CHURCH LEADER WHO BILKED ELDERLY WOMAN UP FOR PAROLE
By VERA HAFFEY - The Montana Standard - 03/30/06
ANACONDA — A former Jehovah’s Witnesses’ church elder sentenced in 2003 for bilking over $7 million from a 100-year-old Deer Lodge woman’s trust estate will make an appeal for freedom at a parole hearing Thursday.
After less than three years behind bars, Darryl K. Willis, 66, of Helena, has served enough of his 25-year sentence with 10 suspended to apply for parole in what prosecutors called the biggest theft case in Montana history.
Earlier this month, parole was denied for Willis’ accomplice, former elder Dale A. Erickson, 56, of Missoula. The board not only denied Erickson’s bid for freedom, but told him he’s staying under lock and key for three more years before another review would be allowed.
Una Anderson, who died last year at the age of 103, lost her life savings and a 6,400-acre family ranch near Jens in an elaborate befriend-and-betray scheme perpetrated by the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ elders who were subsequently “disfellowshipped,’’ according to church leaders.
The money is still missing, and only about $400 of the court-ordered $7.15 million in restitution has been paid back, authorities said.
After allegedly convincing Anderson that entrusting her fortune to them was in keeping with her religious beliefs, the pair used a complex system of interlocking companies and trusts to drain Anderson’s accounts, while they lived in expensive homes, drove luxury cars and hosted trips abroad to places like Europe and the Caribbean, records show.
They also made numerous loans, large and small, to church and family members, records show, and charged Anderson a $400,000 brokerage fee for illegally and secretly selling her ranch.
The scheme was reported in 2001 to Adult Protective Services social worker Janel Pliley by a relative who noticed that something was amiss at the Anderson household that appeared to be taken over by church people, records show.
As the scheme progressed, Anderson became influenced by other church members who became more involved and controlling in Anderson’s care and daily life, court records show.
At a sentencing hearing, Pliley testified that Anderson was “under watch’’ 24 hours a day.
“She was basically a prisoner in her own house,’’ Pliley told the court.
Meanwhile, Anderson’s savings from nearly a century of frugal living disappeared.
Powell County attorney Chris Miller and Sheriff Scott Howard will attend the hearing at the Montana State Prison where Willis is an inmate, and asked the parole board to deny his request.