Niece's questions reveal massive scam
By VERA HAFFEY Montana Standard
ANACONDA - At 101, Una Anderson has her own ideas on serving up justice for two former church elders who stole her life savings of $6 million: lock 'em up in prison - the old territorial prison in Deer Lodge, that is - and throw away the key.
Then charge tourists a nickel a head so people can see what the white-collar criminals look like.
That way, she may eventually get back some of the money the pair drained from her bank account in a lengthy, involved "befriend and betray" sting operation, she says.
Former Jehovah's Witnesses church elders Dale A. Erickson, 53, of Missoula, and Darryl K. Willis, 63, of Helena, pleaded no contest to theft, securities fraud and two counts of conspiracy, all felonies, in Powell County District Court earlier this month in connection with the disappearance of Anderson's trust estate. They await sentencing.
Their undoing in what prosecutors call "the biggest single theft case in Montana history" was the result of intervention from a family member who noticed something was awry at the Anderson residence, then notified the state's Adult Protective Services.
Anderson just wasn't herself when her niece paid a visit to the family home, a modest, single-story dwelling on the outskirts Deer Lodge, in September 2001. Instead of her spirited, self-sufficient aunt, Sarah Kelson was greeted by a confused, disoriented woman too addled to recognize her own relatives. To Kelson's surprise, the aging but able-bodied ranch wife who'd also taught school then run the Jens post office and store for some 30 years appeared unable to tend to her daily affairs.
Strangely, the change hadn't shown up in the regular phone calls Kelson made to Montana to check on her aunt's well-being. Everything seemed fine during those brief conversations.
But after a trip to her aunt's home, she knew something wasn't right.
"When I came to visit, I could see that things were going downhill rapidly," Kelson said. "On the phone she said, everything's fine. Not a word about all this stuff that's going on in her life. On the phone, I couldn't tell, but when I got here, I could tell that things were really, really wrong."
But little by little, Anderson opened up, offering details about people and events of the past few years, including her friendship with a pair of church elders and the coerced sale of the 6,400-acre ranch near Jens where she and her late husband Eric had lived.
And the whereabouts of the life savings she amassed during nearly a century of Spartan living was unclear.
"My aunt told me that they had sold her ranch without permission," Kelson said. She dug deeper, and, "everything I found out made things worse."
After that visit, Kelson grew so concerned that she gave her employer two weeks' notice, left her position at an Arizona college, and moved to Deer Lodge to look after her aunt, who was nearly alone in the world, save a handful of nieces and nephews. Her only son died more than 30 years ago.
With Kelson's care, Anderson regained her lucidity and began functioning normally in a short time. The signs of "mid-stage dementia" she feared Anderson was suffering vanished.
To help unravel the story of Anderson's financial exploitation, Kelson called Janel Pliley, a social worker from Adult Protective Services.
Pliley began an initial investigation after speaking several times with Anderson. She became Anderson's personal advocate, making sure the senior citizen was safe and well cared for. She uncovered enough information to warrant contacting the Powell County sheriff and the county attorney, who expanded the investigation.
When Powell County Attorney Chris Miller learned of the magnitude of Anderson's loss, and given the limited resources of the county, he asked for help from the state attorney general's office. The office provided the services of two state lawyers - Mark Murphy and Melissa Broch - and Reed Scott, a special investigator from the state Justice Department's Division of Criminal Investigation.
Willis and Erickson were charged in Powell County District Court in the summer of 2002 in connection with the fleecing of the elderly woman through a series of investment schemes over a seven-year period, beginning in 1995.
Pliley said part of her job as an advocate is to give "permission" for role reversals where younger family members take on a mentor position, guiding their aging relatives with decisions and care.
She helped Anderson and her niece through that process, and sparked the criminal investigation.
It's a scenario often repeated in many families during the aging process, she said.
"When parents get to the point of incapacity, the parents need their kids to be the parent, and the parent needs to be the kid. They need to be comfortable with that, or it will fall on the shoulders of the state," she said.
Today, Pliley describes Anderson as "a pistol," witty, bright and alert, yet like many senior citizens, vulnerable to tactics of unscrupulous characters, and in need of intervention and guidance. After months of her niece's care and companionship, Anderson has her spark back.
She celebrated her 101st birthday at a party earlier this month, and is good-natured, bright and quick to give a witty reply. She also knows what happened to her family fortune, and feels the same emotions that other elderly victims feel after being violated - anger, disappointment and betrayal.
"She's very well aware of what happened in this case," Kelson said, adding that she believes the problem is common. "Since I've been around Una, I have talked to more and more people and have done research into it. It's a very prevalent thing."
Pliley said the team effort that began with Kelson's phone call to Adult Protective Services cinched the case.
"I think this is an excellent example of how all the different agencies work together," Pliley said. "She was lucky to have a niece that could come and change her whole life and be there for her."
Kelson advised anyone with similar problems to seek out help immediately.
"The moral of the story is, don't wait so long to call Adult Protective Services," Kelson added. "This is why people really need to pay attention to their older relatives."
Go and visit in person, because, "just phone contact is not enough."