This is the Story of a Waking Nightmare

Social isolation is an abuser’s best accomplice. Last year CARP reported on Norma Marshall’s elder abuse case. The 94-year old lived alone and needed a little help with housekeeping. Besides, she thought it might be nice to have little company. She hired a woman that had been referred by a friend who had noted the number after having received a flyer advertising the housekeeper’s services. Norma Marshall’s housekeeper, Vera Nunes and her husband Luis Serpa Da Conceicao Santos eventually confined Marshall to a tiny bedroom. They moved their family into Ms. Marshall’s home and took over her bank accounts. Mrs. Marshall lost her life-savings and if it had not been for the vigilance of a pharmacy delivery-person, she might have lost her life as well.

Firoz Jogiat had delivered Marshall’s medicine to her home nearly every week for 10 years, and said he was surprised when a man he didn’t recognize answered the door one day. The man claimed he was a family member, but Jogiat said Marshall had told him that her only living relative was a nephew who lived in Montreal. The delivery man became suspicious of this so-called “family member”. The following week, he asked the man at the door if he could see Ms. Marshall.  Mr. Jogiat said he was led into a small bedroom where the housekeeper and her husband had confined the older woman.

When he returned to the pharmacy, he told pharmacist Selina Chan-Ying about the experience, saying that Marshall refused to look him in the eye when he tried to make conversation. “He felt that she was scared, so I thought, it’s time to do something,” Chan-Ying said, so she called police

The perpetrators, Vera Nunes and Luis Serpa Da Conceicao were charged with being unlawfully in a dwelling – a charge that only carries a six-month sentence. This seems a pittance when compared to the trauma and abuse they inflicted on Mrs. Marshall… And despite the fact that Mrs. Marshall is now safe from the two perpetrators her money was never recovered.   After the story appeared in the press she received donations form the public but at the end of the day, she felt that the loss of her life savings was not the worst part of the ordeal.

“The life savings is one thing, but what it does to you emotionally is worse,” Marshall said. “You can recover (financially). You don’t need a lot of money when you’re old, you just need your rent and some food, but you do need people around you.”

What would have become of Mrs. Marshall had it not been for the vigilance of the people who worked at her local pharmacy? The question is a terrifying one and unfortunately, it is one we must face.

The unfortunate truth is that even measures meant to accommodate older Canadians can often be exploited to nefarious ends. Take, for instance, the recent Veronika Piela case. The affair took place in Montreal and surprisingly; it received no play in the English national news and very little coverage even in the Quebec media.

The lack of coverage is appalling given the depth of the deception and the ease with which the perpetrators exploited the system to imprison and confine a 90-year old lady against her will. Their goal was to rob her of her $500, 000 life-savings, the legacy of a lifetime of careful savings.

Mrs. Piela was born in 1923 in the Ukraine. During the Second World War she was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp where on August 2nd1945, she met the man who would become her future husband. In 1948 the newly-wed couple moved to Canada to start a new life. Mr. and Mrs. Piela were a hardworking couple – they did a thousand odd jobs – she cleaned homes, waited tables, prepared catering – anything she could find. Painstakingly, the childless couple succeeded in amassing enough money to buy a small building with four apartments in a cheap Montreal neighbourhood.   In 1997, after having been widowed for a decade, Mrs. Piela finally conceded the need to sell the building. It sold for around $500,000. Little did she know that it was this half-million that would eventually lead to her being targeted by a scheme so heartless and complex it would seem to have been written for the pages of a mystery novel.

A conspiracy seems to have taken place between three, possibly even four individuals. It all started when Mrs. Piela, needing a little help, decided to hire the daughter of a woman she had been casually acquainted with through her church.   Veronika found that she no longer had the energy to keep much of a social calendar and to run errands. She hired Anita Obodzinski to help her with these things and gave her access to her accounts to facilitate the arrangement. The employment did not last long, soon Mrs. Piela discovered that her new helper was stealing money and she fired her. But it was too late, for Anita had already noticed that Veronika had considerable savings in her accounts.

On December 19th 2013, Anita Obodzinski, styling herself Mrs. Piela’s niece, presented herself to the courthouse with a mandate in case of incapacity apparently signed by Mrs. Piela (an assertion that Mrs. Piela strenuously denies and a forgery expert is inclined to agree that she did not sign it).   Ms. Obodzinski was also armed with a psychological report signed by a social worker named Alissa Kerneer and a medical report signed by Dr. Lindsay Goldsmith.  Apparently, this sort of request is not referred to a judge, and Ms. Obodzinski was therefore attended by a clerk.

Typically, in this situation, the adult who is to be “protected” would provide testimony but the law allows for an exception to be made when total incapacity/dementia/ill-health might prevent the person from appearing. Of course, the social worker’s report clearly stated that Mrs. Piela was wholly incapable of appearing on her own behalf – she depicted Mrs. Piela as a hopelessly demented alcoholic. Veronika Piela was neither of those things. A lawyer also signed some key documents and although the clerk did not know this the lawyer in question, Charles Gelber, is the social worker Alissa Kerneer’s husband.  What a coincidence!

Dr. Goldsmith’s medical report said that Mrs. Piela suffered from Alzheimers and discussed the risk of fires and alcohol intoxication. Faced with all this evidence the clerk signed the mandate without blinking and just like that, Veronika found herself completely under the authority of Anita Obodzinski, the thieving errand-lady she had fired some six months prior.

On January 13th, 2014, the lawyer Charles Gelber went to the different bank branches Mrs. Piela used and he proceeded to empty all of her accounts. He took $283, 349 from one account and $190, 213 from another. At “the niece’s” request he took all of Mrs. Piela’s funds and places them into his own account “to be held in trust” as he was now apparently legally entitled to do.

