Appeals court upholds ruling in bizarre case (OH)

MANSFIELD — Appeals judges have weighed in on a court case alleging as much as $700,000 was stolen from safes concealed in a Mansfield woman’s basement — with enough intrigue to qualify for an Agatha Christie mystery novel.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals has ruled Richland County Probate Court Judge Philip Mayer decided properly, when he decided the grandson of the late Esther L. Gordon, 235 W. Cook Road, Mansfield, conveyed $80,000 from her house at 235 W. Cook Road, in July 2006.

In an opinion filed this month, appeals judges said no one was proved to have stolen any amount beyond that.

Mayer said he preferred not to comment on the decision. Probate court administrator Anita Snow O’Brien said the case is still open, with no final distribution made. Estate cases involving alleged concealment of assets are relatively rare, she said, adding she could not remember more than four heard in Richland County during the past 20 years.

Esther Gordon, 88, died Feb. 11, 2011, leaving two daughters: Carolyn Zara of Koogle Road, and Patricia Goggin Shaffer Gordon of Belleview Drive.

Esther’s late husband, Ralph Gordon, owner of an excavating business, had placed safes in a hidden room concealed under a basement stairwell, storing cash and bonds there. When he died in July 2006, Patricia’s son, Joshua Shaffer, knocked down a block wall in the basement, at Esther’s request, to retrieve documents for the funeral home, according to court filings.

Either Joshua or his grandmother then opened the safes, removing a metal lockbox containing the personal papers and about $80,000 in cash. Patricia and her son later testified when they returned after visiting the funeral home, the lockbox was gone.

Later that month, Carolyn and her son, Anthony Zara, used safe combinations hidden around the house to open the safes, and inventoried their contents at $703,798, plus a number of bonds.

Two years later, in October 2008, Esther Gordon told Carolyn Zara she had changed payable-on-death beneficiaries on several bank accounts. According to court papers, instead of listing Carolyn alone, she’d named both daughters. The next day, Zara called Mansfield police, reporting she’d checked the safes and found $600,000 or $700,000 missing. Both sisters accused the other or their families of taking money.

In 2011, after Esther Gordon died, attorney Joseph Jerger Jr. filed to have her will probated. Both daughters, along with the attorney, filed separate actions claiming someone concealed assets in the estate.

Patricia Goggin Shaffer Gordon accused her sister’s family of taking more than $1 million, while Carolyn Zara handled her mother’s funds.

Meanwhile, Carolyn Zara claimed $703,798 was taken from the basement, where her parents had stored money to escape probate court. She said her sister, who had been living in Mississippi and rarely visited, claimed embezzlement to harass her. Before Esther’s death, Carolyn claimed in court filings that Patricia and her son held a frail octogenarian with Alzheimer’s “against her will,” verbally abusing her, until Esther switched beneficiaries on eight accounts.

After a probate hearing in 2013, Mayer found Joshua Shaffer, 30, guilty of having conveyed $80,000 away from the estate. A judgment of $88,000 was assessed.

The judge reasoned Joshua Shaffer had the last known access to the lockbox and had spent more money since 2006 than his income accounted for. Also, an area bartender said he used “old style” currency to purchase drinks and food.

But Mayer also decided no one had proved any specific person took up to $703,798 in cash and savings bonds later reported missing.

Carolyn Zara appealed — contending Mayer failed to weigh evidence that Joshua and Patricia spent beyond their means after the money disappeared and by believing some of Joshua’s testimony, while deciding he was not credible concerning the $80,000 in the lockbox.

But the Fifth District Court of Appeals affirmed the judge’s decision. The appeals panel said it found no evidence that between 2006 and 2012, Joshua overspent his income by more than $80,000. Patricia Goggin Shaffer Gordon, they said, seemed to have limited means, based on testimony she’d worked contract jobs cleaning houses, frequently relied on roommates to help with rent and several times needed help from the Salvation Army.

The Fifth District Court said Carolyn Zara “presented an unclear picture regarding the amount of cash actually missing.” Though she told police $703,798 was missing, and initially named that amount at the beginning of the trial, she later testified she made a math error and the actual amount was more like $351,889, they added.

“There were multiple individuals with the motive and opportunity, ” the ruling said.

Appeals judges said police deactivated the theft case because they didn’t have enough evidence against anyone, the appeals court noted.

Attribution:

Appeals court upholds ruling in bizarre case
Missing funds, up to $700K, at center of family estate squabble
Linda Martz
May 28, 2014
Mansfield News Journal
http://www.mansfieldnewsjournal.com/article/20140527/NEWS01/305270029/Court-upholds-ruling-bizarre-safe-case?nclick_check=1

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