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No Jail Time for Man Accused of Bilking Neighbor

14 Dec 2006

By Tracy Breton

PROVIDENCE - Thomas G. Foster, a Warren machinist who was accused of bilking a mentally impaired elderly neighbor out of $410,000, yesterday pleaded no contest to one count of felony larceny and was spared a prison term as part of a plea agreement in which he made $200,000 in restitution.

The victim, Leger R. Morrison, 84, is a retired professor who taught secretarial studies and education courses at Bryant College for 32 years. A life-long resident of Warren, he suffers from dementia.

Leger Morrison, a now mentally impaired retired Bryant University professor, was bilked out of $410,000. Thomas G. Foster, a neighbor, avoided prison time yesterday when he pleaded no contest to a larceny charge. Charges were dropped against Suzanne Almeida, who is Foster's mother-in-law and was Morrison's caregiver.

According to the prosecution, Morrison wanted Foster to buy a piece of property on the Dighton/Rehoboth line and build a home for wayward girls as a memorial to Morrison's deceased wife, Lucia. The property was to include a recreational area with horses. Morrison wrote three checks to Foster between October 2001 and February 2002 for $410,000.

But Foster never bought the property. Instead, he took the money and bought a three-bedroom, five-bathroom house with an in-ground pool for himself and his wife, as well as a new truck. All for cash.

In October 2005, a grand jury indicted Foster, 41, and his mother-in-law, Suzanne Almeida, 63, who was Morrison's caregiver, on five felony charges each - one count of conspiracy to commit larceny and four counts of larceny over $500. One of the larceny charges was based on their alleged attempt to get $515,000 in additional money from Morrison after he'd written the checks for $410,000.

Yesterday, as part of a plea agreement, the attorney general's office dismissed all of the charges against Almeida, a trained caregiver for Alzheimer's patients, and all but one count against Foster. He and his wife took out a 40-year mortgage to pay Morrison the $200,000 in restitution.

If it hadn't been for a representative of Fidelity Investments, Morrison's case may never have been reported to the authorities. Wade Contney told prosecutors that on the night of April 18, 2002, Thomas G. Foster showed up at his house in Bristol with a letter from Morrison asking for the transfer of money from his trust account to his regular account at Fidelity. Contney, who knew of the previous transfers to Foster of $410,000, alerted Fidelity's legal department, which temporarily froze Morrison's accounts.

Morrison was a secretive person, Michelle Murray, his niece and guardian says. He lived a cloistered life in a three-decker house that his father, a French Canadian immigrant, built. Until about 1½ years ago, when he moved in with his sister, he had lived since birth at 16 Brown St. He met his wife when he was student teaching at Bristol High School. The couple had no children. She worked for 30 years as treasurer of the B.A. Ballou jewelry company in East Providence. Leger was a Bryant graduate with a doctorate in education from Columbia University. After serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II, he spent his entire career teaching at Bryant.

The Morrisons lived frugally and saved almost everything they earned, his relatives say. They never ate out, except for an occasional meal at Burger King, and never took vacations, except to Florida, to visit Lucia's parents. The couple heated the top two floors of their house with space heaters and had no shower in their bathroom, only an old clawfoot tub. Leger furnished his home office with cast-off furniture from Bryant and was "such a tightwad,"

Murray says, that "for many years, he didn't have a telephone, just an intercom system." He loved reading newspapers but "was so frugal that he wouldn't buy the newspapers himself; he'd wait for my grandfather's day-old papers and ask my mother for the stock tables from her papers so he could track what was happening in the market."

When Lucia Saviano Morrison died of cancer at age 72 in a nursing home in March 2000, she was under a temporary guardianship because of memory impairment. Probate court records show that her estate - which all went to her husband - was valued at almost $2.8 million at the time of her death. When Leger was placed under permanent guardianship in May 2002, court records show that his estate, including what was left from his wife's bequest, was $2,805,066.

Murray says that family members began noticing her uncle was having mental-health issues just before her uncle's wife died. Morrison called his sister two days before his wife's death and said he couldn't remember which nursing home she was in, Murray says. When he showed up for his wife's funeral on March 30, 2000, "he was disheveled, which was highly uncharacteristic" for a man who took pride in a neat appearance and liked to wear silk shirts both at home and at work.

