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    Caregiver faced scrutiny in past

    Five times in the last several years, deputies investigated the deaths of other elderly people in the care of Barbara Gotsis.

    By DEBORAH O'NEIL and MAUREEN BYRNE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


    SEMINOLE -- The discovery of two bodies last weekend in the back yard of a Seminole home was not the first time authorities investigated deaths of elderly people in the care of Barbara Gotsis.

    In 1994, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office looked into the death of a senior citizen in her care. That case remains open.

    Four times in the next four years, sheriff's deputies investigated the deaths of other elderly individuals at Gotsis' home. Those cases were closed after deputies discovered nothing suspicious.

    Now, authorities are trying to unravel another mystery. Gotsis, herself, was found dead in her back yard, just a week before the other two bodies were discovered.

    "I've never had anything like this in my whole life," said Marty Parker, whose yard abuts Gotsis' yard. "It's just an eerie feeling, like you don't even want to go in your own back yard."

    Gotsis' death is being investigated by sheriff's deputies, who are trying to determine if the unidentified bodies discovered over the weekend are those of two missing elderly women, also under Gotsis' care.

    Interviews and records paint conflicting pictures of the 60-year-old Gotsis, a onetime seamstress with Tennessee roots and a deep Southern drawl.

    To neighbors and some relatives of her former clients, Gotsis was a kind and attentive caregiver. To her stepchildren, one elder advocate and others, she was a manipulator who lied and betrayed their trust.

    "Rest assured this is going to get weirder before we have any answers," said Bill Foster, a lawyer and St. Petersburg City Council member. Foster represents an 87-year-old Pinellas County man who believes one of the bodies found at Gotsis' home is his sister-in-law.

    Gotsis' husband of many years, 61-year-old Demosthenes Gotsis, and Gotsis' daughter, Nancy Jane Crawley, 44, found Gotsis' body on April 22 and later suggested to deputies that Gotsis was known to "do some digging" in the yard.

    Neither the husband nor the daughter could be reached for comment Monday.

    They are not suspects in any of the investigations, said Sheriff's Office spokesman Cal Dennie. "We don't have any suspects right now until we identify who those two bodies are," Dennie said.

    Foster said he is "absolutely positive" the first body discovered in the yard is a woman he identifies as Mary, a 91-year-old widow. Foster's client paid Gotsis $2,500 a month to care for Mary, he said.

    Mary had been in Gotsis' care for three years and was last seen alive by her brother-in-law on April 27, 2000. Foster said Gotsis may have defrauded his client out of as much as $30,000.

    The second body found in the yard is almost entirely encased in cement, Dennie said. Both bodies are at the Pinellas County Medical Examiner's Office.

    Neighbors said Gotsis had been living at 11488 Robert Drive for about a year and a half. Before that she lived at 9870 Frank Drive W in Seminole, where five other people in her care died, according to sheriff's records.

    Patti Johnson, president of a company that provides guardian services, said she first met Gotsis in 1993 after receiving complaints that Gotsis was exploiting an elderly man in her care.

    Ernest "Glen" Shoopman had signed power of attorney over to Gotsis, Johnson said.

    While prosecutors declined to press charges, the courts authorized Adult Comprehensive Protective Services to remove Shoopman from Gotsis' house.

    "She was not well-educated. The word that comes to mind would be coarse," Johnson said. "But she could be very loving and kind and "I'll take care of you forever and I won't let them put you in a nursing home' -- all the things we all want to hear when we get old."

    But others said they were pleased with the care Gotsis provided their loved ones.

    Rena Stevens of Largo said she had no problems with Gotsis' care of her grandmother, Lillian Rutkowski, in 1997.

    "We had no knowledge of anything untoward that may have happened there in the house," Stevens said.

    Two of Gotsis' stepchildren, James Gotsis, 32, and Dawn Webb, 33, both of Tampa, said they had distanced themselves from their father because of Gotsis. "I read the story and said, "I wouldn't put it past her,' " James Gotsis said.

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