By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — Doug Hillenburg took comfort knowing his father met a female friend to keep him company in 2014.
His mother died two years earlier and his retired father, Tom, had little social life outside of his family and the time he spent at local coffee shops. And even though a 30-year age difference raised some concern when the new relationship appeared romantic, Doug said he looked the other way because his dad appeared full of life again—at least more than he had the previous two years.
But, little did Doug know, Tom was not as healthy on the inside. A diabetic, he also suffered from cirrhosis and cancer of the liver. Thankfully, the support of his children, grandchildren and a budding romance presented a calming port in the storm. But that alleviation would be only temporary.
By 2015, Doug’s financially independent father was suddenly in debt. He mowed through more than an estimated $30,000 in petty cash and increased his use of his only credit card. Attributing the extravagance to newfound love, Doug took no action. Tom’s companion had taken over the duties of paying his bills and the couple appeared to be taking their relationship to the next level. There was no cause for alarm.
But when automatic bank drafts, personal checks and random withdrawals started eating up Tom’s $4,000 monthly pension and household bills were left unpaid, Doug could look away no longer.
“The (electric) bill was $700,” Doug said. “They were going to shut it off. The water bill was racked way up. There was a big Verizon bill. There was no money. At one point, (his bank account) was overdrawn by $1,300.”
But that wasn’t all. When Doug and his fiancée, Tracy, opened Tom’s books, they were met with a mountain of credit card debt, department store charges and title loans—accounts Tom did not previously have. A $22,000 loan put his new valentine behind the wheel of a Chevy Camaro, the second vehicle she obtained from the union. She still owns the SUV that belonged to Tom’s late wife.
“He signed (the SUV) over to her because she told him she needed a car,” Tracy said.
Doug and Tracy’s nightmare did not end by reigning in the pocketbook chain. His girlfriend had other plans. With mounting debt and Tom without regular doses of medication, the spending continued—trips, expensive jewelry and clothing. Tom was also paying to keep her in a house across town. Then came a series of twists all too common in thousands of elder exploitation cases each year in the United States.
The first began Feb. 2, 2017, at a police station 80 miles from Rockford.
“He went out to have breakfast and get a haircut but ended up LaSalle,” Doug said. “He stopped for gas but didn’t have any cash.”
A confused Tom attempted to pay for the fuel with a garage door opener so an attendant called police.
Four days later, Tom was diagnosed with dementia. A follow-up visit was scheduled, but Tom would not keep it. His girlfriend made sure of that.
“She canceled the appointment and took him to the courthouse and married him,” Doug said.
And while Tom and his new bride claimed to be in love, Doug and Tracy, combing through a paper trail of reckless squander, called it something else.
“The only thing left she could try to get was his house,” Doug said of the free-and-clear property that was his childhood home.
And she nearly succeeded.
A records search showed that Tom’s wife put herself on title to the property and applied for a home loan that would eventually be denied. The battle continued though. Because the marriage had been recorded, relief from the courts was Doug’s only option to save his ailing father’s life.
“Personally, I believe he would have been dead if we hadn’t intervened,” Doug said. “He wasn’t getting his medicine. He wasn’t getting his blood-sugar taken. Even though we were told he was being taken care of, I have pictures and proof he wasn’t.”
Doug is now Tom’s legal guardian and the marriage has been dissolved—ruled invalid because of the elder’s state of mind. He is now in a nursing home, safe. Although it was not part of the plan when they realized he was sick.
“We had a visiting nurse all set up,” Doug said. “He could have afforded to stay in the house for as long as he could—probably for the rest of his life. Then when he passed, my brother and I would have just sold the house and that would have been it.”
Instead, Doug has turned to Medicare. That means the house and Tom’s other equitable assets will likely be seized.
In total, he said his father was exploited out of more than $100,000. The $20,000 Doug and Tracy have paid to lawyers and creditors in the last few months have come out of their pocket. Tracy even left her full-time job to sort through Tom’s affairs.
According to the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA), home repair, investment and phone scams are common among seniors, along with unauthorized transfer of real estate, theft and fraud.
In Illinois, financial exploitation of the elderly and those with disabilities is a felony, and punishments increase depending on the ages of the victim and amounts taken. It is a Class 4 felony if property value is $300 or less. Class 3 felonies involve property between $301 and $5,000. If the property value is $5,000 or more, but less than $50,000, offenders can be charged with a Class 2 felony. Class 1 felonies involve property of $50,000 or more and the victim is 70 or older, and property value of $15,000 taken from victims 80 and older.
A Class 1 felony is punishable by between four and 15 years in prison.
“We have turned everything over to detectives,” Doug said. “We are now waiting to see what happens, but we are hoping she goes to jail.” R.