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Guardian is no angel to elderly retiree

Ethel Hill, 93, is a clever saver, a once-proud registered nurse who squirreled away more than$312,000 to help her retire with dignity.

Martha Wright, 49, is a big spender, a former maid with a ready supply of cash -- enough to buy aMack truck, a bulldozer, an eight-ton trailer, a dump truck and a $35,000 charter bus to start abusiness with a married gospel singer she fancied.

Now Ethel Hill's money is gone. And the big spender is in big trouble.

As aprofessional guardian for Hill and 10 other elderly South Floridians, Wright swore to protect herfrail charges and their assets -- a total of more than half a million dollars. Instead, she hasemptied some of her elderly charges' bank accounts, leased herself a car in the name of a man whocouldn't drive, and sold the home of another ward to her own brother, records show.

"She's supposed to be a church lady," said Shadie Cross of Fort Lauderdale, whosegospel-singing husband, one of the Smiling Jubilaires, had a now-defunct business partnership withWright.

"Looks to me like she fooled people."

State elderly-abuse investigators havedetermined that Wright financially exploited one of her elderly wards. The state social work agency-- which is still investigating Wright -- has asked Broward prosecutors to consider criminal chargesin that case.

As a result of the exploitation allegation, a Broward probate judge has scheduled a hearingMonday to determine if Wright can continue to serve as a guardian, with almost total control overvulnerable people's lives.

Wright declined to discuss her guardianships with The Herald.

"I don't have toanswer anything," she said. "I'm not on a criminal case.

"If I wanted my business published, I'd publish it myself."

The lawyer who helpedWright build her guardianship business, Marc J. Gold of Plantation, recently audited some of herwards' accounts. Then he withdrew as her attorney, saying her conduct made it impossible torepresent her, court records show.

In a document asking the court to let him resign as attorney for Wright's guardianship cases,Gold quoted several Florida Bar rules, including one that says a lawyer may withdraw if the client"has used the lawyer's services to perpetrate a crime or fraud."

Wright is one of a growing number of professional guardians in South Florida who make aliving watching over elderly or disabled people judged incapable of taking care of themselves andtheir money.

Since 1990, Broward County judges have repeatedly appointed Wright as a guardian. Althoughguardians make complicated, crucial decisions on every aspect of their wards' lives, Wright came tothe job with no college degree and no experience in either social work or financial management.

Her record as a guardian has brought accusations of betrayal and exploitation -- of oldpeople's lives ending badly while under the care of a woman who promised to look out for them.

According to court, county and state records:

* Wright became Hill's guardianover the retired nurse's protests, then left her broke. The 93-year-old Hill is in a Plantationnursing home, listed as indigent and waiting for taxpayers to start paying her bills throughMedicaid. Wright has sold Hill's two homes and closed her bank accounts without the required courtapproval.

In April 1991, several months after Wright became Hill's guardian, the retired nurse had morethan $312,000 in cash. The court required Wright to deposit Hill's money in special restricted bankaccounts, which is standard practice in guardianships. To pay for Hill's care, Wright was supposedto withdraw money from her accounts at Glendale Federal Bank in Fort Lauderdale only under courtorders. Based on the court orders included in Hill's court file, Hill should have about $200,000 remaining.

But Gold recently notified the court that Hill's accounts at Glendale have all been closed.

Where is Hill's money? "I have absolutely no idea," Gold said. "Obviously I wassurprised when they (bankers) told me it was closed . . . I just sat there in disbelief."

* Wright escorted Meyer Luftig, a retired New York furrier who used a wheelchair to getaround, into a Pompano Beach car dealership last year. She had him sign a contract to lease a newToyota Camry -- even though, at 80, he'd lost his legal right to both drive and sign contracts.Wright made a $2,000 downpayment on the car with Luftig's money. A lawsuit the car dealership filedagainst Wright alleges that she drove the car herself and failed to make the monthly payments ormaintain the required insurance. Wright did not respond to the suit.

The repo man the dealership sent for the Camry discovered that Wright had moved Luftig, andthe car, from his Margate neighborhood to a private home in a crime-ridden area of Pompano Beach.The repo man was so outraged that he called state abuse investigators, he said.

"All we're supposed to do is go out and find the car and be done," John Bogan said. "But Itold her, flat out, I was going to bring the wrath of God on her, and she would wish she had neverseen that car."

State elderly-abuse investigators later determined that Wright had financially exploitedLuftig. He died April 2 after a heart attack.

* Wright sold the run-down home of another elderly charge, Ethel Coleman, to her own brotherand sister-in-law for $8,000 in 1992. The transaction appears to violate state law, which barsguardians from engaging in business transactions between their wards and their family members.

In seeking court permission to sell Coleman's property, Wright presented a sales contractsaying she would sell the dilapidated property for $8,000 -- essentially, the lot value -- to Eugeneand Rosale Peterson.

Wright never disclosed to Gold or the court that the Petersons were her relatives, Gold said.

Wright retained a $5,500 mortgage on the property. The monthly payments were to be usedfor Coleman's care. Under the terms of the mortgage agreement, the Petersons should have paid offthe mortgage in March.

But Wright's brother said last week he is behind on the mortgage payments. He declined to sayhow badly he is in arrears. He also said he could not remember how much his monthly payment issupposed to be. "I forget what it is," Eugene Peterson said.

