Man siphoned $375,000, officials say
By THOMAS LAKE
Published March 15, 2007
NEW PORT RICHEY - His wife died and his sister died and then the sick old man was alone with his money in a villa by the Gulf of Mexico. Someone smelled prey.
Along came an insurance agent. He had jaw-length sideburns and the name Sheila tattooed on his left hip. He offered to be a financial adviser. He won the old man's trust, authorities say, and the money followed.
Two years passed before the law stepped in. By then the old man was in six-figure debt.
And his adviser was driving a Hummer.
"Bad guys are getting smarter," said Detective Janet Raybuck of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. "It's easier to get this kind of money than to knock you over the head and take your purse."
This is what happened, according to state and county documents, Raybuck and the victim's neighbor:
The old man came from Norway by way of the northern United States. He settled in Gulf Harbors, above a coffee-colored canal, in a home now worth nearly $400,000.
Early in 2005, he was diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's. He was 87. The St. Petersburg Times is withholding his name because of his risk for further victimization. Around this same time, he met a man named Jack Barton.
It was unclear Wednesday exactly how the two met. The victim's longtime neighbor George Denise blamed the meeting on a mysterious intermediary named Ben. In any case, Denise says he tried to warn his neighbor. It didn't work. Eventually, neither did his key to the old man's house. Someone had changed the locks.
Barton is 37, living at 3331 Gardenia Drive in Hernando Beach. He is licensed by the state to sell life and health insurance. He is affiliated with such companies as Genworth and Mutual of Omaha. He has no criminal record in Florida, but he did file for bankruptcy in 2004.
He got control of the man's money by obtaining power of attorney, the legal authority to make decisions on his behalf. It requires only a signature. But according to the Florida Bar, the person delegating his authority must understand what he is signing.
In short, authorities say, Barton mortgaged the man's house, set up an annuity account with himself as the beneficiary and then wrote himself checks worth nearly $375,000.
Authorities say the scheme unraveled when a couple who used the old man's boat dock noticed he was no longer living in his home. They wanted to buy it. They tracked him down at an assisted living facility in New Port Richey, where Barton placed him; they asked about the house.
Well, he told them, you'd have to talk to Jack.
When they did, he told them the house had been mortgaged. They knew the man once owned the house outright. And they called the elder-abuse hotline.
Barton was arrested Tuesday and charged with grand theft and exploitation of the elderly. He went free Tuesday night on $20,000 bail. By late Wednesday afternoon he had not returned a reporter's phone call.
When a deputy talked to the old man, he did not remember giving Barton power of attorney.
He did not even know what power of attorney meant.
It is hard to say where the $375,000 went. Authorities are still trying to track it down. But now the old man has a mortgage on a house he once owned.
He pays about $900 every two weeks, from a bank account with an unknown balance. The withdrawals are automatic. The money leaks out like blood from a wound.
Thomas Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245. Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
[Last modified March 14, 2007, 23:29:30]
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