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A Trust Betrayed: How two women in their 90's were fleeced by a helper

  • The Providence Journal/Gretchen Ertl

8 Jan 2007

By Tracy Breton

John Coughlan, 91, of New York City, leaves St. Vincent de Paul Church after attending daily noon Mass. Coughlan originally hired Patricia Murtaugh in 2004 to help her sort through possessions she had inherited from her brother.

Patricia Murtaugh never seemed to have enough money. She lived with her two Yorkshire terriers in a subsidized apartment in Queens, N.Y., and held a string of low-paying jobs. To boost her pay, she sold carrot cakes and Irish soda bread that she baked in her kitchen.

"She always had trouble paying her bills," says Peggy Higgins, Murtaugh's close friend. "So many times, I've bailed her out with rent and car insurance."

In recent years, things were looking up for Patty Murtaugh. The 58-year-old was working in an office supply store and had found an additional source of income: She'd become a companion to two women in their 90s who'd developed memory problems. One was a retired psychiatrist who'd forget to pay her rent, the other a wealthy former Navy nurse who'd never learned to balance her checkbook.

Murtaugh told Higgins that the retired nurse was paying her $20 per hour to do her bookkeeping.

The two old women enjoyed Murtaugh's company, though the nurse complained that she could be "pushy" and would sometimes show up late at night without calling ahead.

This was a small price to pay. The alternative was a nursing home, which neither of the women wanted or needed. Both could afford to pay for help with bill-paying and grocery shopping. And with Patty Murtaugh's assistance, they could continue to live alone.

Murtaugh gained the women's trust. Then, over an eight-month period, she stole much of their life savings.

Experts estimate that one in five elderly Americans are victims of financial exploitation. Some studies put the figure at closer to 50 percent. However, only 4 percent to 15 percent of such cases are ever reported to authorities, and even those that are reported often don't result in convictions. Even if there's a conviction, the penalties imposed for such crimes are much less than for similar offenses where the victim is younger.

Richard C.W. Hall, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida, says the most common victims of financial exploitation are females older than 75. Most are unmarried, widowed or divorced and suffer from cognitive impairment. They live alone or with their abuser. Most often, they are financially independent with no designated caretakers, are middle- or upper-income, socially isolated and fear a change in living situation.

Both of Patricia's Murtaugh's elderly victims had been prudent about socking away money they had earned over half a century. But neither had anyone watching over their nest eggs. According to the Queens District Attorney's Office, Murtaugh looted their accounts, using some of the money to open a carrot cake shop on Block Island and put a down payment on a house there.

The carrot cake store is now closed, the house sale never went through and Murtaugh is in prison in New York, serving a 1-to-3-year sentence. She's made only $5,000 in restitution. It's unlikely that her two elderly victims will ever see much more.

The story of Patricia Murtaugh is an example of how easy it is for a stranger to win the confidence of an elderly person and gain control of their assets. It also shows how prosecutors can successfully build a case of elder exploitation against a defendant, even with victims whose memories are impaired.

In the spring of 2005, Jonathan Shanks received an alarming phone call from his mother, a retired psychiatrist who was living alone in her high-rise apartment overlooking the Hudson River. "She was in a state of panic. She had just found an eviction notice on her door" because she was thousands of dollars behind on her rent.

Jonathan Shanks lives 1,600 miles away in Saskatchewan, Canada. He hadn't seen his mother, who is now 95, for many months.

"She said she needed $10,000 immediately," the son recalled in a recent interview. "I tried to reassure her that she had $10,000 in her bank account, but she insisted that I give her the money….

"When I told her I didn't have a spare $10,000 to give her, my mother, who is a very determined and independent woman, hung up on me."

About a half-hour later, Jonathan Shanks received another call -- from Patricia Murtaugh. Murtaugh introduced herself as a long-time friend of the family. Jonathan Shanks didn't know her, but Murtaugh's mother, who is now deceased, had been close friends with his mother's sister, Isabel, who now lives in England.

Murtaugh told Jonathan Shanks that she'd heard his mother, Elisabeth, needed help. She'd just sold a business, she said, and would be glad to loan her money to straighten out the rent.

Jonathan Shanks is an only child. He knew his mother needed assistance paying her bills. He'd noticed a decline in her memory during his last visits. There were no close relatives living nearby, and although he had a good job as a television producer, he couldn't afford to fly back and forth from his home regularly.

