Elderly widow fights to get home back from caregiver

elder abuse

This article was published by the Toronto Star on March 9th 2012.  To see this article and other related articles on the Toronto Star website, please click here.

She was old, alone and afraid of ending her life in a nursing home.

Then Stella Wasiuk, 83, thought she was saved when a personal support worker promised to care for her until her dying days.

Instead, she says she was isolated, verbally abused and fed substandard meals. Wasiuk lost control of a $477,000 home and her life savings. Now she is fighting to get them back.

The Toronto Star investigated and found that caregiver Pauline Reid used a real estate agent, two lawyers and her family members and friends to gain control of Wasiuk’s assets. Police are looking into the case and a new lawyer is trying to assist her. In one of the story’s bizarre twists, Reid’s son, an accused criminal now convicted of a gun charge, was at one point the executor of Wasiuk’s will.

The hero of the story is neighbour Emile Timmermans. One day he spotted Wasiuk on the porch outside her Ajax home, looking distressed, waving for help.

“I’m in trouble,” Wasiuk said, getting Timmermans’ attention. “Please help me.”

It’s a cautionary tale for seniors, advocates say. Be careful who befriends you.

The Star made numerous attempts to interview Reid, 52, who currently works at a Scarborough nursing home. Her boyfriend, Joseph Comas, who describes himself as a Haitian prince, called instead and told the Star to stop “harassing” Reid.

“She does not want to talk to you,” Comas said.

The real estate agent involved in the scheme ran off when the Star tried to interview him. The two lawyers involved said they could not talk because they believe a legal action may be filed against them by Wasiuk.

The information in this story is based on interviews and a review of documents, including three wills Wasiuk signed, real estate agreements and a timeline created by Timmermans, the man who rescued Wasiuk.

With her late husband, Wasiuk had a long and lucrative career as a real estate developer. Growing up in Poland during World War II, she knew the value of a dollar and lived simply, especially after her husband died in 1987. The couple had no children.

For nearly 20 years after her husband’s death she stayed healthy and busy, volunteering as a driver with a local charity. Then her legs gave out and she had knee replacement surgery in December 2008.

In and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centres, she met Pauline Reid (also known as Pauline Brefo), who was working at one of them. Reid was a personal support worker, a twice bankrupt mother of three, who for years lived in low-rent apartments in North York.

“I’ll take care of you. Come and live with me,” Reid told Wasiuk, according to the elderly woman’s recollection. At the time, Wasiuk owned a luxurious condominium in Markham, which she left to move into a semi-detached home that Reid was renting in Ajax.

Shortly after, caregiver Reid announced she hated the home and wanted to move. It was time for Wasiuk to buy a house.

Enter real estate agent Sunny (Sukhjinder) Gandhi.

Based out of Brampton, far to the west, the agent listed Wasiuk’s Markham condo for $549,900. It sold for $410,000.

Gandhi then drove Wasiuk and Reid on a real estate tour and helped them settle on a big brick home on a corner lot in Ajax, near Taunton Rd. and Westney Rd. The new house was far from Markham and Wasiuk’s friends.

A review of real estate documents shows Wasiuk paid $477,000 for the Ajax home, writing a $430,000 personal cheque and borrowing $61,466 from Gandhi through a mortgage advanced by a recently created numbered company that lists Gandhi as the sole director. The mortgage interest rate was 9.79 per cent. Three months later, Wasiuk wrote a cheque for $69,000 to Gandhi’s numbered company to pay off the mortgage.

Wasiuk’s recollection of the events of May 2010 include a blur of document signing at the Mississauga office of lawyer Marvin Talsky. Talsky was acting for both Reid and Wasiuk.

The documents reveal that the home was registered in Reid’s name, with Wasiuk given a “life interest” in the property and allowed to live there until she died. The documents stipulate the house cannot be sold without Wasiuk’s permission.

“Pauline (Reid) will look after Stella for the balance of her natural life in the property being purchased,” according to an agreement between Reid and Wasiuk dated May 19, 2010.

The $430,000 Wasiuk paid for her new home is described as an interest-free loan to Reid, with Reid paying it back by providing $800 in monthly caregiving work. At Wasiuk’s death, the house would belong to Reid.

Wasiuk said she believed she was the sole owner of the house. “I knew that I was signing the purchase, but I didn’t think she was in it, because I paid for the whole thing.”

That same day, Wasiuk also signed a document called the Power of Attorney for Personal Care, giving Reid the power to make all decisions related to her health.

People are often advised to get independent legal counsel. The documents indicate Wasiuk had independent legal advice from another Mississauga lawyer, Hugh Galbraith, and she understood what she was doing.

Both Talsky and Galbraith, the two lawyers involved in the blur of signing that day, refused comment when contacted by the Star, saying a legal action may be launched against them.

Galbraith’s lawyer, Ernest Gutstein, said neither he nor his client can talk because the matter is being dealt with between lawyers.

“You would be doing a disservice if this matter is dealt with in the media,” Gutstein said.

The house deal closed May 2010 and Wasiuk moved in with Reid, Comas and Reid’s family members.

Three months later, Wasiuk was taken back to a lawyer’s office, this one in Ajax, to sign a will leaving all of her property to Reid, who was also made executor of Wasiuk’s estate. The lawyer on that file was Colin Oldman. He is away on vacation and has not responded to the Star’s interview requests.

