Inheritance dispute involving Portsmouth detective draws to a close (NH)

DOVER — A months-long dispute about whether a Portsmouth police detective took advantage of an elderly woman to position himself as the main beneficiary of her $2.7 million estate before she died is now in the hands of a judge.The estate of Geraldine Webber may not have as much money as it once did in the wake of mounting legal costs from a 17-day probate hearing in 7th Circuit-Probate Division-Dover.But for many residents, the question at play is whether Judge Gary R. Cassavechia will help settle an ongoing dispute within the city of Portsmouth about whether police Sgt. Aaron Goodwin unduly influenced a woman described by some as lonely and mentally failing.

“The power of his badge and attractiveness became overpowering for a 90-year-old woman suffering from dementia,” said Paul McEachern, a lawyer representing Webber’s former neighbors. “From 2011 on, everything Aaron Goodwin did was to protect his expectancy.”

Cassavechia is only focused on whether Webber, who died in December 2012 at age 93, maintained her testamentary capacity when she had her will rewritten by her new lawyer, Gary Holmes. The judge is also expected to make a finding on whether Goodwin exerted undue influence on Webber to have her estate revised during their fast-developing two-year friendship.

David Eby, a lawyer representing Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Shriners’ Hospital for Children, suggested in closing arguments that his clients disputed the revised estate not only because their share of the estate shrunk when Goodwin was added to the will.

“Memorial Sloan had initiated (it) because it was the right thing to do,” Eby said.

Goodwin met Webber while investigating a burglary complaint at her home in the fall of 2010, according to court testimony. But Goodwin, then 34, quickly got involved in her daily affairs, including her growing concerns about her longtime attorney, Jim Ritzo.

Lawyers battling Goodwin’s inheritance suggested he played a role in having Ritzo investigated by the state Attorney General’s Office then went lawyer shopping on Webber’s behalf once she told him that she wanted to leave him her waterfront home.

“At no point does Aaron say, ‘Geraldine, we can’t do this. We need to look at a guardianship. I can’t take your money,’” Eby said.

Lawyer Ralph Holmes said that Webber demonstrated she had a sharp mind, rattling off detailed knowledge to her new lawyer about the value of her estate and who she wanted to inherit her assets when she died. His client, Attorney Gary Holmes, met with Webber 10 times over an 8 month period to revise the will.

“This was the most meaningful relationship in her life,” Ralph Holmes said about Webber’s relationship with Goodwin. “She wanted to go to a casino, he took her there twice. He took her for an occasional lunch and Bloody Mary. That’s kindness, not undue influence.”

Goodwin’s attorney, Charles Doleac, pushed back against claims that his client committed any wrongdoing, citing testimony that the elderly Webber liked to shock people with dirty jokes and strong opinions.

“She wanted to live her life on her own terms. In fact, she is a contemporary of Frank Sinatra. He has a famous song ‘My Way,’” said Doleac, suggesting Webber did things without worry of what others thought. “She was not doddering.”

The probate dispute also highlighted a divide between former and current members of the Portsmouth Police Department about when those in the department knew about Goodwin’s potential windfall. The department’s former Chief Lou Ferland testified under oath that he was never told by Goodwin that he was poised to inherent her waterfront home in 2011.

Goodwin insisted during his testimony that he did tell his chiefs, and remained forthright with other superiors in the department about his friendship with Webber.

Cassavechia told lawyers at the close of Tuesday hearing that he will needed time to consider legal arguments surrounding the burden of proof in the case before he officially takes the case under advisement.


Inheritance dispute involving Portsmouth detective draws to a close
James A. Kimble
May 12, 2015
New Hampshire Union Leader

Additional coverage:

Cop disputes use of recording in inheritance case
Elizabeth Dinan
May 13, 2015

PORTSMOUTH — The focus of a legal dispute over his $2 million inheritance, police Sgt. Aaron Goodwin is fighting an effort to have an audio recording of one of his internal affairs interviews introduced as evidence in the probate case.