The son was relieved by Murtaugh's kind offer. "I felt if a family friend could check in on her that would be good." He told Murtaugh "there was no need for a loan, that my mother had more than enough money to pay her bills, but that if she could help her with paying her bills, that would be nice."

He said he told Murtaugh that he needed only some temporary help, that he planned to fly back East on his next vacation, and would line up more permanent help, if his mother needed that.

A few days after that initial conversation, Jonathan Shanks got another call from Patricia Murtaugh. She said she wanted to get power of attorney over his mother until he could return to New York. He told Murtaugh "there was no need for anybody to get power of attorney."

Murtaugh disregarded his instructions. She made an appointment for Elisabeth Shanks to meet with a Long Island lawyer -- someone, she said, who'd been her friend for 20 years, according to court records.

On May 17, 2005, that lawyer, John J. Giuffre, drew up a power of attorney appointing Murtaugh as attorney in fact for Shanks. This gave her broad powers to handle the old woman's property, money and personal relationships.

Giuffre also drew up a will in which Shanks bequeathed all of her jewelry to Murtaugh. The will also specified that if Jonathan Shanks died before his mother, all of her assets would go to Murtaugh.

Giuffre also drew up papers in which Shanks appointed Murtaugh as her health-care agent -- the person who would make decisions about end-of-life issues such as artificial hydration and nutrition. Murtaugh was also named executor of Shanks' estate.

Giuffre declined comment, citing his "attorney-client relationship with Dr. Elisabeth Shanks." However, in an e-mail, he said: "The services rendered by this firm for D r. Shanks were proper and were pursuant to her instructions."

Jonathan Shanks didn't learn about any of this until more than two months later, when, during a phone conversation with Murtaugh, she told him she'd obtained the power of attorney.

The son was upset. None of the legal documents that Giuffre drew up required court approval, unlike guardianship petitions, which trigger court notification of a ward's relatives. Jonathan Shanks says he had no way of knowing ahead of time that Murtaugh was going to use the legal system to gain control over his mother's affairs.

Jonathan Shanks immediately booked a flight to New York. He told Murtaugh that he wanted a meeting with Giuffre as soon as he arrived.

Murtaugh met him at the airport in a rental car. She told him she was taking him and his mother to Block Island. He told her he didn't want to go, "that I was in New York to look after my mother's finances, as I'd told her on the phone, and was not there for a vacation." But Murtaugh insisted that they go to Block Island. "She told me that a friend of hers in his 20's who I had never heard of had gone to the Bronx to pick up my mother who was looking forward" to the trip.

Jonathan Shanks reluctantly acquiesced, "not wanting to come off as the bad son." He and Murtaugh drove to Murtaugh's apartment in Queens, where they met up with his mother and the young man, who told them he worked on Block Island. The four of them drove together to Rhode Island. When they got to the island, Murtaugh showed them a carrot cake shop she'd just opened that, unknown to the Shankses, she was funding in part with the elderly woman's money.

They all spent the night together in a summer cottage Murtaugh had rented. At the time, Murtaugh wanted to buy a house on the island -- and, as investigators would later discover, had also used some of Elisabeth Shanks' money to put a down payment on a piece of property that was on the market for $945,000.

The following day, at Jonathan Shanks' insistence, Murtaugh drove him and his mother back to New York. They went to see Giuffre. It was during that meeting, Jonathan Shanks says, that he first learned about the new will and health-care proxy for his mother. He says he got upset but that Giuffre "vouched for the trustworthiness of Patty Murtaugh" and told him "he had worked for Patty in the past." He said both Giuffre and Murtaugh insisted during the meeting that his mother had consented in giving Murtaugh power of attorney.

But the son had an "uncomfortable feeling" about the power Murtaugh was asserting over his mother.

The day after the meeting with Giuffre, Jonathan Shanks went to see another lawyer. The new lawyer met privately with Elisabeth Shanks and, at her request, drafted new legal papers in which she revoked the power of attorney, health-care proxy and the will she'd executed with Guiffre.

The new documents gave power of attorney to Jonathan Shanks and one of his cousins. All references to Murtaugh were deleted and she was removed as a beneficiary in Elisabeth Shanks' will.

Figuring that he now had his mother's financial affairs under control, Shanks made arrangements to fly home, with a stopover in Montreal.