The conditions Wasiuk said she endured in the new Ajax home were dreadful.

The rambling 2,800-square-foot, four-bedroom home was spacious, but Wasiuk said she was forced to live in a tiny second-floor bedroom above the garage. She was not allowed to use the washroom on the main floor, which was kept locked she said, forcing her to leave her walker on the main floor, pull herself up the banister, then use another walker to make it to the bathroom.

According to one of the agreements Wasiuk signed, she was allowed to “enjoy the house and property in its entirety” except for rooms set aside by Reid as her private living quarters. Reid had the large master bedroom with ensuite bath, while her adult children occupied the other two.

The food was cheap, Wasiuk said. Reid constantly yelled at her. Her chequebook disappeared, as did her contact list of friends and her Polish-English dictionary. She was not given a key to the home.

“She constantly threatened me that she is going to leave me in that house, that she is moving out,” Wasiuk said. “She wanted to drain me, get the money from me and abuse me.”

Cash withdrawals on her account between June 2009 and Oct. 3, 2011, totalled at least $51,000, amounts an accountant who has done Wasiuk’s taxes for years told the Star represented unusual activity for his longtime client.

People came in and out of the home, including Reid’s son Justin Brefo and Comas, the self-described prince, an imposing man who dressed in traditional robes and once removed his headgear to reveal a small crown.

In a brief interview with the Star, Comas said that he was supposed to end up with ownership of Wasiuk’s home. “It was my name that should have been on the house at first,” Comas said, but he refused to elaborate. “There’s a lot of things behind that story.”

At times, Reid left Wasiuk alone for several days, telling her she was travelling to visit Comas, who Reid said had a place in Montreal.

As Wasiuk’s relationship with Reid worsened, she went to visit lawyer Colin Oldman again to rewrite her will. This time, Reid was dropped as executor and benefactor, and everything was left to her son, Justin Brefo and his two sisters. Brefo was also made executor.

Wasiuk did not know it but at the time, Brefo, 24, was facing numerous gun and drug trafficking charges after Peel Regional Police raided three homes in 2010 and seized crack cocaine, powder cocaine, ecstasy tablets and heroin.

Brefo was convicted later that year of possession of a restricted weapon, a 9-mm Glock pistol, sentenced to 18 months in jail and banned for life from possessing any weapons. The other charges were withdrawn.

In an interview, Wasiuk said she appointed Brefo as her executor because he was kind to her.

Eventually, Wasiuk had had enough.

On Oct. 8, 2011, left alone in the house, she stood on her front porch and frantically waved at Timmermans, working in his garage next door.

Timmermans listened to her story. He called Durham Regional Police. He called the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly. He called in social workers.

The more support she received, the stronger Wasiuk became. She demanded a telephone in her room. Reid was furious when she found out Wasiuk had reached out to Timmermans.

“Pauline found out I went to see you and she threatened me that she is leaving at the end of this month. I have no place to go. I’m scared,” Wasiuk wrote in a note to her neighbour. “Please help me somehow. I can’t afford to see you. She doesn’t want me to talk to anyone. I’m her prisoner.”

A month later, Wasiuk asked Timmermans to drive her to lawyer Oldman’s office again, this time revoking the will that benefitted Reid’s three children and leaving all her money to charity. She also gave power of attorney to Timmermans and his wife Marie to look after her health care.

Durham Regional Police Sgt. John Keating, a liaison officer charged with looking after issues involving the elderly, began probing the case last fall. Timmermans said Wasiuk wrote several notes, which Timmermans passed to police.

In one note to Keating on Dec. 18, Wasiuk wrote: “I appeal to you for the last time. Do something about the forged papers that Pauline has, why a crook [she wrote “kruk”] like her should win by getting my house after I’m gone. . . . John please do something. I’m helpless.”

Reid and her family left the house in late January, shortly after a new lawyer working for Wasiuk, Alexander Jozefacki, sent letters to Reid and to the lawyers and the agent involved in helping Reid take control of Wasiuk’s house.

Jozefacki says Wasiuk is going to court to get her house back.

“There will be a statement of claim,” Jozefacki told the Star. “We’ve put a lien on the house and registered a caution on title. Nobody can touch the property until it’s dealt with by the courts.”

Someone attempted to sell the house a month ago. A ‘for sale’ sign went up on the lawn and an open house was held before Timmermans went next door and told the agent to stop. The sign has since come down.

Neighbours have reported seeing people remove belongings from the home in the middle of the night.

Approached to explain his involvement in the earlier transaction and in the 9.79 per cent mortgage, agent Gandhi bolted from his office and scurried into the parking lot, holding his cellphone and saying he was calling police.

Reid’s boyfriend Comas said neighbour Timmermans will not be satisfied until Reid is “begging on the street for bread.”

As for Wasiuk, who so feared living out her days in a nursing home, she is now in a retirement home, “for her own safety” on the advice of police, social workers and an advocacy group for the elderly.

The Durham police officer on the case is away this week and could not be reached for comment.

The hero of the story, Timmermans, said he thought calling the police would be all he had to do.

“We thought that once we called police that society would take care of her,” Timmermans said. “Not quite the way it works. There’s no way we were going to leave her alone after that.”

© The Toronto Star