd, who had moved back to New York from Los Angeles to help care for his mother, created a third bedroom for himself from a section of the living room.
“He’s been wonderful, helping us,” Felicia said.
“What do I do for you?” Todd asked.
“You put up with me.”
conversation, like others over a span of several weeks, moved like a
river, winding here and there, occasionally stagnating in eddies. A few
years ago, Marvin had two transient ischemic attacks — like very brief
strokes — and he now has memory lapses that disrupt his narrative flow.
Todd addressed him deliberately, enunciating each word: “Do you remember the guardianship case?”
“I know you were involved in that,” Marvin said.
To steer Marvin’s memory, Todd brought out a thick album of family photos. In the early pictures, Marvin appears as a handsome, athletic man, prosperous through middle age. But later pictures, taken when he was in his 80s, show an emaciated figure living in a Brooklyn basement.
No court ever found that Marvin had been abused or neglected. But as he looked at the images, he tried to make sense of the change.
“As I look back, yes, I was taken advantage of,” he said. “At the time, I wasn’t aware of being exploited. I guess I was a sucker.”
Some memories were beyond recall, even with the photos. After high school, Marvin spent a year in a psychiatric institution to avoid prison. He could not remember why.
Todd asked his father, “How’s your memory today?”
Marvin thought about it. “I look back, it’s a movie,” he said. “I’m very fortunate I’m hooked up with Todd and this apartment. When I leave here, where am I going?”
“To heaven, I hope,” Todd said.
In Todd’s mind — or in his patter — the documentary series is a sure smash. A production company, Fremantle, the makers of “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent,” bought the rights. The powerful Creative Artists Agency was already pitching it to streaming services like Netflix and Peacock. Probably there would be a bidding war for the rights, Todd said. The pitch included a “sizzle reel” showing stacks of money and dramatized scenes of elder abuse. It had a story with real-life gangsters and celebrities, a health club — owned by Marvin — with a vault where members checked their guns and a “sleep room” where closeted gay men met. And it had a guardianship battle — just like Britney Spears, almost.
“You couldn’t write this stuff,” Todd said.
Boxing never developed into a professional career for Marvin, but it began his affinity for the gym. He married and became a father just out of high school, working in a fruit store for his first wife’s father. Customers included Barbra Streisand’s mother, who liked to haggle, Marvin said. “She was a cheapskate,” he recalled.
Memory is a strange and wondrous thing.
Marvin rode the fitness wave of the 1960s and 1970s. After divorcing his first wife, he married his second, Felicia Ann Salvi, a former dressmaker’s model, in 1961. He managed the health club at the Shelton Towers hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where celebrities like Ms. Streisand and Burt Reynolds were V.I.P.s, and George Hamilton tanned on the sun deck. Marvin started his own Shelton clubs in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. He bought property in Amagansett, in the Hamptons — $27,000 in 1969 — and built a house.
The club in Brooklyn became a hangout for wiseguys and judges from the nearby courthouse. “They would meet in the steam room and have contacts because it couldn’t be taped,” Marvin said.
Todd, who was born in 1965, attended Manhattan private schools, including the elite Professional Children’s School for young working performers. Schoolmates included Sarah Jessica Parker, Christian Slater and Phoebe Cates. At 13, he started to land roles in commercials, soap operas and Off Broadway plays.
Marvin lavished his children with money, especially after he and Felicia separated, when Todd was 16. It was how Marvin showed love, Todd said. They’d go shopping at Barney’s, and Todd could pick out whatever he wanted. But Marvin also warned his son, “Don’t let people know what you have.” That was the old Brooklyn talking.
Todd, who also goes by T.J., moved to California after college, eventually starting a management company for young actors, which was written up in The Los Angeles Times in 2000. In court papers, Marvin’s future guardians said that Todd and his father had little contact after Todd moved west, except when Todd wanted money, which Marvin resented. Todd and Marvin denied this. But when Marvin married a woman he met at the Brooklyn exercise club in 1991, he did not tell his children or invite them to the wedding.
The woman was Anita Montemarano, who worked for New York City in social services. She was also, the Steins learned, the sister of a high-ranking mafia captain.
Marvin’s new wife was the older sister of Dominic Montemarano, who was known as Donny Shacks and at the time of the wedding was serving what would be a decade in prison for racketeering and extortion. The federal indictment described him as a capo, or captain, in the Colombo crime family.