The night before he left New York, Jonathan Shanks convened a dinner with his mother, his cousin and Murtaugh. He informed Murtaugh that she no longer had any control over his mother's finances. He was now in charge, he told her, and he wanted a list of his mother's bank accounts, along with a list of her debts.

Murtaugh, he said, promised him "she'd get it to me first thing in the morning," before he left for Montreal.

But she never did. When Jonathan Shanks tried to reach her the following day at the three phone numbers she'd given him, there was no answer and she didn't return his calls. Higgins, Murtaugh's friend, says "Patty called me after the dinner to complain that the son was very rude."

When he arrived in Montreal, Jonathan Shanks got a phone call from his cousin. "All your mother's money is gone," the cousin reported. "Patty's taken all your mother's money."

The next day, Jonathan Shanks rented a car and drove to a house in upstate New York where his distraught mother had been taken by his cousin.

The following day, Aug. 18, 2005, Jonathan Shanks took his mother to meet with prosecutors at the Queens District Attorney's office. They opened a criminal investigation. After the meeting, the mother and son went to the neighborhood bank branch where Elisabeth Shanks did all of her banking, closed all of her accounts and opened new ones.

A bank officer verified that much of Elisabeth Shanks' savings was gone. Jonathan Shanks says that when he combed through the statements for the accounts he and his mother had closed, he found that "even after Patty Murtaugh knew the jig was up, after her power of attorney had been withdrawn, she'd gone to an ATM and withdrawn more money."

Investigators from the Queens DA's office did an audit. They found that Murtaugh began looting Shanks' savings even before she obtained the power of attorney. On May 4, 2005 -- 13 days before the trip to Giuffre's law office -- Murtaugh opened a joint account at a Queens Chase Manhattan Bank in both of their names. Six days later, Murtaugh transferred $137,819.46 from Shanks' Citibank account to the Chase account. Murtaugh then withdrew $85,650 from the Chase account using cashier's checks, personal checks, teller withdrawals and wire transfers.

Prosecutor Gregory Pavlides, chief of the economic and environmental crimes bureau of the Queens DA's office, says that although Murtaugh took Shanks with her when she opened the joint bank account, Shanks, "who has periods of lucidity but periods of not being lucid at all," was "distracted" and had no idea that the business Murtaugh was conducting at the bank would give her access to her money.

Evelyn Alegre, a detective assigned to the DA's office, said in her court report that Elisabeth Shanks t old her in an interview that "she did not sign her name on an application to open the joint account."

When interviewed by her current lawyer, Elisabeth Shanks said she'd "agreed" to Murtaugh's request to open the joint account but only "as a matter of convenience," so Murtaugh could better assist her in paying her rent, utilities and medical bills, according to court records.

The DA's office might never have gotten wind of Murtaugh's fraud on her second elderly victim, Joan Coughlan, if it hadn't received the complaint from Jonathan Shanks.

Coughlan is a wealthy woman. Year after year, she socked away the money she earned in her job as a nurse. A woman of simple tastes who never married, she orders the blue-plate special when she goes out for lunch. For an outing on a 90-degree day, she wears a heavy wool tweed skirt and crocheted hat, clothes that she's owned for decades.

Coughlan had hired Murtaugh in 2004 to help her sort through a collection of possessions she had inherited from her brother, a bachelor lawyer who died in 1996. Coughlan was the sole beneficiary of her brother's estate. Her Manhattan apartment was piled with his books. After eight years, she decided it was time to do some cleaning.

Coughlan has no living relatives. Until retirement, she spent her entire adulthood working as a nurse in the Navy and, later, in private hospitals. Though she is unusually physically fit for a person of 91, like Shanks she suffers from cognitive impairment.

But one thing never changes in Joan Coughlan's life: Every day at noon, she goes to Mass. She attends St. Vincent de Paul Church on West 23rd Street, around the corner from her apartment. But sometimes she goes to pray at other churches around the city.

One day after her brother's death, she picked up a bulletin at a church on the Upper East Side. Inside, she found an advertisement placed by Dennis J. Sheridan, a Manhattan lawyer and accountant who was looking for business.

Sheridan says he places a lot of ads in church bulletins to boost his client base. He said he first met Coughlan when she called for help with handling her brother's estate. "That led into me helping her with her own taxes."

