In August 2000, 52-year-old Madeleine Ward moved her ailing parents from Louisiana to her home in Naperville, Illinois because she did not want them to live in an assisted living center.
Later that year, Ward became embroiled in a dispute with her sister and brother-in-law over whether Ward’s mother, Elvige Yucis, was mentally competent to make financial decisions. Ward believed her mother was competent, while her sister and brother-in-law disagreed. In 2001, the DuPage County Public Guardian was named temporary guardian. Ward’s parents were moved to separate assisted living facilities where they both subsequently died. Edward died in April 2002 at the age of 85. Elvige died in April 2003 at the age of 78.
In April 2002, a DuPage County grand jury indicted Ward on charges of looting her parents’ $500,000 estate. She was accused of spending tens of thousands of dollars on herself between August 2000 and April 2002, including lavish shopping sprees, home remodeling and an $11,000 vacation to Mexico. Ward was charged with theft of more than $100,000 and financial exploitation of an elderly person.
Ward was arrested and her bond was set at $25,000. She was released after posting $2,500 in cash.
Prior to trial, Ward’s attorney requested that the state specify which of the hundreds of financial transactions that had occurred were fraudulent, but the request was denied by the trial judge.
On November 14, 2005, Ward missed a court hearing. Her attorney said that on the previous day Ward was in a doctor’s office for heart tests because just days earlier she had been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening heart problem. The lawyer said Ward was scheduled to undergo a heart catheterization on November 15.
The judge issued an arrest warrant and revoked her bond, saying that because she was still undergoing tests, “At this point, she doesn’t have a (heart) condition.”
On November 17, 2005, a hearing was held to quash the warrant. By that time Ward had undergone the catheterization and was confined to bed by her doctor’s order. Her lawyer presented a physician’s letter saying two arterial blockages had been found—one 85 percent and the other 90 percent. The motion to quash was denied. Ultimately the warrant was withdrawn, but the $2,500 bond remained forfeited.
Ward went on trial in January 2006 before a jury in DuPage County Circuit Court. Prosecution witnesses testified to a vast array of expenditures that the prosecution contended were unrelated to the care of Elvige and her husband, Edward, including payments to liquor stores, jewelry stores, internet shopping sites, a driving school, Victoria’s Secret and Apple Vacations.
The prosecution argued that in eight months, Ward had spent all but $77,000 of the nearly $500,000 in her parents estate. A physician testified that Elvige was suffering from dementia.
Several witnesses—including care-givers--testified for Ward that they had visited her home and that Elvige was well cared for, was mentally alert and that she went out for meals in restaurants, for shopping trips, for hair appointments and medical care.
Witnesses testified that Ward had spent tens of thousands of dollars for significant home modifications to enhance the ease of access and provide a better quality of life for her parents.
The trial judge barred proffered defense testimony from three witnesses, ruling it was improper hearsay testimony.
Elvige’s sister, Rosemary Staehle, would have testified that prior to moving to Naperville from Louisiana, Elvige said she wanted to live with Ward rather than in an assisted living home, that she understood that she would need to use her assets and that she intended to allow Ward to do just that. Staehle would have testified that she did not notice that Elvige suffered from any mental condition and was competent.
Joyce Connell, a friend of Ward for about 15 years, would have testified that she and Ward discussed the impending move of Ward’s parents. Connell would have testified that she recounted her own experience of caring for her ailing father in her home and said Ward could expect to incur huge costs, including caregivers and medical equipment. Connell would have testified that she used her father’s money to provide him with a lavish lifestyle—including silk pajamas and expensive food—while he was still alive and urged Ward to do the same.
Phyllis Robinson, a friend of Ward and a psychiatric social worker, visited Ward’s home nearly every weekend beginning in August 2000, about the time when Elvige and Edward moved in. She would have testified that Elvige was alert, well-dressed and wearing make-up and always knew who Robinson was, why she was there and her relationship with Ward.
The jury at first reported it was deadlocked, but after being instructed to keep deliberating, ultimately convicted Ward of theft on January 30, 2006. Ward was acquitted of the financial exploitation charge. She was sentenced to six years and seven months in prison and ordered to make restitution of $320,000 to Elvige’s estate.
Attorney Lawrence A. Stein represented Ward on appeal at no cost as a volunteer for the Office of the Illinois Appellate Defender and in April 2008, the Illinois Court of Appeals reversed Ward’s conviction and ordered the case dismissed. The Court ruled that the defense should have been given a specific list of the expenses the prosecution deemed improper because without it, the defense faced an “unreasonable and impractical” challenge of preparing a defense to all of the hundreds of financial transactions.
The Court also ruled that the proffered testimony of Staehle, Connell and Robinson should have been allowed into evidence. Their testimony, the Court ruled, could have persuaded the jury to acquit Ward. Moreover, the court ordered the forfeited bond returned to Ward.
On January 8, 2010, following proceedings where Stein again represented Ward, DuPage County Circuit Judge Bonnie Wheaton granted Ward a certificate of innocence.
– Maurice Possley