Mr. Montemarano, whose record also included arrests for assault, bribery, loan sharking, illegal gun possession and bookmaking, had a yen for the Hollywood life. When he got out of prison in 1997, he moved to California and started hanging out with celebrities like Pamela Anderson and Elizabeth Hurley, as well as Steve Bing, a mercurial movie producer who leapt to his death from his high-rise apartment in Century City in July 2020.
Mr. Montemarano also tried acting, starring as an aging criminal in the 2002 bomb “Night at the Golden Eagle,” produced by Mr. Bing, which took in less than $18,000 at the box office. Reviewing the movie in The Times, A.O. Scott wrote, approvingly, that “the smell of sweat, urine and cheap liquor seems to emanate from the screen.”
Marvin Stein said he had few dealings with his brother-in-law, by choice. “He used to come to my house to meet with my wife, and there was money going back and forth,” Marvin said, declining to elaborate. “I sort of excused myself and got busy with something. I didn’t want any part of it, because sooner or later it was going to catch up with me.”
Relations between the in-laws were fraught. Members of Ms. Montemarano’s family and their lawyer declined to be interviewed for this article, but in 2013, Anita Montemarano wrote a scathing two-page letter to Todd and his brother and their half-sister from Marvin’s first marriage, a champion powerlifter living in Brooklyn. In it, Anita called them “a self-centered, self-absorbed, ungrateful group of adults” who enjoyed “free rides financially and emotionally” from their father.
In court documents, Anita’s niece Donna claimed that Marvin’s sons ignored him for long stretches, “emerging only to make financial demands of their father and his wife.”
Todd and Marvin say it was Anita who tried to keep them apart.
“Anita would make sarcastic remarks: Is that Todd calling again?” Marvin said.
When Anita got a diagnosis of kidney cancer in late 2016, the conflicts between the two families — over money, over control — escalated. Despite the tension, Marvin said he had loved Anita, and that she had been very brave during her decline.
Just before Thanksgiving 2018, Todd was on a business trip to Chicago when he called his father. He thought Marvin did not sound right. He flew to New York, he said, and found his father living in the basement of his home in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn, unwashed and in poor condition.
At this point, Anita was in the terminal stages of cancer, with a hospice nurse visiting three times a week and her niece and twin grandnieces caring for her and Marvin. The twins called Todd’s arrival that Thanksgiving “a rare appearance at a family gathering.”
“My dad was just skin and bones,” Todd said, adding that he was in delirium. “He had been moving six figures out of his bank accounts over the past 20 months. He was not eating, he was not drinking or taking his proper medicine.”
In their petition to be appointed Marvin’s guardians, the grandnieces described him as incapacitated, having dementia and unable to maintain a conversation or remember information told to him.
Marvin said it had been his choice to live in the basement. He had a television and exercise equipment there, and a futon frame piled with mattresses. But when Todd showed him the photo of himself taken shortly afterward, shirtless, Marvin was distressed to see how thin he was. “When I look at it, it indicates that I wasn’t getting food,” he said, “because my bones are showing.”
There were also financial questions. Four months earlier, in July 2018, with cancer ravaging Anita’s body, someone had helped Marvin change his will to leave the Dyker Heights house, worth more than $1.2 million, entirely to the grandnieces, rather than to be shared among the two families, as it had been before. Other accounts were also changed to favor Anita’s family, including the beneficiaries of Anita’s will and $368,000 in life insurance policies, Todd said.
That Friday, a few days after Todd’s initial visit, Todd and his older brother, Ralph, who lived in New York City, showed up at the Dyker Heights house and announced they were taking their father to lunch. Instead, they began the tour of Marvin’s banks to remove his assets.
Police officers, notified by Anita’s family, sent Todd text messages telling him to bring Marvin to a police precinct. They reported to a precinct in Manhattan, then to one in Brooklyn, and then to a hospital, because Marvin’s blood pressure was “off the charts,” Todd said. Finally, sometime around 2 a.m. and without warning his mother, Todd took his father to the apartment he was sharing with Felicia, in the Upper East Side building where Todd grew up.
It was the first time Marvin and Felicia had seen each other in at least a decade.