Over the years, Sheridan says, Coughlan has become more introverted and forgetful. She "became harder and harder to get any information from." Sheridan thought that "she needed a secretary or companion…. She was misplacing dividends. There was money coming in and money going out. I told her she needed help with her paperwork, someone who could help with cleaning out her apartment, paying bills and making sure she was getting all of the money she was entitled to."

The person Sheridan set her up with was Patty Murtaugh, a friend of his for over 30 years. Sheridan had met Murtaugh in the 1970s when he was auditing a chemical brokerage firm in Old Greenwich, Conn., where Murtaugh worked as an office temp. They became good friends. He says that although Murtaugh never seemed to last very long at any of her places of employment, she was a person with a big heart.

"They seemed to hit it off wonderfully well for a couple of years," Sheridan says of Murtaugh and Coughlan. But he says that the last time he talked to Murtaugh, Coughlan was having cognitive problems and he thought she needed a guardian. "Joan was hallucinating, and I tried to get Patty to get her over to St. Vincent's Hospital to a walk-in clinic" so a doctor could perform a psychiatric exam.

"Patty told me she'd take her to the hospital, but I don't know whether she ever did."

In late September 2005, as part of the criminal investigation into the theft of Elisabeth Shanks' money, James Dever, a forensic accountant with the Queens DA's Office, began combing through Murtaugh's bank records. That's when the DA learned that Murtaugh had victimized another elderly woman -- Joan Coughlan. The bank records showed two trails of money transfers into Murtaugh's accounts -- one from Shanks, the other from Coughlan.

Coughlan had more than $300,000 in three bank accounts at Emigrant Savings Bank at the end of 2004, court records show. Between Dec. 16, 2004, and March 3, 2005, three checks totaling $9,400 were drawn from these accounts, made payable to Patricia Murtaugh. According to the Queens DA's office, on March 18, 2005, Murtaugh -- without the knowledge or permission of Coughlan -- opened a joint account at a Chase Manhattan bank in Queens in both of their names. During the next five months, Murtaugh transferred more than $150,000 from Coughlan's Emigrant accounts to the Chase account and then withdrew all of that money for her own use, using cashier's checks, personal checks, teller withdrawals and debit purchases made on the account.

Alegre, the Queens DA detective, says in an affidavit that Coughlan "purportedly signed her name in order to open up the joint account." However, when the detective interviewed Coughlan, the elderly woman told her "that she does no t recall signing her name on the application" and that she never gave anyone permission to open a joint account in her name.

Last May 31, Alegre went to question Murtaugh at her apartment near Shea Stadium. The apartment "was in horrific condition," the stench unbearable, says Alegre. "There were roach carcasses all over the apartment, dead roaches, live roaches -- on the walls, the floors, in the kitchen," even in the flour and sugar sacks that Murtaugh was using to bake her carrot cakes.

Murtaugh was neatly dressed, said Alegre, but her two Yorkshire terriers, Mickey and Teddy, were covered with fleas. "Their teeth were rotting, their hair was matted," and the bowls that they ate and drank from had roaches in them. There were dirty dishes in the sink covered with fungus.

Murtaugh, in a written statement, told the detective that she had met Elisabeth Shanks through a family connection and that in recent years, Shanks had become dependent on her. She'd call repeatedly "and ask me to visit her all the time," Murtaugh said. About once a week, she said, she'd visit with the retired psychiatrist at Shanks' apartment or at her own apartment in Queens.

"In early 2004, I noticed Shanks was becoming confused and forgetful. I started paying bills for her out of my own account," Murtaugh said. There were many past-due bills. She said Elisabeth Shanks' son told her he had no money to help his mother out.

In May 2005, Murtaugh said, she took Elisabeth Shanks to the bank to withdraw money to pay for rent and late fees. While there, she said, she opened a joint account at the suggestion of Jonathan Shanks and his aunt "so that I could take care of her bills and care." Murtaugh said that a Chase vice president "suggested moving over $80,000 to the joint account for better interest rates."

Murtaugh said Jonathan Shanks and his aunt had also suggested that she get power of attorney "to safeguard properties that E. Shanks owned. I was named as beneficiary on the will as well as power of attorney. I was only supposed to be executor of the will until Jonathan came back from Canada."

Since September 2004, Elisabeth Shanks' "mental state was very foggy and she was extremely forgetful" and "was also easily disoriented," Murtaugh told Alegre.

