Police charge caregiver in a mistreatment and theft case

A Medford caregiver faces felony theft and mistreatment charges for allegedly bilking an elderly couple in her charge out of thousands of dollars over the course of several years, police said.

Tamra Jenise Fennel, 51, reportedly pressured the couple to pay exorbitant prices for her services, Medford police Lt. Bob Hansen said.

Detectives were alerted to the issue in March 2009 and have been combing through the finances of victims John O'Connor, 90, and his wife, Jane Weisenberg, 97, for more than a year.

"It took a while to collect the financial documents," Hansen said. "These investigations often take a long time to sort out."

O'Connor and Weisenberg passed away within weeks of each other during the investigation, Hansen said.

"The fact that the victims died does not mean we stop an investigation of crimes against them," he said. "Justice has to get done in these cases."

Fennel provided in-home care for the couple for six years. Detectives suspect the financial abuse had been going on for a long time before it was reported, Hansen said.

"She unduly influenced them to pay way more than what her services were worth," Hansen said. "We are not quite sure the exact amounts yet."

Fennel was charged with three counts of first-degree criminal mistreatment, first-degree aggravated theft and first-degree theft — all felonies.

The charges suggest Fennel allegedly stole at least $10,000 from the couple. Under Oregon law, the aggravated theft charge requires a minimum of $10,000 in losses.

The charges were preceded last year by a restraining order filed against Fennel by the victims' family, according to Jackson County Circuit Court records.

Hansen declined to comment on the manner in which Fennel allegedly coerced the money from the couple.

Caregiver abuse is a nagging problem in Jackson County, which has a large elderly population, Hansen said.

"We encourage people to monitor the financial records of their elderly family members to be sure they are not being taken advantage of," Hansen said.

Carrie Governor, owner of Caregiver Services Inc. on East Jackson Street in Medford, said a large "underground" caregiver market exists in Jackson County.

"Often these people advertise on Craigslist or grocery-store bulletin boards, claiming they can provide inexpensive services," Governor said.

Though not all private caregivers are crooked, a good deal of them are not properly trained to administer care to elderly clients and often are not properly vetted before they are hired, Governor said.

Reputable caregiver services will do comprehensive background checks on employees and will oversee their work inside clients' homes, Governor said.

"The caregiver needs regulations to follow and someone to make sure things are getting done properly," Governor said.

Governor said she has heard of caregivers stealing clients' narcotics and their identities. Many of these issues would be discovered with background and reference checks, Governor said.

"If you are going to hire a private-duty caregiver, you really should pay the $50 or so to do a nationwide background check," Governor said.

Governor said most agencies will not allow their employees to deal with clients' financial matters.

"A caregiver has a specific function and that should not usually include having access to personal financial information," she said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail him at cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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