Todd said he was only protecting his father’s assets. In their guardianship petition, the grandnieces accused Todd and his brother of “exercising undue influence and duress” over Marvin to get hold of his money, saying he “cannot maintain a conversation of any length because he cannot remember the information shared with him and consequently loses the thread of the discussion.”
Marvin saw Anita only once more, when he returned to the house a few days after Thanksgiving to get his medications. In a very short video recorded on Todd’s cellphone, Marvin stands over her bed, apparently having told her he was leaving. “If you think I’m going to beg you,” she can be heard saying, “I’m not.”
With so much acrimony, both families got protective orders against one another.
When Anita died, on Dec. 10, 2018, her family did not notify Todd and Marvin. The brothers went to the Dyker Heights house around Christmas and found it had been largely cleared out. This was how they learned of her death.
About a month after that, in late January 2019, the grandnieces petitioned to have Marvin declared incapacitated, and to be appointed guardians of his person and property. They tallied his known assets at close to $2 million, in addition to the house.
Without meeting with Marvin, a judge in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn granted their petition.
Todd hired a team of lawyers for himself and for his father, and petitioned the court to release Marvin from guardianship, or appoint Todd as the guardian instead of the twins.
The legal fees began to mount, at up to $650 per hour. The court replaced the twins with an experienced, temporary guardian, but gave him authority only over Marvin’s property, not his person. The guardian’s fee, too, was billed to Marvin.
Living with Todd and Felicia, Marvin regained weight; his therapist and doctor submitted letters attesting that he was lucid and able to care for himself, with help.
But Marvin was still not in charge of his finances. If he needed money for a shave, he said, he had to ask the guardian. And the legal bills were adding up: $100,000, then $200,000 and rising — some of it a result of Todd’s constant emails to the various lawyers.
The two families fought over everything. Todd demanded that Anita’s family remove her cremated remains from a niche at Green-Wood Cemetery that Marvin had bought. That battle went on for months before the remains were moved.
Finally, in June 2019, the two families agreed to a settlement, and together asked the court to end the guardianship. Marvin regained control of his life.
On a recent afternoon in the Steins’ apartment, Todd estimated that the cost of getting his father out of guardianship ran to about $300,000. He did not know how much the process cost Anita’s family.
Marvin and Felicia sat facing each other across a table. Felicia, who is now 87, wore a sash from a beauty contest she won in her youth.
Living together has been an adjustment for the three of them. Todd has just started dating after the breakup of a long-term relationship and surgery from a severe bicycle accident — all while running his business and caring for two very old parents.
“It’s a 24-hour job,” he said. “I plan the meals, take care of the medicines. It’s a lot.”
And there is the recognition that his parents, who are working out a new relationship after a long and acrimonious time apart, are getting frailer.
As he prepared to pitch the documentary series, Todd said, he worried that people might accuse him of exploiting his father.
“Would it look badly that I’m involved in a documentary that’s watching his decline?” Todd said. “Because it is something that could be judged.”
Felicia said that when Todd first brought Marvin to her apartment, she was “apprehensive.” But a kind of rhythm had emerged. “I’m used to him,” she said. Still, she added, all the talk of gangsters and police made her feel uneasy — though in the end, there is little evidence that criminal elements played a role other than as mood music for the documentary.
Todd asked his father whether he liked living with Felicia.
Marvin gave it some thought. “Doesn’t harm me in any way,” he said.
Todd pressed: “It’s nice to have someone you can talk to?”
“Yes,” Marvin said.
Their challenge now is to imagine their remaining lives together. Marvin and Felicia exercise in the gym downstairs; Todd takes them for meals at the corner restaurant. The couple’s combined incomes cover their living expenses.
“Luckily, my father is considered a success story,” Todd said, acknowledging that many people never get out of guardianship. “He lived. Imagine if they didn’t have the money to fight it.”
He paused and then corrected himself. “If they didn’t have money,” he said, “this never would have happened.”
A Bozeman man charged with felony elder abuse and violating an order of protection in May 2021 pleaded guilty Tuesday to a misdemeanor assault charge.
Daniel Edwin Gorder, 37, pleaded guilty to an amended charge of misdemeanor partner family member assault before Gallatin County District Court Judge Peter Ohman.
