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Home : About Us : Success Stories

Success Stories

"The Preacher" Was Really a Thief


Legal Action of Wisconsin attorney Nicole Zimmer, left, is part of SeniorLAW, a special Legal Action project focused on the legal issues of older people. In addition to handling a substantial caseload, Zimmer regularly makes public presentations on elder rights at low-income senior housing facilities and other locations in Milwaukee.

(The client name in this story has been changed.)

He called himself The Preacher, and he told Ted Harrelson everything was going to be OK.

Harrelson, a retired Milwaukee homeowner, was in his 80s when his wife died. She had been the one who managed all the couple’s finances.

What’s more, Harrelson began slipping into dementia, and seemed at times to be unaware of what he needed to do to keep his bills paid.

A Wolf in Preacher's Clothing

The Preacher, who lived in Harrelson’s neighborhood, got Harrelson to sign papers giving him power of attorney – papers Harrelson later said he didn’t remember signing.

But instead of looking out for the older man’s interests, The Preacher latched onto virtually everything of value Harrelson had. He put his name on the deed for Harrelson’s house – and took Harrelson's off. He added his name to the title on Harrelson's car. He took control of Harrelson’s bank accounts, pension checks and Social Security payments.

The Preacher made only occasional payments on Harrelson's bills, and ran the unpaid balances higher and higher. Suddenly Harrelson, who never used a cell phone, found himself owing money for one The Preacher had added to his phone account.

When Harrelson’s phone and utilities were cut off, a neighbor brought him to Legal Action of Wisconsin, recalls Nicole Zimmer, an attorney with Legal Action’s SeniorLAW project.

Few Places to Turn

“It’s not just that people like Mr. Harrelson don’t have the money to hire a lawyer,” Zimmer says. “Even if he did have money, this is not the kind of case that private lawyers usually take,” because there’s so little chance of prevailing and getting back substantial money.

In mid-2009 Zimmer added Harrelson's case to those she already was managing. She logged more than 160 work hours tracking down and unraveling all the fraud and theft The Preacher had perpetrated while pretending to care for Harrelson.

She also used her standing as a lawyer and familiarity with red tape to solve problems for Harrelson. Zimmer asked repeatedly for basic documentation from the Social Security Administration to see whether The Preacher had absconded with any payments. An SSA representative finally admitted the request had been handled incorrectly and provided the information.

“This is not something the client could have cleared up by himself,” Zimmer says.

Pulling The Plug on The Preacher

Zimmer eventually managed to have The Preacher’s power of attorney over Harrelson revoked. She  had Harrelson re-listed as the sole owner of his house and car, and got his pension and Social Security payments straightened out.

She also totaled up more than $22,000 in payments, debts and services that The Preacher had taken in Harrelson’s name, and filed a lawsuit against The Preacher to get the money back.

Just before a judge was going to rule on the case, The Preacher appeared at a court hearing, and agreed to a settlement with Zimmer to repay Harrelson $6,000 – barely a quarter of what had been stolen – in payments of $100 a month.  “He didn’t seem to have any collectable assets,” Zimmer says of The Preacher. “I thought it was the best my client was going to do.”

The deal Zimmer made with The Preacher also said that if he missed more than four payments, SeniorLAW could go back to court and get an automatic judgment against him for $20,000.

A Life Restored

By mid-November, The Preacher's first payment was more than three weeks late. Court judgments or not, Zimmer says, Harrelson may never see a cent of the money the Preacher stole.

But thanks to Zimmer and SeniorLAW, at least Harrelson has his house and his car in his own name again, and his pension and Social Security payments are reaching him as they should. SeniorLAW even connected Harrelson with another neighbor with considerably nobler intentions, who sees to it his lights and utilities stay on, and regular payments are made to creditors still trying to recoup what The Preacher stole.

 “At least in a case like this there’s a happy ending,” says Zimmer. “You’ve gotten some relief for one of your clients, you’ve made that person’s life better.”

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