PORTSMOUTH — Attorney Gary Holmes knew his elderly Portsmouth client, Geraldine Webber, had dementia when he had her sign new estate plans that left money to a pair of Portsmouth police officers, attorney Paul McEachern alleges in a new filing with the county Probate Court.
Contesting Webber’s last will and trust on behalf of four of Webber’s previous beneficiaries, McEachern’s court filing also accuses Portsmouth police Sgt. Aaron Goodwin of using his role as a police officer to take financial advantage of Webber. A separate but related court filing alleges Goodwin’s inheritance from Webber’s contested estate is worth an estimated $1.8 million.
The third lawyer to file court documents contesting Webber’s estate plans, as drafted by Holmes, McEachern also alleges Portsmouth police Capt. Michael Schwartz helped Webber file unspecified complaints against a neighbor, a former friend, and her longtime lawyer James Ritzo, in “an attempt to inoculate Goodwin and Schwartz from claims of undue influence over” Webber.
Webber, who died Dec. 11, 2012, at age 94, was video recorded seven months before her death while she endorsed estate plans giving Goodwin her waterfront home, stocks, a bond and a Cadillac. Throughout the recorded session, McEachern alleges, Holmes treated Webber “as if she were lacking in mental capacity to execute the trust and will.”
McEachern wrote to the Probate Court that Holmes “made no inquiry” when Webber said a painting of Lord Nelson in her home was worth $3 million. McEachern tells the court that one of Webber’s friends was with her when she bought the painting for less than $50.
Also during the signing of the disputed estate documents, McEachern alleges, Webber asked to add a beneficiary, but Holmes advised she could do so later “by change.”
“At this point, (Webber) asked if she could sign ‘under protest,’” McEachern’s notice to the court states. “Attorney Holmes ignored the remark.”
Holmes also ignored Webber’s request that Holmes and Goodwin both serve as co-executors of her estate “and not to have Aaron Goodwin alone,” according to McEachern’s court filing. When Holmes asked Webber whether he “got everything correct,” while explaining her new estate plans, Webber responded, “I guess so,” McEachern wrote.
Holmes also didn’t refer to any certificates of deposit owned by Webber, who was recorded accusing Ritzo of taking CDs from her home, McEachern alleges. Holmes “ignored the comment,” according to McEachern’s court filing.
“In short, attorney Holmes, throughout the signing of the will and trust, treated his client as if she lacked the mental capacity to execute the new instruments being signed,” McEachern wrote.
In contesting the estate on the grounds that Webber was incompetent and under undue influence, McEachern also notes Webber provided Holmes with the wrong zip code, “even though she had lived at the same address for 20 years.”
Holmes’ attorney, Ralph Holmes, said his client met with Webber “many times” and “throughout, she was clear and consistent about her wishes.”
“She knew, understood, and was actively involved in the management of her finances,” he said. “She had a feisty, fierce personality and an independent mind. We look forward to presenting our evidence to the court.”
Ralph Holmes added that he had “every confidence that the probate court will uphold the will and trust.”
McEachern’s new court filing alleges Goodwin “gained (an) unwarranted confidential financial relationship” with Webber, “based on his position as a Portsmouth police officer.” He alleges Goodwin met Webber in the fall of 2010, when she called police about “that no-good gang that belonged to my former husband” and said she “loved (Goodwin) from the day I met him.”
Goodwin referred to a Sept. 20, 2012, statement he wrote, saying, “The allegations that I exploited a member of our community are completely untrue.” With that response, Goodwin attached letters from the state Bureau of Elderly and Adult Services, dated June 12, 2012, and Sept. 19, 2012, stating two investigations into complaints of elder exploitation by him regarding Webber were conducted and both were concluded as “unfounded.”
‘Suffering from dementia’
McEachern also alleges in his new court filing that Webber, “seeing prowlers in the late afternoon hours,” was symptomatic of confusion associated with dementia and known as “sundown syndrome.” Goodwin knew, or should have known, that “these calls from an elderly resident (were) likely to be signs that the caller was suffering from dementia, which means they’re no longer able to fully care for themselves,” McEachern wrote.
“In spite of this knowledge, Aaron Goodwin and Michael Schwartz, a Portsmouth police captain, began a pattern of frequent visits” to Webber, the attorney alleges in his notice to the Probate Court. Goodwin obtained power of attorney from Webber, which he presented to a local bank in December 2011, and drove Webber to a Maine casino the following August, McEachern alleges.
McEachern also includes a copy of a police report with his new court filing stating a local physician reported on Feb. 24, 2011, that an elderly female with dementia, identified as Webber, was unable to care for herself. The police report notes Goodwin said he had a rapport with Webber, that she did not have dementia, and she was “just being stubborn about going to the hospital,” according to McEachern’s court filing.
McEachern included another police report noting Schwartz had reported an “elderly issue” at Webber’s address, but a note by a police dispatcher states the “offense report (was) deleted as per e-mail from Captain Schwartz.”
Schwartz said senior police staff determined the report was “most appropriately” referred to the attorney general’s office, “as opposed to being documented with a Portsmouth Police Department report.”
“All of the information the Portsmouth Police Department had concerning Gerri Webber’s exploitation was provided to the attorney general’s office,” said Schwartz, adding he could not comment about the attorney general’s investigation. In February, John McCormack, an attorney for the attorney general’s criminal bureau, said “no criminal conduct was found” in the probe.
Schwartz said his involvement with the case began Jan. 5, 2011, when he was assigned by former Police Chief Lou Ferland to meet with Webber, who said she was being financially exploited. Schwartz said it was the first time he had met Webber and based on the information she provided, he coordinated an investigation with the financial exploitation unit of the attorney general’s office.
McEachern alleges in his new court filing that Schwartz, a $25,000 beneficiary of Webber’s contested estate, was Goodwin’s direct supervisor. Schwartz said he was not Goodwin’s supervisor then, and is not now.
McEachern also alleges Schwartz took Webber to meet with someone at the attorney general’s office in Concord and “placed unknown complaints” against one of Webber’s neighbors, who works as a Portsmouth officer, and who “himself had complained to his superior officers” about “unusual police activity” at Webber’s home. The neighbor told the attorney general’s office he “believed the Portsmouth police were acting illegally,” according to McEachern’s court filing.
Complaints were also levied on Webber’s behalf against Ritzo and Webber’s former friend and previous heir, Barbara Wardwell, McEachern alleges. The complaints, McEachern alleges, were to protect Goodwin and Schwartz against allegations of exercising undue influence over Webber.
McEachern claims Goodwin isolated Webber and did “not appreciate the risks of dementia/Alzheimer’s disease, and as a consequence,” her cause of death was due to lack of nutrition from starvation, malnutrition or intestinal disease.
Hospitals fight for share
In a related document filed with the Probate Court last week, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Shriners Hospitals for Children allege Goodwin “knowingly took advantage” of Webber, and he left a photo of himself at her home, in an effort to inherit the bulk of her estate.
Through attorney David Eby, of the Devine Millimet law firm, the pair of medical organizations is asking a judge to “set aside” the last will and trust signed by Webber because, Eby alleges, she lacked the competency to endorse them and was under Goodwin’s undue influence.
The medical organizations were beneficiaries of a 2009 will Webber endorsed through attorney Ritzo and left them each one-fourth of her estate. The new and disputed will and trust Holmes prepared gives those parties $25,000 each, about 90 percent less.
Ritzo has asked the court to award him a $65,000 payment from Webber’s estate for the quarter century he said he worked as her lawyer, but was not paid.
Lawyer, 2 officers snared in dispute over wealthy woman’s estate
June 12, 2013