According to court documents, Gorder hit an elderly person across the face with a shoe and, on two different dates, ripped the armrests off of a chair the person was sitting in and grabbed the person and pushed them into a piece of furniture in a home. Court documents also said that several years prior, he had grabbed a different person by the neck and pushed them into the ground. He later violated a court order not to contact both of the people by attempting to call one and texting the other.
At Gorder’s appearance in Gallatin County Justice Court after his arrest, Judge Bryan Adams set his bail at $10,000. At that bail setting, Adams said he considered setting a higher bail because of the nature of the then-alleged crimes and what the judge saw as an escalation of dangerous behavior. He decided against doing so because he did not determine Gorder to be a flight risk, or a person who would attempt to run from the court, because he has ties to Bozeman. A first offense of misdemeanor partner or family member assault carries a minimum sentence of 24 hours in jail with a maximum of one year incarcerated. It also carries a minimum $100 fine and a maximum fine of $1,000.
In Montana law, the definition of both a partner and a family member is broad and includes any past or present member of a family household, including people related by adoption, marriage and remarriage, whether or not they still live in the same household. Partners under the law are defined as any two people in a dating relationship or formerly in a relationship, including spouses and former spouses, and any couple who has a child together regardless of dating or marital status.
Sentencing for Gorder’s case is scheduled for Dec. 7 in Gallatin County District Court.
by Susan El Khoury
|Before hiring a lawyer, a Missouri woman has a warning she wishes she didn't have to learn the hard way.|
In Missouri, complaints against a lawyer's license must be submitted to the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. If the Counsel believes there is wrongdoing, the case is sent to the Missouri Supreme Court.
When a lawyer is disbarred, they receive a letter from the Missouri Supreme Court that states they must, "comply in all respects with Rule 5.27." That rule gives people 15 days from when they were disbarred to follow multiple steps, including notifying clients with pending cases in writing.
Donna Vorwold said she never received notice in writing when her lawyer was disbarred.
"I went online and started Googling him and found out he was disbarred and said no," Vorwold recalled. "How can this happen 11 months ago and nobody telling me?"
Vorwold hired John Tresslar to represent her in a lawsuit they filed in 2018.
In October 2020, Tresslar was disbarred when the Missouri Supreme Court found him guilty of professional misconduct. A brief by the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel explained that it found Tresslar spent $51,220 of a client's settlement money. According to the brief, Tresslar knew about that misspending and did it again, taking $14,000 from another client's settlement fund. The brief goes on to say Tresslar falsely represented himself as someone's attorney and was dishonest during disciplinary proceedings.
"You're breaking the law if you're playing lawyer and you're disbarred," Vorwold said.
In Vorwold's case, court records show Tresslar is currently listed as her lawyer. Vorwold told News 4 she didn't know she needed to change that until almost a year after Tresslar was disbarred, and the lawyer representing the other side in her suit called her.
"He told me you don't have a lawyer anymore so now it's legal for me to talk to you and I was like what is this guy talking about," Vorwold said.
News 4 Investigates learned Tresslar still has an office in downtown St. Louis. Tresslar wasn't in his office when News 4 stopped by.
During a phone call Tresslar said he stopped working with Vorwold. When questioned if he ever notified Vorwold in writing that he was disbarred Tresslar said, "yea I didn't represent her for any hearings or anything." Tresslar was unable to provide a copy of the written notice and said it was in Vorwold's case file, which he no longer had.
As it turns out, the Missouri Supreme Court required Tresslar to file proof that he followed the disbarment rules. News 4 Investigates learned that record doesn't exist. If the record existed, it should include proof clients were notified in writing, proof that clients were given their complete case files, and proof of a surrendered law license.
"There's no gray area at all, this is a real serious thing," said Attorney Tony Behr, a partner at Behr, McCarter, Potter, Neely & Hyde. "Most attorneys don't even realize what happens until a complaint is filed against them."
Behr was not involved in Tresslar's case, but represented other lawyers and helped them follow the disbarment rules.
"If we don't do it right, then we really haven't served the public," Behr added.
Behr explained that notifying clients can get complicated.
"You have to find the clients first of all, you don't always know where they live," he said.
Once Behr helps find a client, he makes sure they get their case files to bring to a new lawyer.
