Saturday, November 18, 2023

Jury acquits woman accused of stealing from a man with dementia

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK — A jury acquitted a Shenandoah County woman Tuesday of charges of taking money from a man diagnosed with dementia.

Tracy Ann Phillips faced 21 charges of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult. Phillip’s two-day trial began Monday in Shenandoah County Circuit Court. Winchester attorney Charles I. Billman represented Phillips. Shenandoah County Assistant Commonwealth Attorney John G. Cadden prosecuted the case.

Jurors found Phillips not guilty on all counts on Tuesday night.

A grand jury handed up indictments on May 10 charging Phillips, 58, of Basye, on 19 felony counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult for $1,000 or more, and two misdemeanor counts of the same charge for less than $1,000.

Authorities accused Phillips of taking approximately $40,000 from her friend Harold Fossett over a two-year span ending in the summer of 2022. Phillips was suspended from her job as a teacher at North Fork Middle School when she was indicted. Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Melody Sheppard did not respond to an email Wednesday asking about Phillips’ employment status.

At the trial, the prosecution needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Phillips took money from Fossett knowing that he has been diagnosed with dementia and that she permanently deprived him of the funds. Cadden said in his closing argument that Phillips knew of Fossett’s diagnosis and his declining health while she took money from Fossett almost every month.

Fossett and Phillips had an arrangement by which she would deposit checks from his pension into a joint bank account, evidence introduced at the trial showed. The prosecution accused Phillips of then transferring money into her separate account. Cadden showed jurors a series of checks signed by Fossett that were made out to and endorsed by Phillips for amounts ranging from $200 to $3,700. Most checks were written out for $1,000.

The Loudoun County Department of Social Service opened an adult protective service case in the summer of 2022 in response to concerns by Fossett’s family members who said that Phillips had been taking money from the man’s account. Fossett’s brother, Kenneth, told Phillips to stop taking money from the account, which she did. However, Cadden argued that Phillips did not return the money once she was notified she was the subject of the protective services investigation.

“So I don’t understand how it’s possible to know that you have this investigation going ... and you still don’t return the money,” Cadden said.

Billman argued that the prosecution, even by its own evidence, did not prove its case. Billman said that Fossett, in his own words, knew Phillips took money out of the joint account. Fossett testified at the trial, despite an effort by the commonwealth to declare him incompetent to do so.

“You saw Harold, right there, repeatedly saying ‘I gave her the money,’” Billman said. “When she opened a new account, Harold said right there, ‘I knew that. I was sitting right next to her ...

“Are we going to completely discount Harold in this, the victim?” Billman said. “He testified twice. Not once did he say, ‘you know what, I’ve been taken advantage of.’”

Fossett said in notes written prior to the trial that he and Phillips had the arrangement and to blame him, not her, for any problems related to his finances.

Moreover, Billman said, the prosecutor failed to prove Phillips knew Fossett had dementia because the diagnosis had not been made until September 2022, after the period in which the commonwealth claimed she exploited Fossett. Phillips stopped taking money from Fossett when members of his family told her to, Billman said.

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Jury acquits woman accused of stealing from a man with dementia

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