Eunice Bellah. Photo by David Robb/Deadline.
How would you feel if someone stole your elderly loved one's home and fortune out from under them, and then managed to escape without punishment? Unfortunately that's no hypothetical situation, but a reality that affects millions of Californians every year - and it's a crime called elder financial abuse. The annual damage nationwide from elder financial abuse is estimated to be anywhere from $3 billion to $36 billion, but the greatest pain is inflicted at the emotional level. Monetary loss is often overshadowed by the even more intense suffering caused by loneliness, emotional manipulation, and the violation of trust.
Let's take a story straight from Beverly Hills, that of Ross and Eunice Bellah. A happy Hollywood couple, Ross and Eunice had been well-known for decades in the movie industry. Ross was an Oscar-nominated art director for several famous films and television productions since the 1950s, while Eunice was herself a painter. Since 1986, when he had already retired, Ross had retained one Aron Shlain as his tax accountant. By 2003, Ross was 96 and seriously ill. Shlain convinced his ailing client to appoint him as successor trustee in the event of Eunice's incompetency. A year later Ross died; Shlain bided his time.
In 2008, Eunice fell and broke her arm, and that's when Shlain pounced. He moved her out of the home Ross had designed and built, a Frank Lloyd Wright-style dwelling complete with Japanese garden and Koi pond, and into a convalescent facility. Shlain managed to get two doctors to declare her incompetent, thus gaining control of the Bellah estate as trustee. He then sold the house and adjoining properties for $900,000, reportedly well below market price. The couple's dream home was bulldozed, while the widowed Eunice was confined to a room with an incontinent patient suffering from Alzheimers. Neighbor Herb Adelman reported that she "had none of her artwork, no television, no telephone. Nothing." Another friend even alerted California Adult Protective Services after witnessing the conditions Eunice had to live in, but to no avail.
With Ross's widow out of the way, in 2010 Shlain transferred $886,000 from the house sale to his sister in Israel. Eunice's friends went to bat for her in court upon learning of the exploitation perpetrated against her, yet the case dragged on for years until a Los Angeles County judge finally ruled in 2011 that Shlain had to pay $2.8 million to Euince's conservator for clear-cut elder financial abuse. By then, however, it was too late: Shlain had fled the country to Israel, where he continues to live large off of injustice.
Eunice Bellah died at the nursing home in 2012, a victim of cold, heartless greed. Her friends will always remember her, and those that fought against Shlain's wrongdoing should be commended. How can we protect our own loved ones against elder financial abuse? First off, stand up and speak out, and never give up if you know something is amiss. Set up a system of checks and balances between family members, financial professionals, attorneys, and medical caregivers to ensure that everyone plays fair. No one deserves to be exploited and left for dead - prevent elder abuse and stop predators in their tracks.