* Wright failed to make mortgage payments for ward Harold Barth, 87, a Sunrise man sufferingfrom Alzheimer's disease, causing a bank to begin foreclosure proceedings. As his guardian, Wrighthad a court order allowing her to withdraw money from his bank account each month to pay hismortgage and other household bills. But she stopped paying his mortgage last December. Barth's sonRichard said he stepped in and spent his own money to stop foreclosure.

Barth has moved to Ohio to be with his son, a NASA engineer. Wright recently wrote about$1,400 in unexplained checks on Harold Barth's restricted bank account in South Florida, RichardBarth said. She has not forwarded the $4,000 to $5,000 balance to Barth in Ohio, he said.

"The bills aren't paid, and it's costing my dad a lot of money for her mistakes," Barth said.

* Wright removed some wards from their own homes, then housed them in Smiling Acres, aPompano Beach boarding home she operated -- even though state laws prohibit that kind of conflict ofinterest. Wright chose not to renew her license to operate the home in 1992 after state regulatorscited the facility for fire hazards, insufficient food and other deficiencies.

"Everything was just filthy," said Nikki Gwynn, whose family owns the house where Wright ranthe boarding house and who was present when Wright moved the elderly residents out of the house twoyears ago. "The rooms were all pissy. The residents had been sitting there pissy for days."

Although the boarding home is long closed, it is the last address Wright lists for some wardsin public records. She declined recently to say where she has moved them.

"She gave them all to different people," said Wright's adult daughter, Deborah Peterson, whosometimes helps care for her mother's wards.

The applications Wright submitted to the Broward County probate court, seeking work as aguardian, contain spelling and punctuation errors and show scant qualifications. She listed her workexperience variously as maid and nurse's aide at Colonial Palms nursing home, which she spelled"nuse aide" and "Coloney Palms." Her record-keeping was also sloppy. Court personnel repeatedlywarned Wright and her attorney that legally required progress reports on her wards and their assetswere overdue.

None of this stopped Broward judges from appointing her as guardian of 12 people -- onementally ill young man and 11 elderly -- between 1990 and 1992, and authorizing her to pay herself$30 an hour with her wards' money.

Many of the elderly people Broward judges placed in Wright's care were extremely frail,confused and had no close relatives to help them. They belong to a fast-growing population that isstraining South Florida's public social services and fueling the growth of a private guardianshipindustry.

Luftig, the retired furrier, came to the attention of state social workers and the courtsbecause he used to wander from his Margate condo, fall and lie face down for hours until someonerescued him, according to court documents.

Gene Cross, Wright's former friend and business partner, said Wright told him it was easy forguardians to use their wards' money. One of the ways was not to report some of the old person'sassets to the court at the start of the guardianship, Cross said.

"She had told me she could do a lot of things with people's money -- spend their money," saidCross, 59, a heavy-equipment operator who sings gospel with the Smiling Jubilaires in his sparetime.

"She didn't tell me specifically she took it from the old people. She mentioned it to me whatshe could do. She said people do it all the time. . . . They report what they want, and the restthey put it in their own bank accounts."

Wright and Cross entered into a business agreement in 1991 to buy a bus for $35,000, as wellas a bulldozer, an eight-ton trailer, a Mack truck, and other costly vehicles, according to a 1993lawsuit Wright filed against Cross after their relationship soured.

Wright paid for the vehicles but wanted Cross to title them in his name alone, her lawsuitsays. The vehicles were to be leased for profit and the proceeds shared by Wright and Cross,according to the suit.

Cross said Wright bought him the vehicles in a failed effort to woo him away from his wifeand children. "She wanted to spend money on me to try to get me, so I just went with the program,"he said.

Wright declined to say where she obtained the money to buy the vehicles. And Cross said henever knew where the money came from.

"I don't know, she just goes to the bank and gets it," he said.

Ethel Hill,daughter of a farmer, worked as a nurse her entire adult life, lived independently and saveddiligently for her old age.

"She was a very highly intelligent person, very proud," said her cousin, John Stockton, 64."She wasn't a spender. She was very conservative. I guess that was how she accumulated what shehad."

In July 1990, when Wright applied to be her guardian, Hill was alertand needed minimalassistance, according to some court records.

At the time, Hill insisted that she was not incapacitated and did not need a guardian. Shetold the court, through an attorney, that if she had to have a guardian, she didn't want it to beWright, court records show.

But Wright prevailed. Circuit Judge Raymond J. Hare, since retired, declared Hillincapacitated and placed her under Wright's control.

The last time Hill's cousin Stockton saw her, she was hungry.

Wright had movedHill from Smiling Acres, the substandard boarding home, to a private home in Pompano Beach, Stocktonsaid.

"She complained a couple of times that she wasn't being fed properly," Stockton said. "Shekind of indicated that they didn't feed her often enough.

"I told her there wasn't anything I could do about it. The court had appointed this lady, andI didn't want to get involved."

That was more than a year ago.

Today, Hill barely speaks.

She spendsmuch of her time curled up on a bed in a Plantation nursing home, a feeding tube inserted in hernavel. After Wright tried to pay Hill's nursing home bill with a check that bounced, nursing homeofficials applied to get Hill eligible for Medicaid and alerted state elderly-abuse investigators,the administrator said.

"I'm so sick," Hill said in a hoarse whisper earlier this month, extending a spindly arm asevidence.

Asked if she remembered working her way through nursing school in Tennessee as a young woman,Hill smiled and nodded yes.

She nodded at the mention of her late father's farm.

But it was unclear how muchshe really understood. What she knew. How much she had endured.

Asked about her guardian, she stared.

And then she whispered.

"Helpme."

Herald Staff Writer Dan Keating contributed to this report.

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