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Widow's confusion, law clash

A woman with dementia is ordered to pay almost $8,000 after mistakenly accusing a contractor. Some call the penalty overly harsh.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002


INVERNESS -- It sounded like an all-too-familiar scenario: an elderly widow, a local contractor and a dispute over $3,500.

In a state where schemes to defraud the elderly are reported nearly every day, the Department of Children and Families took Vida Pichal, 75, very seriously when she complained a contractor bilked her out of the money she paid to have her back porch enclosed.

When the Inverness contractor, John Castro, was thrown in jail and charged with grand theft, it appeared justice had been served.

But once prosecutors investigated, they found this was not a case of a crooked builder taking advantage of a helpless widow. In fact, Castro was blameless; he had refunded the woman's money months ago.

It was his accuser, who has been diagnosed with dementia and depression, who made the mistake that sent an innocent man to jail.

Now Pichal, a woman who talks to dead people and gets lost if she strays more than a block from her Citrus Springs house, has been ordered by a Citrus County judge to pay Castro $5,000 plus attorney and court fees -- a total of nearly $8,000.

Pichal's relatives, as well as advocates for the elderly, think the punishment is overly harsh for a woman who still doesn't fully comprehend what has happened to her.

"I'm not saying she didn't do anything wrong," said Eleanor Pratt, Pichal's half-sister. "But I don't think she's really responsible for it. And it breaks my heart to see her treated this way."

According to court records, Pichal hired Castro, owner of Castro Realty, to enclose the small porch on her N Commodore Drive home on Aug. 22, 2000. She signed a work authorization permit -- and a $3,500 check.

About two weeks later, Pichal changed her mind. She told Castro she didn't want him to proceed and asked for her money back.

Castro sent Pichal a check for $3,000 on Sept. 22, then refunded the remaining $500 on Nov. 7, the court records showed.

Pichal endorsed both checks and deposited them in her bank account, the records showed.

But almost a year later, Pratt said Pichal began complaining to her that the contractor never paid back the money.

Pratt didn't check the bank records but helped Pichal lodge a complaint with Children and Families. According to court records, DCF officials tried to reach Castro several times, both by telephone and certified mail. But he never responded, those records say.

So on Sept. 11, 2001, the alleged fraud was reported to the State Attorney's Office. A warrant was sworn out for Castro's arrest.

Castro was picked up Dec. 9, 2001, on a count of grand theft and taken to the Citrus County jail, where he was released after posting $2,000 bail, an arrest report showed.

In February, the State Attorney's Office announced it would not prosecute Castro because "further investigation revealed that the defendant paid back the money owned to the victim long before charges were pursued."

But Castro was not satisfied. His lawyer, J. Patrick McElroy, sent a letter to Pichal, demanding a written apology and $15,000.

"Filing a false report is a very serious matter," McElroy wrote in the Feb. 28, 2002, letter. "Mr. Castro has suffered greatly because of your libelous and slanderous actions."

Pichal did not respond, and Castro filed suit in Citrus County civil court. He claimed the arrest caused "great shock, humiliation, embarrassment, and mental and emotional distress." He asked for general and punitive damages for his loss of business, attorney fees and bail money.

'Oh my Lord, what have you done?'

It wasn't until the lawsuit was filed that Pratt said she realized what had happened to her half-sister.

"I said, 'Oh my Lord, what have you done?' " she said. "But I never thought anything bad would happen to her because of the condition that she is in."

Pratt arranged for Pichal's doctor, Alex T. Villacastin, to send a letter to County Judge Mark Yerman, detailing her sibling's mental ailments.

Pichal suffers from senile dementia, depression, hypertension and GERD, a digestive disorder, Villacastin wrote.

Dementia is defined as the loss of mental functions, such as thinking, memory and reasoning, according to information provided by the Family Caregiver Alliance, a community-based nonprofit organization created to help those providing long-term care at home. It is typically severe enough to interfere with a person's daily functioning.

Dementia is not a disease itself, but rather a group of symptoms that may accompany certain diseases or conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease. Symptoms also may include changes in personality, mood and behavior.

Pratt said her half-sister began showing signs of dementia shortly after she moved to Citrus County from Washington in early 2000. Her condition has steadily eroded, Pratt said.

Pichal now cries easily and for no apparent reason. She calls Pratt as many as 20 times a day and often accuses her of stealing. She sometimes pays her bills three or four times over, unless someone in her family catches her writing multiple checks.

The 4-foot-10 retired nurse appeared before Yerman on Oct. 18. She was not represented by a lawyer.

After listening to both sides, Yerman found in Castro's favor and ordered Pichal to pay $5,000 in damages, plus court and attorney fees.

Pratt was shocked. She said Pichal is still confused by what happened and doesn't know how she will come up with the money. Pichal's only source of income is her Social Security check.

Castro was out of town and could not be reached for comment. McElroy declined a reporter's request to discuss the case.

Legal guardian best option for dementia patients

This case illustrates the difficulties faced by people with senile dementia and their families, said Vidya Hogan, director for planning and programming for the Mid-Florida Area Agency on Aging.

Because most people who suffer from the condition go out of their way to hide their problems, family members are frequently too late to step in and provide help, she said.

"There are a lot of people who are living with dementia, and it is very frightening," said Hogan. "Unfortunately, not too many people can see into their lives and know about their problems."

The best option in such a case is asking the court to appoint a legal guardian, a move Pichal's family is exploring.

Hogan called the case "unfortunate," but said the judge should have showed more compassion when doling out punishment.

"She didn't do this. It was her illness," Hogan said.

Evaluation ordered after weekend in jail

Pichal's life took an even more unfortunate turn Nov. 3, when she was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery.

The Sheriff's Office was called to her home that day after her son, who lives with her, said Pichal attacked him and accused him of stealing money.

Chris Pichal's left eye was black, and he had 10-inch scratch marks on the left side of his chest, according to an arrest report.

"I want him out of my house!" Pichal yelled to deputies.

She was handcuffed and taken by patrol car to the Citrus County jail, where she remained all weekend. She was bailed out Monday.

This week, a judge ordered Pichal to undergo psychiatric evaluation. Her next court appearance is scheduled for Dec. 5.

Pratt said jail didn't faze her older sister; Pichal thought she had been in the hospital.

"She told me she thought everyone was very nice and that she was just waiting for them to give her a shot," Pratt said.

Pratt has written to several government agencies, including the state attorney general's office, in an attempt to get help for her sister. She said Pichal's oldest son, who lives in Washington, has expressed interest in becoming his mother's legal guardian.

But Pratt said she wishes there was some way they could turn back the clock and prevent the troubles from occurring in the first place.

"It really breaks my heart to see her like this," she said. "No one deserves to be treated like this when they get old."

-- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or cjohnson@sptimes.com .

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