Laure Trickel walks with her father, Bill Sammons, at Mountain View Senior Living in Ashland. The retired physician’s caregiver pleaded guilty to forgery and theft charges in connection with thousands of dollars that disappeared from his bank account. cq - Jim Craven

Preying on the vulnerable

Laure Trickel felt sick when she first realized her dad's caregiver had been stealing his money.

"I tried not to become hysterical," the Ashland woman recalled.

"I hired this woman," Trickel said. "I didn't want to see it."

Trickel's dad, Bill Sammons, was an Ashland physician for more than 50 years, delivering babies, setting broken bones, even calling on sick folks at home. Raised in poverty himself, he cared for people who had no money and was known to take a pie or a chicken in payment.

When Sammons lost his short-term memory, his children hired a caregiver so he could continue to live at home. One day last fall, for no particular reason, Trickel was going through his mail and noticed an unusual number of credit card purchases for gasoline.

Trickel reported the card stolen. Something made her decide to check her dad's bank account. There were dozens of cash withdrawals, a couple of hundred dollars at a time, and checks made to the caregiver, Elizabeth Ann Fremming. 48, of the 9800 block of the Mount Ashland Road.

Police arrested Fremming in November 2009, and police charged her with 20 counts of fraudulent signature, seven counts of credit-card fraud and one count each of first-degree theft, first-degree criminal mistreatment and first-degree forgery. On Feb. 22, she pleaded guilty to charges of first-degree forgery, first-degree theft and two counts of second-degree forgery.

As Trickel told friends and acquaintances about what happened, many related a similar loss.

"People would say, 'That happened to my mom,' or an aunt or a grandma," she recalled.

Just how widespread elder financial abuse may be is difficult to say. Tony Green, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice, said there are many ways to take money from vulnerable elderly people — everything from insurance scams to shoddy building repair — and a number of different agencies may be involved in prosecuting such crimes.

"Sometimes the Department of Human Services handles it," Green said. "Sometimes it's the local district attorney. I'm not aware of anybody who keeps track of how often it happens."

The $10,000 or more that Trickel estimates her dad lost is a tiny fraction of the pot of money stolen from elders every year in Oregon. Police reports in Washington County for one recent year indicated elders lost at least $100,000 in cash, said Joyce DeMonnin, public outreach director for AARP Oregon. Washington County counts about 10 percent of Oregon's elder population, so it's realistic to say Oregon elders lose at least $1 million a year, DeMonnin said.

"It's a huge issue," she said.

Trickel said she hired Fremming on the basis of a recommendation from someone she trusted. She didn't do a background check or consult the public court records. If she had, she would have seen items that could have been a red flag. Court records show Fremming had a history of credit problems, and she pleaded guilty to second-degree child neglect in 2001.

Efforts to reach Fremming were unsuccessful. A woman who answered her phone Friday said she was on vacation.

Trickel and others who hire people off the street need to be especially careful because there is no state certification process for people who do in-home care, said Don Bruland, director of Senior and Disability Services for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments.

"You don't have to be a certified nursing assistant or have any (medical) training," Bruland said.

He said people who do home care through the Oregon Home Care Commission are subjected to a background check. Caregivers on that registry may also be employed by private individuals.

DeMonnin said thefts from elders often start out small and increase in size and frequency.

"People get greedy when they find out how easy it is," she said.

Trickel said the thefts started soon after Fremming went to work for her dad and gradually escalated. She said the week before Fremming was arrested, she had taken $1,000 from Sammons' retirement account.

Trickel and her siblings moved their dad, who's 89, to a retirement home as soon as they discovered the thefts because he could no longer safely live by himself. She said he knows he lost some money, but he forgets the details.

"He knows someone ripped him off," she said, "and that's the reason he's in Mountain View (Senior Living)."

"What a travesty," she said, "that this happened at the end of his life, after he'd given so much."

Trickel wants the Oregon Legislature to set licensing standards for caregivers to prevent similar thefts, she said, because the need for home-care services will soar over the coming years as baby boomers retire and become medically needy.

"It's going to affect us all as a generation," said Trickel, 57, "if we don't do something to protect ourselves from this predatory menace.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 541-776-4492, or e-mail

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