Through attorney Chuck Doleac, Goodwin filed a memo with the Strafford County probate court arguing that the audio recording “should be excluded from evidence.” There is no written motion with the court seeking admission of the recording, but Judge Gary Cassavechia, who is presiding over the inheritance dispute, said during a Tuesday court hearing that the case remains open, “pending a ruling on the recording.”

Lawyers in the case have held private meetings in the judge’s chambers and the judge previously ordered that all  information pertaining to internal police investigations are exempt from the state’s Right to Know law and that any lawyer who breaches that law faces possible ramifications.

Doleac’s memo to the court states that the recording in dispute was made when Goodwin was interviewed by Capt. Frank Warchol as part of an internal investigation.

“As these issues have already been determined, they cannot be relitigated,” Doleac wrote to the court.

During a March 2 deposition, Warchol discussed the internal investigation and said he was assigned to assemble two police memos and a timeline written by Goodwin, into an investigatory format, then “sign off on it.” He said the assignment came from former police chief “Lou” Ferland and that he didn’t interview anyone other than Goodwin “under the specific guidelines of Chief Ferland.”

“It’s not how we normally do (redacted from the deposition transcript) but that’s how the chief decided he wanted to have it done at that time,” Warchol said.

The police captain said one complaint was made in late 2010 to former deputy chief Corey MacDonald and it alleged Goodwin “improperly conveyed his authority to obtain special privileges in the matter as it relates to Geraldine Webber.”

Goodwin is accused in the probate court of exerting undue influence over Webber, while she was impaired by dementia, to inherit most of her estate.

Warchol elaborated that the complaining party (whose name is redacted from the deposition) alleged Goodwin accepted “some gifts” from Webber and also later made a “very vague” complaint to Ferland about Goodwin’s “behavior toward” the elderly woman.

Warchol said he met with Goodwin on Feb. 15, 2011, but that he wouldn’t characterize that meeting as an interview because he only asked Goodwin one question; if Goodwin had anything to add to the timeline he wrote for his supervisors. Goodwin’s timeline detailed his interactions with Webber, but did not include that Webber told him on Christmas Eve 2010 that she wanted to give him her house, a fact he disclosed during his own deposition.

Warchol said Goodwin told him he had nothing to add to the timeline which was ”cut and pasted” into his report that was endorsed by now-Chief Stephen DuBois. Warchol confirmed during his deposition that he checked a box on the report he assembled that indicated the original complaint against Goodwin was “not sustained” and explained that meant “the information that we had was not enough to see that (Goodwin) was in violation of any of our SOPS” (standard operating procedures).

Warchol said he also concluded that Goodwin “extended his services that went beyond the average, everyday police officer which eventually turned into a personal friendship. This extension was in no way an effort to glean any type of reward, gratuity or furtherance of a personal financial gain…”

The police captain said that conclusion was based on information he had at the time and that it was not his job to investigate anything.

“My job was to take those memos and put them into the format and based on the memos that I had in front of me and the information read off of those memos is how I came to my conclusions on my insight and analysis,” he said.

Warchol also acknowledged that at that time, he “had no idea” Webber had told Goodwin she wanted to change her will to give Goodwin her house. He said he learned about Goodwin’s inheritance in February or March 2011 from former deputy chief Corey MacDonald.

Warchol said it wasn’t his job to add the information about the inheritance to the report he’d compiled about Goodwin and that he was never instructed to do so by Ferland or DuBois. He also said, “I was not assigned to investigate Aaron Goodwin.”

According to Warchol, he also added to the report some information obtained by Capt. Mike Schwartz, from the attorney general’s office, that said the AG would not be investigating the complaints against Goodwin because they did not involve a crime.

In a February 2011 email, which is part of the probate court case, Schwartz wrote to Warchol, DuBois and MacDonald that, “At some point I suspect the department and our actions in this matter will be highly scrutinized.” To that end, Schwartz advised in the email, “we should format our documentation as an IA (internal investigation). If this matter looked the same as the four IAs before it and the four IAs that follow it, we look consistent, which is a big part of this.”