"We actually hand them the file and have the receipt that they say, I so and so, signed for receipt of my file and then I have them sign and date it," Behr said.
Behr said he uses that signature as part of the proof to send to the court.
It's a step News 4 Investigates learned not everyone takes. A search of Missouri court records for lawyers disbarred in 2021 shows out of nine people, two surrendered their law license, and one submitted an affidavit claiming they took every step. The majority of lawyers disbarred this year haven't followed the court order.
During a second phone call, News 4 Investigates asked Tresslar if he could provide proof he followed the Missouri Supreme Court disbarment rules. Tresslar was unable to do that.
"I certainly did not practice law without a license and any allegation that I did is completely false," Tresslar said on the phone.
Tresslar said Vorwold was his only client with a pending case at the time he was disbarred.
Vorwold is taking matters into her own hands and reported what happened to the Missouri Supreme Court. It's a side of the law she believes she should have been protected from.
"Somebody needs to be following up on lawyers that are disbarred to make sure they're doing the right thing," Vorwold added.
Tresslar said he's still practicing law, just not in Missouri. He is currently licensed in Illinois. Tresslar told News 4 that he plans to reapply to the Missouri Bar.
You can search Missouri lawyer disbarment and discipline records here.
Three nursing homes were sanctioned as a result of the investigations, resulting in a total of $16,500 in fines. Investigations addressed a wide variety of issues, ranging from policy deficiencies to overworked staff and the consequences of understaffed facilities.
At Abington Manor in Montgomery County, for example, an inspection found that understaffing amid the pandemic had led, in certain cases, to significantly reduced quality of care.
"It was determined that the facility failed to provide and/or efficiently deploy sufficient nursing staff to consistently provide timely quality of care and services, including toileting/incontinence care, response to residents' requests for assistance with activities of daily living, and medication administration to maintain the physical and mental well-being of the residents in the facility," the report states.
Full details of all inspections conducted by the state in October are available at the Department of Health's website here.
State officials, who oversee 688 homes in Pennsylvania, say they're working to respond to these issues. But enforcement only goes so far.
"The Department of Health continues to investigate complaints to ensure nursing home residents receive the best quality of life and care," Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said in a statement. "If you see something that may jeopardize patients' safety or well-being, you can file an anonymous complaint by calling, filling out an online form, emailing or even mailing a letter to the department."
At Guardian Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Luzerne County, staff similarly failed to provide fundamental care, the investigation found. Some residents did not "consistently receive showers as planned to maintain good personal and oral hygiene."
In one case, a resident who was dependent upon staff for basic needs was not given a shower for the first 20 days after admission. Investigators noted a "pattern" of neglect but were unable to name a cause beyond the obvious lack of personnel. "The Director of Nursing was unable to state why Resident 1 had not had a shower since her admission 20 days ago or why direct care staff were not aware that that the resident had dentures."
A resident at Embassy of Hearthside in State College told inspectors about the staffing issue. "He confirmed that he would like to get two showers a week," the report states, "But feels the facility does not have enough staff to be able to do this."
State officials conducted a total of 504 inspections of nursing homes throughout October month, covering 345 separate homes. Out of those investigations, 306 were launched due to complaints, and 67 were specifically due to COVID-19 complaints.Nursing home residents and the public can file complaints by calling 1-800-254-5164, filling out the a form online, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or sending a complaint in the mail.
|Rio Hamilton stands by a courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Friday, just after a judge officially ended Britney Spears’s conservatorship. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)|
On the outskirts of the rose-colored throng, bobbing his head happily in a “Free Britney” tee, was Rio Hamilton.
He had flown in just that day, arriving at the rally outside Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles just seconds before the good-news confetti cannons burst. A judge inside had finally ended the 13-year conservatorship that had controlled Spears’s finances, movements and other aspects of her life. Rio’s flight out would leave first thing the next morning. The celebration would be just the briefest of respites from his own guardianship ordeal back in Las Cruces, N.M., where his mother, 93-year-old Dorris Hamilton, has spent more than two years under a guardianship he said they hadn’t asked for.