During this time the social worker attempted to enlist the police’s help.  She said it was essential that Mrs. Piela be removed from her apartment and  moved to a high security facility.   She insisted that it had to be done instantly and that the older woman was a danger to herself and others.  The police did not like to forcefully evict an older woman from her own home and they began to find the events surrounding Mrs. Piela a little strange… Particularly as on the rare occasions when they spoke to the older woman she did not appear to suffer any kind of impairment at all.

After the police’s refusal to forcefully confine the older woman and a failed attempt by the “the niece” to break and enter so as to physically remove Mrs. Piela herself, the trio turned to a legal remedy. Charles Gelber made a request for an order to transfer Mrs. Piela. Once again he brought forth all the so-called evidence and the judge was quick to grant him the order. After all, the woman was presumed to have dementia and it was said that she was being protected from herself. Her protectors claimed that she must not be allowed to contact her only friend – a Ukrainian priest to whom she has already given over $800,000!

On February 12th 2014, again in all apparent legality, a few goons arrived at Mrs. Piela’s apartment where they forced their way in, tied her up with telephone wire and threw her in the back of a car. This is how Mrs. Piela was brought to her new “home”: bruised and bound. It seemed to Veronika that her new home was a prison. It was a high-security home for people suffering from advanced stages of dementia and there, as per the niece and the social worker’s requests, Mrs. Piela was permitted neither visitors nor telephone calls. They had succeeded in sequestering Mrs. Piela from the world and in taking all of her money away.

At this point, many people might just have given up, but Veronika Piela is a fighter. When the city, the courts and everyone else failed her she decided to save herself. Three days after being brought to the residence, she had observed the security procedures well enough to stage her breakout. She made a run for it.

On February 15th, 2014 the Montreal Police received a telephone call from a concerned citizen. They had seen a 90-year old woman running down Côte-des-Neiges street – hauling herself along with her walker as fast as she could as if the very devil was after her. It was a bone-chilling winter day and the lady in question was not even wearing a jacket – in fact she appeared to be dressed in some sort of nightgown.   When the police picked up Mrs. Piela she told them that she would commit suicide if they forced her to go back to the home where she was kept against her will. The police discovered that in this home for people suffering from dementia, in accordance with the wishes of her “protectors” the older woman was being denied permission to have visitors and even use the telephone.  With apologies to Lewis Carroll, the police was finding the affair curiouser and curiouser.

Had Mrs. Piela not succeeded in running away from the residence where she had been placed by her captors on that cold February day, it is likely we would not be discussing this case.  Mrs. Piela would likely still be there, a hostage being held against her will, presumed demented when in fact she is not.

Later examinations by a skilled geriatrician have revealed that not only is Veronika Piela entirely lucid, but she in fact has an outstanding memory – for a person of any age. By the time the police encountered Ms. Piela nearly freezing to death, it was not the first time they had had dealings with the older woman and her “protectors” and their suspicions had continued to mount.   Putting together previous police reports they became increasingly convinced that all is was not what it seemed where this kindly, sharp older woman and her “protectors” were concerned. The police brought her back to the residence but they returned two days later to remove her and to take her to an elder shelter.

But all is not well that ends well. Things were not simple for Veronika after that. She had to hire a lawyer of her own and take to the courts to have the mandate of incapacity overturned.  While the affair stalled in the courts Mrs. Piela and what was left of her property and savings were placed under the control of the public trustee. In April 2015 Mrs. Piela was still fighting Mrs. Obodzinski who was desperately trying to retain control of the woman she had robbed and imprisoned. In the interim Mrs. Piela could live where she chose and a temporary restraining order was placed on Mrs. Obodzinski but Veronika was terrified.   The question of whether or not Mrs. Obodzinski was using Mrs. Piela’s money to stage her own defense and of just how much of Mrs. Piela’s half million-dollar savings is unanswered.

Formal criminal charges were only brought forward in the past few weeks. Anita Obodzinski faces 16 criminal charges. Her husband Arthur Trzciakowski and the social worker, Alissa Kerner also face charges. Mrs. Kerner is also the subject of an investigation and she is temporarily banned from the College of Social Workers pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing and perhaps also of the criminal investigation.

The lawyer, Charles Gelber and Dr. Goldsmith, whose part in all this remains unclear, face similar internal investigations with their respective professional and regulatory organizations. One year and three months later, the criminal trial is only just beginning and it is not known how much of her initial money Mrs. Piela has managed to salvage.

This incredible and tragic story might have been prevented in a variety of ways… It is clear that if Mrs. Piela had not been socially isolated it would not have been possible for these people to get away with this kind of deception. This awful story makes it clear that any Municipal; Provincial or Federal regulations designed for convenience should always be thoroughly examined through the lens of their potential to facilitate abuse. Where questions of adult protection, incapacity and competency are concerned no stones should be left unturned, we must be sure before we irrevocably sign away someone’s freedom.

This affair has highlighted some crucial flaws in the system – should a clerk really be able to sign away someone’s rights or should this decision be handed to a judge? Should the judge or clerk really be able to make that decision without having met the person being discussed – could measures not be taken to send the decision-maker to the person in ill health if they really cannot come to the courthouse? For the moment there is no indication that any kind of review has been planned as a result of this case.

Something that becomes painfully obvious after reading these stories is that they highlight the very real importance of maintaining a socially active and engaging lives. In both these cases the woman were isolated and had withdrawn from their regular pursuits when their mobility, health and energy began to falter.   Defeating and overcoming isolation is something that should be kept in mind when planning and allocating social services as well as implementing Age-Friendliness in any city.