On Oct. 26, 2001, Morrison wrote the first of three checks to Foster. It was for $125,000. The memo line indicated it was for "property in Rehoboth." The second check, for $250,000, was dated Nov. 29, 2001. Morrison wrote on the check that it was for "house and land in Dighton." The third check, dated Feb. 25, 2002, was for $35,000. The memo line is blank but Morrison told his niece and her cousin that it was for a tractor to clear the Massachusetts land.

On May 12, 2002 - about 2½ months after Morrison wrote the last of the three checks - a psychiatrist performed a decision-making assessment test on him. The psychiatrist, Brian T. Morris, of Hingham, Mass., diagnosed Morrison as having mild dementia. His condition is "likely to get progressively worse," the doctor wrote. He has "moderate" memory impairment and although his language and attention are intact, his judgment is "impaired … Leger Morrison does not know the date or time of day. He is mentally unfit to make important financial decisions. His dementia will impair his judgment with regard to health care matters.

Leger Morrison is social and cooperative. In social situations, I fear that his dementia will allow others to take advantage of him," Morris wrote. "He appears to be a very kind man and I fear he could be a good target for unscrupulous individuals."

Yesterday in court, in return for Foster's no-contest plea to one count of felony larceny for stealing Morrison's money, Superior Court Judge Mark Pfeiffer imposed a five-year suspended sentence on Foster and placed him on probation for five years.

Michael J. Healey, spokesman for Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, said the disposition of the case was based on the victim's mental health. At the time Morrison wrote the checks to Thomas Foster, he had not had a mental examination by a psychiatrist that documented his mental-health problems and dementia. And now, prosecutor Roger Demers says, Morrison is too mentally impaired to be able to testify about why he gave the money to Foster. Without his testimony, the prosecutor said, the annotations on the checks "are just hearsay."

Demers said the case would have been stronger if a psychiatrist had tested Morrison's mental status before he wrote the checks, but "we have no documented mental state prior to the transactions or at the time of the transactions." He said, "that's a huge hurdle" when it comes to proving a criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt.

He said the other problem with the case was that Morrison was reclusive and "we don't have a lot of witnesses who could testify as to his behavior around the time he wrote the checks. His main contacts at that time were Foster and Almeida, and there was no allegation of forgery in this case."

In answering a civil suit that was brought against him by Morrison's guardian, Foster maintained that the money the retired professor gave him was a gift and that Morrison had never asked him to return it.

Healey said there was no evidence "of any money going directly to Suzanne Almeida" so the state had no choice but to drop the case against her.

Foster's lawyer, Michael Egan, said after yesterday's hearing that Morrison, Foster and Almeida were "best friends" and that both defendants "took care of Mr. Morrison for many years."

He said the original plan - before Morrison became so mentally impaired - was to have him move in with them for the last years of his life.

Egan said he doesn't think either Foster or Almeida, who was represented by House Speaker William J. Murphy, should ever have been charged with stealing Morrison's money. He said the reason his client agreed to plead no contest to the one larceny count was because "he did not want to put Mr. Morrison through any more trauma. He is in very ill health and is in no shape to testify."

Morrison is now living with his 88-year-old sister in her house in Warren, another that their father built. They like to watch The Lawrence Welk Show on TV. The sister suffers from schizophrenia and has been hospitalized on and off in recent years, according to her nephew, Thomas P. Murray, an accountant from Fall River. They have round-the-clock caregivers which Morrison is paying for at a cost, according to Murray, of $3,500- to-$4,000 per week.

Thomas Murray said that he and his cousin, Michelle Murray, aren't happy about the plea deal. "It's not a fair settlement. Whether or not Foster goes to jail is not important to any of us. Whether or not Leger was made whole was what was important to us."

"It's been four years since the investigation opened. We weighed what was the likelihood of winning the case at trial and what it would cost to continue to fight. The prosecutors said they felt it was a hard case to prove on a criminal basis. I don't have that opinion," said Murray. "The paperwork is very clear."

Healey, Lynch's spokesman, said: "Hopefully, reading a story about this disposition will help raise awareness about the problems we have in prosecuting these types of elder exploitation cases. These are real issues and ultimately, unless they're handled the right way, unless we have the right diagnosis," they are very difficult to prove.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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