Rio, 58, has seen Spears in concert three times. But he didn’t come all this way just for her. He wanted to show support for others fighting conservatorship abuse: “I wanted to show them I was completely, you know, on their side,” he said. “ ‘You need me here, I’m here for you.’ ”
It would be easy, given its brief but memorable bursts into the spotlight over the past few years, to mistake the #FreeBritney movement for simply a collection of vocal, die-hard Spears fans who supported her as she fought for her freedom in court. But a formidable contingent say they have experienced guardianship or conservatorship abuse in their own lives. Now that Rio and others like him are newly organized and inspired, the aftershocks of #FreeBritney could continue to rattle the American legal system long after Spears’s victory.
Conservatorships and guardianships are typically intended to protect vulnerable individuals. (The difference between the two varies by state.) But Rio and Dorris’s story is one of many allegations of the guardianship industry overstepping beyond what a family feels is necessary.
Dorris Hamilton was one of the first Black women to attend the University of Arkansas. She met Martin Luther King Jr. before he was famous, when he came to speak nearby. She married a mathematician, and when he took a job building missiles, she moved with him to New Mexico and took a teaching job.
They divorced, but she stayed, eventually serving as the principal of a middle school for more than 20 years. She was the first Black principal in the district, and according to a representative for the district, when it came time to rename another nearby middle school last year, “Dorris Hamilton” was a popular suggestion.
|Rio Hamilton said of Spears’s case, “It just made everything so much easier for the rest of us to really explain what was going on.” (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)|
Soon after Rio returned home, he learned that a lawyer he and Dorris had consulted about that process had “filed an emergency petition claiming my mother was incapacitated, and that I was the one who was claiming she was incapacitated,” Rio said. They were later informed that a court had approved the petition and appointed a company called Advocate Services as Dorris’s guardian, granting it control of her estate. “They had the legal authority to close all of my mother’s bank accounts, without her knowledge, transfer the money to a different account and then leave my mother going around every day to banks that she’s been banking with for more than 40 years, and having those people explain to her that she doesn’t have any control over what has happened.”
Within weeks, Rio said, Dorris had been escorted by a police officer to a hospital, then admitted to a facility that Rio describes as a home for incapacitated elderly people. Dorris, he noted, went to aerobics classes even at age 91; she can converse with almost no trouble hearing. With those kinds of abilities still intact, Rio wondered, “Why would you be in a unit where everybody who’s around you is either incapable of holding a conversation or can’t walk or talk?”
Dorris, in an interview, agreed. She hopes to move back to her house, she said, and wishes she could visit the last two living siblings of the nine she once had. “I miss being able to move about and greet people and attend meetings of various kinds,” she said. At the home where she lives now, “I’m almost locked in.”
The lawyer did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment but told Searchlight New Mexico that she had called Rio and had left a message informing him of the petition. (Rio says he is not aware of any attempt by the lawyer to contact him before Dorris’s assets were seized.) She also told Searchlight she was not separating elders from their relatives but protecting them.
Advocate Services maintained in a statement that “as guardian and conservator, it is our statutory responsibility to protect the persons self and assets. Ms. Hamilton was adjudicated to be an incapacitated person upon testimony and evidence entered. Her home was unsafe due to a 20-year infestation of mice and a hoarding situation. All evidence of which was presented to the Court.” The company has previously defended its work in an op-ed in the Las Cruces Sun News.
At first, trying to explain Dorris’s position to friends was a frustrating errand for Rio. “Even people who were genuinely interested, you could actually see when you were putting them to sleep,” Rio remembered, “because they just had no clue.” But once Spears’s case began generating national headlines earlier this year, “it just made everything so much easier for the rest of us to really explain what was going on.”
|#FreeBritney supporters celebrate Friday in front of the courthouse in Los Angeles. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)|
One of the protesters in the crowd was John Fernandes, the founder of the #FreeBritney-adjacent Touch of Rose Project. During the chants, a man walked by on his cellphone, saying, “I guess there’s, like, a Britney Spears-style thing happening to this guy.”
For Libra Max, 54, the media attention the Spears family saga has generated has been a godsend. The #FreeBritney movement was small at first, and “no one really took them seriously. But I’m actually in awe of them,” Max said. “They opened the door for stories like my father’s to be heard.”
At Friday night’s party in L.A., Max greeted Rio Hamilton with a hug, and the two posed together in a photo booth under metallic-pink Mylar balloons spelling out “#FreedBritney.”