Asked about money she'd received from the retired psychiatrist, Murtaugh said Dr. Shanks "would occasionally give me a couple hundred dollars" for her services but that over 11 years, "I have not received more than $1,000 total."

Later in her statement, Murtaugh changed her story. From May to October 2005, she conceded, Dr. Shanks "gave me over $30,000 for my business on Block Island. I purchased inventory, insurance, rent and hotel/boarding fees."

Asked about Coughlan, Murtaugh told Alegre that she'd been introduced to her in July 2004 by "my friend of 30 years, Dennis Sheridan, Esq." Coughlan, she said, paid her $20 per hour for her services, always by check, and that she worked for her two or three days a week. She said that Sheridan and Coughlan asked her to open up a joint bank account because "from January 2005, I noticed Coughlan was becoming extremely forgetful and disoriented." Altogether, Murtaugh insisted, she had received no more than about $12,000 from Coughlan for her services.

A few months after Murtaugh began working for Coughlan, Murtaugh's long-time friend Peggy Higgins says she began noticing that Murtaugh was suddenly flush with cash. Higgins said that she tried to question her friend about her newfound wealth, but that Murtaugh "got very uptight" and evasive. One day, "she told me, 'I bought a $2 Scratch-off card and won $5,000.' Then she showed me a picture at Foxwoods and said, 'They comped me for a weekend.' She said she'd gone there with a girl from Block Island."

Higgins said she became so concerned about all of the money her friend was throwing around that she called Murtaugh's brother in Pennsylvania. "I told him, 'Patty's having too much money….' I suspected it was coming from that woman, Joan, she was helping." But Higgins says that the more she pressed Murtaugh for information, the more "she'd try to hide her money from me."

Higgins said that while she was shocked her friend would have cooked up a scheme to bilk two old women, Murtaugh's arrest this past May didn't come as a complete surprise to her.

"Suddenly, she was a person who went from having no money to someone who was spending money like a drunken sailor. She bought a second car; she bought a boat; she quit her job and announced she was moving to Block Island."

The Queens DA's office determined that, altogether, Murtaugh stole more than $245,000 from Shanks and Coughlan. She was charged with three felonies -- including one count under New York state's hate crime law, which provides for enhanced penalties for people who commit larcenies on victims over 60 years old. She faced up to 25 years in prison.

Murtaugh was imprisoned pending trial. For a while, it looked as though she might contest the charges. Prosecutors geared up to videotape statements from Coughlan and Shanks so that they'd have their testimony in case they became too ill or passed away before the case came up for trial. Defense lawyers often try to delay trial of elder abuse and exploitation cases until the victim is too disabled to testify, experts say.

But on July 26, Patricia Murtaugh was brought to court and pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree larceny. On Sept. 6, she returned to court and was sentenced to serve one to three years in prison. Although Murtaugh made just $5,000 in restitution that day -- money provided by her brother, who wrote out a check as he lay dying of cancer -- the judge who imposed sentence required her to sign papers acknowledging that she is liable for the balance she stole. Prosecutors are doubtful she will ever have the money to repay the balance.

"We don't know where all the money went," says Pavlides, the Queens prosecutor. He says that it appears that Murtaugh went through most of it in short order: she opened her carrot cake shop, Carrots Up, made the deposit on the Block Island property, bought a car and then used the rest for the rent on her Queens apartment, eating out, groceries and paying down credit cards, he said.

It appears that she was having money problems even after the thefts. According to Pavlides, after stealing the money from her victims, Murtaugh was evicted from her Block Island apartment for nonpayment of rent. In trying to locate assets that could be seized, investigators found that as of this past summer, the only thing that Patricia Murtaugh owned was a sailboat worth $2,000 to $3,000, according to Pavlides.

Patricia Murtaugh, now Prisoner # 06G0955 in New York state's correctional system, says she is remorseful for what she did to Elisabeth Shanks and Joan Coughlan but refused a request for an interview. She said she felt exploited by the media and wanted to "plead for my privacy at this time."

In a letter from her prison c ell in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y., she said, "I am trying hard to put this behind me and serve my time and move ahead. I always led an honest, honorable life of giving and doing for others, never expecting anything in return. I will do my best to lead an honest and high principled life ahead as I was brought up to do."

She complained about conditions in the prison she was held in awaiting her sentencing but said she believes that "God put me in this prison system for more than my crime. To make changes for women and at least keep them safe and healthy."

