LUDINGTON — In September, lawyers from the office of the attorney general of the state of Michigan will attempt to show a judge in Ludington that a conservator stole thousands of dollars from her wards.
The conservator in question is Jessica Englebrecht, a Mason County woman who was given 11 wards on court assignments. She served as their conservator and guardian, managing money and medical decisions for wards with schizophrenia, dementia, and developmental disabilities. A 1,330-page police investigation details how she moved money and property and provides the foundation for the state’s prosecution.
Conversely, Englebrecht has said that she overstretched herself trying to help wards who had nowhere else to turn. Englebrecht says that, if anything, she lost money caring for her clients, and that Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office is unfairly prosecuting her in search of a “win” in the AG’s campaign against elder abuse.
Shortly after taking office, Nessel announced the creation of an Elder Abuse Task Force. Separately, her financial crimes division has opened more than 185 cases into suspected financial exploitation since 2019. Englebrecht’s case is among a handful that have been drawn out into litigation.
Investigations began into Englebrecht’s conduct in 2019, when caretakers at Krystal Manor Adult Foster Care flagged concerns about the finances of one of their residents. A complaint was filed with Adult Protective Services, the state agency charged with caring for vulnerable adults, by the AFC’s owner Susan Myers.
A resident with developmental disabilities had become frustrated with how Englebrecht was managing his guardianship. The resident, whose name was redacted by records officers at the Michigan State Police, said Englebrecht regularly hid his receipts and bank statements.
In one instance, he said Englebrecht removed money from a Christmas savings account — a $50 nest-egg that was meant for him to buy gifts for his family.
“However, that money is no longer there and believed [sic] Jessica had taken it out without giving [REDACTED] an explanation,” the report states. An employee with APS further advised that there were “direct transfers from [REDACTED]’s bank account to Jessica’s bank account,” and that the transfers are “not normal practice for guardians.”
The investigation quickly expanded. Medicaid payments for some of the home’s residents were going unpaid. In addition, a resident’s car, a 2006 Kia Rio, had Englebrecht listed on the title, and a bag of $3,000 of her wards’ funds and personal information had gone missing in a motel room in Ann Arbor.
In interviews, Englebrecht’s wards complained to police that she rarely picked up her phone, explained her purchases, or helped her wards with paperwork they needed for things like job applications.
However, in Michigan, conservators and guardians aren’t legally required to do any of these tasks. Courts require one accounting of expenses annually and haven’t required probate courts to audit conservator’s receipts since 2001.
Englebrecht adamantly denies the perception of her being cast by the Michigan State Police report. In an interview with the Record-Eagle, she said she’d missed some filing deadlines with the court, but that she’d taken on so many wards after being begged to do so by Mason County Probate Registrar Linda Clifford.
Clifford referred all questions regarding the case to her court administrator, Charles Gunsell, who has not responded to a request for comment.
Englebrecht says proof of her innocence is in the numbers, which don’t add up: Most of her wards had little to no money in their names. Englebrecht said that her wards were so poor that she declined to charge an allowable $83 in monthly guardianship fees. Court records substantiate her claims.
More of than not, Englebrecht said she lost money caring for all 11 of her clients pro-bono.
“I’m the one that took them on and now I’m the one that is being accused of stealing from them,” Englebrecht said. “Nobody wanted to lift a finger for these people.”
She said the car was transferred to her name at her client’s request, that the bag of money genuinely did go missing, and that she was never offered training or guidance by the Mason County Probate Court on commingling funds and accounts, which she said is a common practice in Mason County.
“They dropped 12 people on her within a couple of weeks and gave her no training whatsoever,” said Suzanne Lange, Englebrecht’s mother. Lange runs an AFC home in Scottville, Country Care AFC. “The court needs to be held responsible for that.”
It’s not unusual for residents of AFC homes — many of whom are classified by the state as vulnerable adults — to have guardians. Lange said many guardians for her residents rarely interact with the adults they are charged with caring for. She said Englebrecht became a guardian because she wanted to do things differently.
Lange and Englebrecht both said that the wards the court assigned Englebrecht had long been neglected by the previous guardians. In one instance, Englebrecht said she was the first arrange care for a ward’s decaying eyesight, which she said her ward’s prior guardian had not thought to do.
- “I was handed a shtshow,” Englebrecht said. “When I got her, I got her set up with one of the best eye doctors in the state. And I took her to those appointments myself.”
Lange has operated her AFC for more than 20 years. She described a lax oversight attitude at the court where elected officials have historically favored guardians that are ready and willing to take vulnerable adults off their court dockets.
“When I first got into it, there were other guardians that we’re doing things very illegal, and nobody wanted to question it because, when I took it to the judge, the judge says, ‘Well we don’t want to ruffle any feathers, because we like them, they take these clients on,’” Lange said.
Clifford declined to comment, citing the case as an ongoing trial. Probate registrars are often charged with picking and choosing guardians, although Michigan has no requirements for who can serve in the position beyond an 18-year-old age minimum.
Probate Judge Jeffrey C. Nellis also declined to comment on the case when Record-Eagle reporters went to Mason County to look through Englebrecht’s case files. Nellis swiftly removed Englebrecht from all her court assignments after hearing of the developing police investigation.
Meanwhile, Englebrecht’s case is headed to a jury trial in the fall. Her case is being tried by Dan Gunderson, a lawyer with the Attorney General’s Financial Crimes Division.
On the strength of the 1,330 page police report, Gunderson will seek to prove 10 misdemeanor charges of embezzlement as well as one charge for commingling funds with vulnerable adults.
The charges carry penalties of one to two years in prison.
For embezzlement, Englebrecht is liable to pay up to three times the amount in question, while the commingling charge carries a $25,000 penalty.
Lynsey Mukomel, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, said that Gunderson could not comment on an open case.
When Nessel first announced the charges, she said that cases like Englebrecht’s are “precisely why my office has a unit specifically charged with evaluating reports of elder abuse and why there are a number of assistant attorneys general and investigators assigned to pursue bad actors,” Nessel said in a press release.
Englebrecht maintains that Nessel’s lawyers are trying to prosecute a caricature of a bad guardian, without paying attention to the realities of her struggle to learn the job while working as a single mother.
“That movie, ‘I Care a Lot’ that’s what they try to depict me as. And it’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Englebrecht said, referencing a 2020 Netflix movie in which a crooked guardian drains the bank accounts of her elderly wards.
“They need someone to point the finger at,” Englebrecht said.
Lange said she was frustrated that the Attorney General had gotten involved, but that she looked forward to testifying to Jessica’s defense.
need to know that she was not out there just scamming these people —
she was spending her own money, taking people out to doctor’s
appointments, taking them shopping, doing things for them” said Lange.
“It will come out in her trial.”