By JAN SKUTCH
Eliot Karasick is a retired Wall Street executive who moved to The Landings in 2000 with a big heart for those less blessed.
When he hired Amy Lynn Lee as a housekeeper, he thought he had found a valued friend, someone he treated like a family member.
By the time Karasick caught on, Lee had defrauded him out of more than a quarter of a million dollars, including a four-bedroom home in Pooler and a new Toyota Camry.
“I was disappointed,” Karasick, 88, said. “I couldn’t believe how any human being could do that to another human being.”
For Assistant District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones, Karasick represented a common denominator for a large portion of the more than 75 elder-abuse cases she carries as part of her caseload at any time as District Attorney Meg Heap’s elder-abuse prosecutor.
“Really, there’s so much back story to these cases,” Jones said.
She understood Karasick’s plight and moved to address it. Working with Savannah-Chatham police financial crimes detective Raymond Woodberry, Jones took an 11-count indictment to Chatham County Superior Court Judge Penny Haas Freesemann, got Lee to admit her actions and recovered a large portion of Karasik’s lost assets.
In many cases, such as Karasick’s, the issue is financial fraud or similar circumstances.
Other cases of elder abuse may involve neglect, physical violence or even death. Frequently, the person committing the abuse will be a family member, many of whom are motivated simply by greed, Jones said.
The whole area of elder abuse crimes is a fairly new one in the law and one that is still developing, Jones said.
“Elder abuse confounds people. We still don’t know what we are looking at,” she said.
“It’s much deeper than I expected.”
A prosecutor by trade, Jones acknowledges she remains “more of a social worker than anything else.”
Part of her challenge is that of community education concerning a problem that may elude much of the public’s understanding. That involves public appearances before business and professional groups.
“People don’t get elder abuse,” Jones, 36, said. “Elder abuse is wrong.
“I don’t believe it is right to hit, abuse, demean or attack people because they are women or children or patients in a mental health facility or elderly. That’s what keeps me doing this work.”
Jones, who balances her job with a husband and two children at home, rejects the burnout potential from her caseload.
“What I am thinking about is getting better,” she said.
Heap, the district attorney, is on the same page as Jones.
“Elder abuse is the fastest growing crime in the United States, and unfortunately Savannah is experiencing these crimes as well,” Heap said. “As district attorney I believe it is my duty to protect to the best of my ability our seniors and disabled adults.”
She praised Jones as “an experienced and passionate prosecutor who will work with the police to bring justice to those who have been victimized.”
When Heap resurrected the elder abuse position in January, she turned to Jones as her lead prosecutor.
Jones had been the office’s lead domestic abuse prosecutor in State Court before moving to Superior Court in August 2012. There she took on a share of elder abuse cases. In her new role, Jones still carries another 75 domestic violence cases at any one time.
With Karasick, Jones was faced the potential problem that no one would believe he was the victim of his caretaker.
“The process starts way before the crime ever begins,” Jones said. “It is a slow burning, building type of thing.”
Her immediate challenge was to amend the existing indictment against Lee as Karasick was dealing with health issues, partly because of stress from the case.
Jones calls it “kicking it into high gear. This is how we want to handle these cases going forward.”
Concerned for self, too
Karasick moved to a home at The Landings in early 2000 after he retired from a Wall Street career in stocks.
Lee started to work for Karasick as a housekeeper in 2008, helping him to deal with his wife’s aging issues and to maintain his home.
“She paid a lot of attention to me,” he said. Karasick he always — “by nature” — has compassion for those with less.
“I was concerned for her as a human being,” he said. “… She had me really fooled.”
With time he became increasingly dependent on Lee and increasingly drawn in by her tales of woe about domestic problems and hard times.
And by her 14-year-old daughter, who called him “grandpa.”
“I was a sitting duck for her (Lee) because I felt sorry for her.”
“But, I was concerned for myself too,” he said, noting that he increasingly relied on Lee.
Because she allegedly had no place to stay, he located a $400,000 home in Pooler he could get for $200,000 and loaned her the money with an agreement she would pay rent.
When her old Volkswagen fell apart, he went with her to shop for a new car, a 2012 Toyota Camry Sports Model. He would help her pay for it, including a $10,000 gift to cut costs.
When he moved to the Marshes on Skidaway Island, he offered to allow her to move temporarily into his Landings residence, then on the market. She declined, he said.
He even left the Pooler home at 306 Village Green Lakes to Lee in his will, Karasick said.
“I had so much,” Karasick said. “She had so little or nothing. She’s like an adopted child.”
The bottom dropped out when Karasick needed a hip replacement in December 2011. Lee volunteered to spend the first night at the hospital with him.
Before he was wheeled into surgery, he gave Lee his wallet for safe keeping. Within minutes, she was off on a three-day spending spree with his credit cards, including Sam’s, Target and Kroger.
He did not discover that until later when he reviewed his credit card statements.
Her greed extended to creating two $300 checks to herself, which she cashed at a bank without any signature, he said.
“I didn’t know that she was a thief,” he said.
Concerns initially dismissed
When he went to a lawyer about possible legal action against Lee, Karasick said the response was, “I wouldn’t bother. This happens many times a day. … You’re just asking for a lot of heartaches.”
Karasick said he initially took that advice but after realizing the depth of Lee’s fraud, “I got really angry. I wanted to do something about it.”
That got him to Detective Woodberry and ultimately to Jones in the prosecutor’s office.
“We talked constantly,” Karasick said. “She called me her coach. … If it hadn’t of been for her, I don’t know what would have happened.”
At the end, Lee, 44, chose to plead guilty as part of a negotiated plea to three counts of identity fraud, three counts of forgery and single counts of elder exploitation and theft by taking.
Her sentence: 10 years in prison with 30 days to serve and the balance probated.
Special conditions of probation bar Lee from having any contact with Karasick or his family members and requires that Lee:
• May not be primary care giver or manage the finances of anyone over 65 years old who is not related to her.
• Vacate the home at 306 Village Green Lakes in Pooler and return title and ownership to Karasick.
• Sign title to the 2012 Toyota Camry over to Karasick.
• Make restitution of $6,500 or the cost of outstanding home owner’s association fees on the Pooler property.
Because the plea was entered under the First Offender Act, adjudication of guilt was withheld. If Lee successfully completes her probation, no conviction will follow her.
In the end, Karasick said he was satisfied.
“She has nothing else to give except her life. By taking that, what do I gain?”
To have forced the case to trial could have meant Lee’s teenage daughter would have been caught up in it, a result he did not want.
“I was terribly angry but not angry enough to do anything stupid to hurt her or her child.”
SHALENA COOK JONES
Title: Chatham County Assistant District Attorney
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Education: Bachelor of Arts, Spelman College, Atlanta, (1999), University of Georgia School of Law (2002), Member Henry Lumpkin Inn of Court and Order of Barristers
Professional experience: Chatham County assistant district attorney (2010-13); attorney, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Texas (2009-10); private practice, Law Offices of Shalena Cook Jones (2008-09); senior associate, Cruser & Mitchell LLP (2005-08)
Achievements: President-elect of the Port City Bar Association, Chair Chatham County SALT (Seniors and Law Enforcement Together) and Multi-Disciplinary Team on Elder Abuse, member of the Savannah Council on Aging, certified ACT specialist qualified to instruct law enforcement, social agencies and community members on crimes involving at-risk adults.
IF YOU NEED HELP
The law provides that a person who suspects elder abuse of any kind should contact Adult Protective Services at 1-866-55-AGING (1-866-552-4464).
Or you may contact your local police agency to make a crime report.
Source: Shalena Cook Jones
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