Murtaugh -- who has recently been transferred from Bedford Hills to a minimum-security prison in Beacon, N.Y. -- wrote that her brother had just passed away from cancer, and that she was upset that she couldn't attend his memorial service.

Murtaugh said that she, too, has been fighting cancer -- since 1977. "This past January, my neck was opened twice for cancer. When I was at Rikers in June they found more lumps."

Murtaugh's long-time friend, attorney Dennis Sheridan -- the person who recommended Murtaugh as a helpmate for Joan Coughlan -- says Murtaugh "was one of the nicest people you could imagine, to a fault" and that he's "shocked" by her thefts.

"On the one hand, I feel totally betrayed and annoyed in the extreme" at what she did, the attorney says. "On the other hand, I feel sorry for her because she's had her share of mental problems." Sheridan said that many years ago, he got a call from one of Murtaugh's former employers asking him to meet her at an emergency room where Murtaugh had been taken in a manic state. "I think she was taking meds and had stopped."

But Murtaugh, in her letter from prison, says that Sheridan was off the mark in blaming her crimes on manic-depression. "I was treated for depression over 20 years ago. But it hasn't been an issue for over 10 years," she said.

Dr. Elisabeth Shanks is still living in her rent-stabilized apartment on the top floor of a 31-floor high-rise overlooking the Hudson River. She now has two caregivers who share round-the-clock duty looking after her. Photographs of her and her son, Jonathan, are displayed throughout the living room. Some date back to the time, after the breakup of her marriage, when she was struggling financially and living with her 4-year-old son in a mountaineering tent on Long Island. For nine months, she prepared all of their meals on a two-burner Coleman stove.

For most of her career, Elisabeth Shanks worked at the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, a state institution that was once the largest psychiatric hospital in the world, with 4,400 patients. In 2001, she celebrated her 90th birthday a few weeks early by going parasailing. But in the last few years, she has become very frail and hard of hearing. She has a gentleman friend in the building who has a grand piano. Several days a week, the two meet for lunch in the Senior Centre in the basement of their high-rise. Sometimes, she'll accompany him back to his apartment and he'll play the piano for her.

Elisabeth Shanks' new lawyer has filed a civil suit against Patricia Murtaugh seeking $125,000 in damages for fraud and breach of fiduciary duty, and an additional $750,000 in punitive damages. Murtaugh not only stole Shanks' money, the lawsuit says, but failed to pay her elderly victim's bills on time, resulting in Shanks' supplemental health insurance being canceled and her past-due debts being sent to a collection agency.

Jonathan Shanks says that his mother still has some money but that it's running out because of the fleecing by Murtaugh. In addition to her bills for rent, utilities and caregiver services, "she is paying $500 a month to a dentist she owes a lot of money to," he says.

"What she has to pay out each month is twice what she takes in pension and Social Security." Sometime within the next year, she'll be forced to give up her apartment and move into a Medicaid-funded home.

Joan Coughlan has more money left than Elisabeth Shanks. And while her memory is hazy on most subjects, she has a coterie of volunteers from her church who now watch out for her: Ann Hughes, 86, a retired clerk who worked for over 30 years in the child-abuse unit in Manhattan Family Court; Liam Cusack, a 36-year-old writer, Abbie Sullivan, 80, a retired housekeeper; and Tom Pandolf, a retired New York City police officer.

They take her out for meals, line up people to clean her apartment and run errands for her. The New York Human Resources Administration is suggesting that she needs a guardian and has brought in a psychiatrist to examine Coughlan, says Hughes.

Cusack says that when Murtaugh had control of things, she never paid Coughlan's bills and Coughlan never had any money on her to pay for meals or groceries. "The phone company turned her phone off because Patty Murtaugh didn't pay the bill, so she had no phone for five months. They threatened to turn her electricity o ff and to evict her from her apartment" for nonpayment of rent. She is years behind paying her taxes, says Hughes.

Coughlan still walks to church every day for Mass. Afterward, she goes out to lunch with the friends she has come to depend on and then usually goes back to Hughes' apartment for a few hours.

Says Hughes: "I tell her, after her health, the most important thing that you've got to watch out for is your money.

Editor's Note: Tracy Breton, a recipient of a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship for 2006-2007, is writing an intermittent series of stories about elder abuse and exploitation.

Copyright 2006. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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