(Peter’s personal needs guardian, Barbara H. Urbach Lissner, said in a statement to The Post that the guardianship, which began in 2016, is overseen by someone neutral “due to conflict” among his late wife and his children. She said that Peter is not isolated but receives visitors most days of the week, and that he is “well, safe, and happy.” She added, “I have done my best to help him.”)
The public’s new familiarity with conservatorships has also been a boon to Lisa MacCarley, a lawyer in Glendale, Calif., who has specialized in guardianship and conservatorship cases since 1990. Two years ago, she founded Bettys’ Hope, a charity to address abuses of these legal arrangements — and the Spears case is the kind that lawyers in her field pray to the heavens for.
In her 30 years in the legal system, MacCarley said, she has seen a lack of oversight in the probate court system lead to violation of individuals’ rights and families being financially drained while lawyers profit. “So, in my point of view, the #FreeBritney movement has been, like, literally the miracle that finally brought the whole problem, the systemic issues with our guardianship and conservatorship courts, to light.” In September, MacCarley filed an amicus brief in the Spears case, arguing that the singer’s right to her own counsel had been violated by the court.
Advocates for conservatorship reform have often called for clearer national standards around guardianships and firmer protections around conservatees’ rights to retain their own lawyers. And the Spears case has spurred action on both state and federal levels. After the singer’s emotional testimony in court over the summer, for example, Reps. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) and Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) introduced the Free Act, which would give people like Spears the right to petition to have their private conservators or guardians replaced by a public one. (Some #FreeBritney activists, however, opposed empowering even them.)
|Melanie Mandarano leads hundreds of #FreeBritney supporters on a march Friday in Los Angeles as they wait for the results of the hearing. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)|
Spending Friday with many people who had gathered to support Spears, he
said, “I was thinking: Is this going to make any kind of difference in
her life? You know, now that this one famous conservatorship,
guardianship thing has been put on the right track?” He’s not certain.
But he’s hopeful.
A Philadelphia-based former attorney will spend up to more than two years in prison for stealing almost $1 million from his cousin's estate.
On Monday, Aaron S. Friedmann, 63, was sentenced to 15 to 30 months in state prison for stealing $981,023 from Dr. Sheldon S. Farber, who had named Friedmann as the executor of his will, according to a Bucks County District Attorney's Office news release.
Common Pleas Judge Wallace Bateman Jr. also sentenced Friedmann to 10 years of probation, and ordered he pay back what he stole.
The money, the DA's office said, was meant to go to charity organizations.
Friedmann, of Conshocken, pleaded guilty in August to theft by failure to make required disposition of funds, theft by unlawful taking, receiving stolen property and access device fraud. All charges are felonies.
Lower Southampton police began its investigation in March 2017, when a lawyer representing Farber's estate reported the theft. Farber died four years earlier.
The attorney told authorities that Farber created a will in December 2006, and named Friedmann the executor.
Friedmann was an attorney at the Disability Law Advocates Group in Philadelphia, and handled monetary aspects of Farber's estate, according to the DA's office.
Investigators found that a check for $200,000 was written out from Farber's estate and deposited into an account owned by the Disability Law Advocates Group in February 2013, the release states.
Officials found an additional 81 fraudulent transactions were committed by written checks or withdrawals from Farber's estate linked to the advocate group's account or Friedmann's personal account, according to authorities.
Friedmann's law license was suspended for his
handling of the estate in 2017. He was disbarred a year later, according
to state records.
What does that mean? More staff or fewer residents.
“Studies over the last 50 years show that staffing levels lead to better care and poor staffing levels lead to poor care,” Mary Wypych, a volunteer with Elder Justice recently told 13WHAM-TV. She advocated for the state law that will now require nursing home residents to receive 3.5 hours of direct care.
Nursing home administrators say coming out of the pandemic, the new state law presents facilities with a major challenge.
“I think it would have been hard under normal circumstances. When you throw in the vaccine mandate, it will be nearly impossible,” VP for Long Term Care at Thompson Health Amy Daly said. “What other Nursing Homes already doing is closing down wings, not admitting, so you’re essentially closing down beds, you’re not decertifying beds but you’re not admitting to your full compliment beds so you can reploy the staff and care for the residents you do have.”
The new state law takes
effect January 1, 2022. Some nursing homes say they have already
experienced significant loss of residents due to visitation rules during