Before Mary Wiemiller married Henry Archuleta, a man 24 years her junior, she was living independently in a beautiful 2,600-square-foot country home west of Modesto that she owned outright.
She also had several hundred thousand dollars in the bank.
Within 10 years she’d depleted her savings, defaulted on loans she borrowed against the home, lost it to foreclosure and moved with Archuleta into the Budgetel on McHenry Avenue, where she lived in deplorable conditions.
A home health nurse came to check on Wiemiller, then 85, in January as part of her In-Home Supportive Services, under which Archuleta was paid $10 an hour to be her primary caretaker, according to court documents.
The nurse found Wiemiller covered in bed sores – some the size of fists. She was lying in her own feces and urine in a bed infested with bed bugs, according to court documents. The feces were in one of the wounds, which led to an infection that spread to her blood, according to court documents.
Authorities arrested Archuleta; Wiemiller died a month later.
This is one of 30 elder abuse cases being investigated by Modesto Police detective Steve Anderson this year, with dozens more throughout Stanislaus County.
“This is one that will stand out for me,” Anderson said.
One in 10 Americans 60 years and older experience abuse and many experience it in multiple forms such as physical, financial or neglect, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.
Wednesday is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, intended to educate seniors and their loved ones about the crime and how to prevent it.
One of the most significant challenges in making arrests and prosecuting this crime is that the victims often don’t want to make a report or cooperate with investigators because they are embarrassed or fear they will be alienated from their families, said Simona Rios, a senior services program director for Catholic Charities.
The nonprofit, which serves Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, offers a variety of services for the elderly, primarily the ombudsman program, which investigates abuse or neglect in nursing homes. The charity runs the Stanislaus Elder Abuse Prevention Alliance along with other agencies including Adult Protective Services, the Family Justice Center, the Area Agency on Aging and Senior Law Project.
Rios estimates about 40 percent of elder abuse crimes are financial and many of those are a result of phone, internet and mail scams.
Some common scams include:
▪ The foreign lottery scam in which the victim is told he won a large sum of money but must first pay taxes on it to get the winnings.
▪ The IRS scam in which a person claiming to be an Internal Revenue Service employee tells the victim she will be arrested if she does not pay overdue taxes.
▪ The grandparents scam in which the scammer pretends to be the victim’s grandchild and tells her he is in some kind of trouble like needing to be bailed out of jail.
“A lot of the people who get scammed, we don’t ever hear about it,” said Modesto police detective Ray Bennett, who investigates financial crimes. “They never report it; they are embarrassed or they don’t even know they’ve been scammed.”
He said another scam gaining popularity is the dating scam; people, most often from other countries, create fake dating profiles to prey on the lonely, usually older women. The scammers fill a void for the victims and then start asking for money for a business venture or to help play off loans or whatever the case may be.
Bennett investigated one case in which a woman gave her entire retirement to a man she met on a dating site.
Embarrassment is a difficult emotion for detectives and others who work with the elderly to overcome. But more influential is victims’ fear that family will reject them.
“One of the biggest problems with prosecuting the cases is the victims will just shut down,” Rios said. “They don’t want their daughter or grandson to go to jail; they are left with abuse issues and the trauma afterward, and often (the abuser) is their only support system.”
Anderson knew of a case several years ago in which an elderly woman was sexually assaulted by her grandson.
“She testified and the rest of the family turned their backs on her,” Anderson said. The family had the mentality that the victim would die soon but the young man had his whole life ahead of him, he said. “It was very sad. Everybody was in court sitting behind the defendant.”
Wiemiller was widowed and lonely when she met Archuleta, said niece Anna Marie Knight.
“It was tragic; my aunt was a very loving person and she got lonely and someone took advantage of her,” she said.
She said her father, Antonio Contreras, Wiemiller’s brother, used to talk on the phone every day to his sister, but the calls became less and less frequent after she started dating Archuleta.
Wiemiller was diagnosed with dementia and suffered a stroke. She was admitted to care homes on several occasions but Archuleta would always take her out, according to court documents.
Knight and Contreras went to Wiemiller’s home after she was evicted. “We went to her (once) lovely home, which looked like squatters lived there then,” she said. “It was a total mess; it was unrecognizable.”
After the eviction they lost touch with her altogether and Contreras hired a private investigator to find her again. Every time Contreras got a phone number for his sister; it was disconnected.
Contreras hadn’t spoken to his sister in over a year and hadn’t seen her more than three when he got the heartbreaking call in January that she was in the hospital, suffering from an infection caused by the bed sores, and wasn’t expected to survive.
He and other family members did get to see her before she died, which Knight said gave him some closure. But she said the experience has been “unbelievable” and “horrifying.”
Archuleta was arrested and charged with felony neglect of an elder under circumstances likely to produce great bodily harm or death.
He was released on bail and the Senior Law Project worked with the conservatorship office, probate examiner and the court to get an elder abuse restraining order against Archuleta and a conservatorship for Wiemiller.
This allowed “Mary to go to hospice care where she died with dignity in a clean place,” Anderson said. “Her family … and friends were also able to come and say goodbye. While this was a very sad case, for me this was the most satisfying part; allowing her family to say goodbye.”
How to stop or prevent elder abuse
Call and visit an elderly loved one often and watch for signs of abuse or neglect like physical injury, malnutrition or poor hygiene. Report abuse the the police or adult protective services.
Ask your bank manager or the bank manager of an elderly loved one if they are trained to detect financial abuse. Modesto Police Detective Ray Bennett said he is alerted to many financial abuse cases by alert bank tellers who report large withdrawals by their client.
Contact your local Adult Protective Services or Long-Term Care Ombudsman to learn how to support their work helping at-risk elders and adults with disabilities.
Volunteer to be a friendly visitor to a nursing home resident or to a home-bound senior in your neighborhood. Help elderly family, friends and neighbors get connected to these services.
If you suspect abuse in the community, contact Adult Protective Services at 800-336-4316
If you suspect abuse in a nursing home or residential care facility, contact Catholic Charities Ombudsman at 209-529-3784
For seniors in need of legal assistance call the Senior Advocacy Network’s Senior Law Project at 209-577-3814
For seniors in need of help with housing and veteran services call the Area Agency on Aging 209-558-8698
For general information for seniors and caregivrs about the services provided in stansialsu county call the Senior Information Line at 209- 558-8698