Woman on trial in York elderly-exploitation case

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comSeptember 9, 2013 


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— Margie Thelma Miller was an elderly and “incapacitated” woman who lived in York all her life and stood to inherit thousands from two life insurance policies her sister left her until her court-appointed guardian took half of it, prosecutors say.

Shirley Steele Patton, who held Miller’s power of attorney and is now standing trial for exploiting her financially, is like a child who tried to pour herself a glass of juice, but spilled it, making a mess, her defense attorney said.

Patton, 54, of Waxhaw, N.C., is for the second time this year standing trial after police accused her of stealing money from Miller – deemed by a probate judge to be a vulnerable adult unable to make her own decisions – twice in 2011.

Last August, York Police arrested and charged Patton with breach of trust with fraudulent intent and exploitation of a vulnerable adult after they say she used her status as Miller’s power of attorney to request that a life insurance company send checks to a Charlotte address.

Patton took those checks and deposited them into a Bank of America account under both her and Miller’s names, police said. She paid herself with Miller’s money, spending more than $123,000.

Miller died last September without ever seeing a dime. She was 87.

Patton’s first trial in May ended in a mistrial when one juror refused to convict her. On Monday, 12 new jurors – eight women, four men and two alternates – were selected to decide Patton’s fate.

During opening arguments, E.B. Springs, the assistant 16th Circuit Court solicitor prosecuting Patton, said Margie Miller and her sister, Mamie, lived their entire lives in a house on Jefferson Street in York.

They never married and never had any children. They worked as secretaries at Boney Insurance on East Liberty Street until they could no longer care for themselves, he said.

The sisters hired caretakers who cooked, cleaned and shopped for them, Springs said. Margie Miller, who suffered from a stroke several years earlier, was unable to write, so Mamie Miller was responsible for endorsing paychecks to the caregivers.

Church member Wendy Duda, also executive director for the York County Council on Aging, often visited the sisters but became concerned when she learned they allowed their caretakers to write their checks as long as Mamie Miller signed them, Springs said.

‘Running the show’

The sisters reported no foul play after Duda called the York County office of the Department of Social Services, which got police involved, he said. In 2010, Margie Miller began going to Premier Medical Clinic in Rock Hill, where she met Patton, an employee.

Patton became Margie Miller’s power of attorney, “running the show” in the Miller home, Springs said, even forbidding certain church members from coming inside.

Mamie Miller died that same year, leaving her sister two life insurance policies, one worth $71,000 and the other worth $170,000.

A probate judge ruled that Margie Miller, diagnosed with moderate dementia, could not care for herself and appointed Patton as her guardian. Palmetto Trust, a bank in Spartanburg, was chosen to manage her finances.

During a 2011 probate hearing, a judge learned Patton took Miller’s life insurance money, “stuck it in Bank of America” and spent it, Springs said.

According to police documents, Patton “admitted” to taking the money and agreed to pay it back. That never happened.

Patton, though, did not act “criminally” and did not buy furs, cars or diamonds, said her attorney, Judah VanSyckel, assistant York County public defender. York County Public Defender Phil Smith also is representing Patton.

Michael Hamrick, the Palmetto Trust officer assigned to manage Margie Miller’s financial affairs, testified that he discovered Patton cashed the life insurance checks in May and June 2011. He said the trust eventually “got rid of the individual caretakers” caring for Margie Miller when they learned she was left in her bed all day. They hired an agency to continue care for her.

On cross-examination, VanSyckel challenged Hamrick’s knowledge about happenings in Margie Miller’s home, asking if he knew those Margie Miller trusted and kept close.

Hamrick admitted that he did not know those details since he only saw Margie Miller once a week or sometimes twice a month.

After prodding from VanSyckel, Hamrick said any renovations to Miller’s aging home – everything from a new paint job to new furniture – would come from Margie Miller’s trust.

He also said the individual caregivers he eventually dismissed told him Margie Miller liked to give fruitcakes to people as Christmas gifts. That $100 also came from Margie Miller’s trust.

“So, you cut a check based on what caregivers said?” VanSyckel asked.

During Springs’ direct examination, VanSyckel strongly objected when the prosecutor tried to introduce insurance company documents as evidence, arguing they were “hearsay within hearsay” and could not be authenticated by a records custodian. He also objected to Springs showing jurors a picture of Margie Miller lying in bed.

Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg upheld VanSyckel’s objections. Cole is scheduled to hear cases in York County this week.

The trial continues Tuesday.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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