Portions of this post also appear in Aggravated.
The first I heard about Steve’s financial situation was when he contacted me during the summer of 2004 and told me, without going into any detail, that he was having a legal problem, and asked about the possibility of borrowing against his inheritance. If you’re wondering why Steve asked me instead of asking our mother for a loan, there’s a reason. For at least a few years before our mother was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (in 2003, at the age of eighty) she managed to successfully hide her condition from us by using calendars and a daily diary as to-do lists, reminding her of each day’s appointments and commitments.
Years earlier she had appointed me and my brother, Phillip, as executors of her estate, and had given us powers of attorney for legal and medical matters. By 2002, along with a variety of other health issues, she was having difficulty paying her bills. She would double-pay some of them, and not pay others. I took over her finances in May of that year, and continued to do that after we moved her into an assisted living facility just a couple of miles away from Phillip, near Dallas. That was in late-2004. I was so focused on Mom’s situation at the time that I wasn’t thinking about Steve’s very much.
We were aware that Alzheimer’s is a disease that robs a person of their very essence, and does it at a glacier-like pace. When Mom was officially diagnosed, we were told that it could be ten years or more before she passed away. Our primary concern was to be with her as often as possible while she could still recognize us, and to make sure she would have the best possible care for as long as necessary. Fortunately, she was set up financially in a way that would allow that to happen.
When Steve called me, he sounded reluctant about asking, but a little panicked as well. I had to tell him it wasn’t a decision I could make. I didn’t have the authority to withdraw funds for anything other than purchases for Mom’s care. I told him to call Harry Newbold. He was the only one who could authorize something like that.
After our mother remarried in 1976, and moved to Massachusetts with her new husband, Bill Sen, she worked for Newbold and Vanderhoop, Harry’s law firm, when it was in its infancy. She and everyone there became lifelong friends. Bill died in 1996, but Harry’s firm continued to manage her legal and financial affairs. When we brought Mom to Texas, Harry worked with us to consolidate Mom’s finances, placing everything in a trust. The law firm deposited money from some of her annuities into Mom’s checking account each month, and I used that to pay her bills, which were mounting because of her condition. The purpose of the trust was to ensure that she would be taken care of for as long as possible, so I was obligated to only use it for that purpose. Harry could make decisions beyond that with permission from me and Phillip, though.
None of us were rich. We were mostly schoolteachers, so the odds of any of us being able to help Steve financially were slim, and I believe Steve knew that, so he made every attempt possible to try to take care of this on his own. For a while, he even believed the cost to him would be small because he thought the trial wouldn’t happen once everyone realized that the allegations were false. It wasn’t long, though, before he found himself staring into a financial abyss that seemed endless.
Harry set up a conference call to discuss the idea of advancing Steve funds for his defense, and wanted to know if he could tap into some of his inheritance in advance. This was the first time Phillip and I heard what the charges were, and we were stunned at the details. We discussed a lot of the pros and cons. Harry told us that Steve had found an attorney that he thought could be very good, someone who had defended against this kind of charge multiple times. The lawyer was also a female, which Steve felt would make a better impression on the jury because it was a sexual assault of a minor case; but she worked for a California firm, and wanted a huge amount to try the case.
Harry thought that bringing a lawyer in from out of state to try a case in a small Texas city might be excessive, and would have a negative effect on a jury. He told Steve it could smack of desperation, and could even be perceived by the jury as an admission of guilt. Otherwise, the jury might wonder why Steve needed that much firepower. All valid points.
Neither Phillip nor I had ever had any experience in having to pay lawyers such a huge sum. In fact, it seemed like a ridiculous amount of money to us. We also had to balance it against Mom’s needs. Even though we knew there was a likelihood that all six of us kids could eventually receive some kind of an inheritance from Mom, we had no way of knowing how much she might need over the next decade or more. We decided to not advance Steve that much, especially for that particular attorney, because it just seemed like overkill. Harry contacted Steve and let him know the decision, but told him that if he could find a local attorney who would work for less, he would revisit the idea of loaning him money against his inheritance.
If that seems like a callous action on our parts, we felt cold-hearted having to think like that, but we had no idea how many years Mom had left, and our obligation had to be for her. The main thing we knew about Alzheimer’s was that it moved slowly, and that her care would likely get much more expensive as her condition worsened. It did, and it did.
After discussing it with Robin, Steve told Harry that he had decided to stay with his current attorney, Ronald Mathis. Harry called Mathis and spoke with him about the case, both of them agreeing that it seemed to be a simple “he said versus she said” case, with no physical evidence. Mathis thought the case could be done for $5,000 to $15,000, but “if the matter were dropped immediately” it would be much less. They agreed to begin with a retainer of $2,000.
In October 2004, Steve was placed on leave without pay by the state, which cut the family’s income drastically just six months after the accusations were made. Once Tom Swearingen was hired in December of that year, more money was needed so he could conduct his investigation. Steve did some odd jobs for a few people, but many had heard about the charges and were reluctant to hire him. As further expenses arose, he and Robin could see that their savings wouldn’t last long. If Steve couldn’t find work, they would have to rely exclusively on Robin’s pay (which was then covering some but not all of their bills).
By the end of 2004, Newbold and Vanderhoop had paid Mathis $7,500. By the end of April 2005, he had been paid $27,928. Steve and Robin pulled money from Robin’s 401K, and repaid $13,928 of that to Harry’s law firm. That squared Steve and Robin for part of what they had borrowed against his inheritance, but it also nearly depleted everything they had saved for their future. Their financial situation was looking grim.
There’s more to say about what Steve was doing in 2005 and early 2006 to raise money for his defense. That’s in the next post.
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