A mistrial was declared July 25 in the prosecution of a Cortez woman accused of bilking an elderly widow out of her home last year shortly after the death of her husband.
Barbara Howe, head of Ability Consultants, a nonprofit which she represents as a “one-stop” help center for people with disabilities, was charged with felony theft and criminal exploitation of an at-risk person after an investigation revealed she had obtained a quit-claim deed in February 2018 to a Cahone residence that 85-year-old Joyce Cook had lived in for nearly 40 years.
Howe had then attempted to secure a $100,000 loan on the property to purchase a home of her own, according to a Dolores State Bank official.
Because of Cook’s age – now 86 – a competency hearing was conducted by 22nd District Judge Todd Plewe out of the presence of the jury to make certain Cook understood the significance of the proceeding.
“She answered just about all my questions,” Plewe concluded. “I’m confident she’s competent to testify.”
During the aborted three-day trial, Howe’s defense attorneys had also maintained Cook had been in full command of her facilities when she voluntarily signed the property over to Ability Consultants as a means of protecting it from creditors. And they pointed out that the alleged victim had never moved out of the house before Howe agreed to sign the quit-claim deed back over to Cook.
However, prosecutor Sheena Goldsborough pointed out during her opening remarks that Cook was emotionally and financially distraught in the months after her husband Wayne’s death, and contended Howe had exploited this state of mind. Along with additional funeral expenses, she explained, Cook’s social security benefits had been temporarily suspended because of paperwork foul-ups and she was nearly without resources.
“Mrs. Cook believed her creditors had the power to take her home,’ Goldsborough said. “She was terrified she would lose her home.”
In his opening statement, Public Defender Jonathan Jourdane conceded the agreement between Cook and Howe had been “terrible timing – an impulsive agreement,” but vigorously denied the defendant had “knowingly deceived” Cook when convincing her to sign away the property.
“That did not happen,” Jourdane said. “Ms. Howe is innocent and we will ask you to return a verdict of not guilty.”
As the first witness in the trial, Joyce Cook reluctantly admitted she had signed a quit-claim deed that transferred ownership of her three-bedroom house on two acres of land in Cahone to Howe’s company. However, she repeatedly stressed she believed it was just an “investment,” and that she never imagined she’d be asked to move out.
“(Howe) mentioned I could invest in her company by putting the deed to my house in her name,” Cook said. “I never thought she would do something that low.”
But then a realtor showed up with a “For Sale” sign and informed Cook she intended to put the property on the market, Cook recalled.
“I was in shock,” Cook said. “I never dreamed (Howe) would do something like that.
“Good gravy – I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
However, under cross-examination, Cook conceded she had also discussed with Howe moving to a more handicapped-accessible place.
And she repeatedly said she couldn’t remember, when asked by defense counsel if she’d discussed moving to a bigger house with another son and whether the realtor had been to her house on more than one occasion. Her recall of other events also failed her again and again.
A Dolores County clerk then testified that Howe had brought Cook and her son Eric Bergman, also disabled, to the courthouse to transfer the title.
Former chief deputy clerk Karen Kibel recalled that Joyce Cook seemed “kind of out of it” during the process and that Howe did most of the talking and was very insistent the deed get transferred quickly, even though certain things were incomplete.
Dolores State Bank Vice President Pam Thompson testified that when Cook had come to the bank in April to discuss a loan to pay off funeral expenses, she had been very upset and told Thompson she’d done a “bad thing” by signing over the deed to her home. Thompson testified that was when she became concerned and ultimately contacted the Dolores County Sheriff ’s Office.
Tammy Beanland, a loan officer at the bank, also testified that Howe had contacted her about getting a $100,000 loan on the same Cahone property after she had obtained the quit-claim deed. She said Howe wanted to use the property as collateral to buy a home in Cortez.
At that point, which was in April of last year, Dolores County Undersheriff Tim Rowell opened a joint investigation along with Adult Protection worker Melissa Markhart into that situation and Howe agreed to be voluntarily interviewed by them.
That lengthy recording was played for the jury in its entirety, including Howe’s repeated insistence that Cook had willingly donated her property to Ability Consultants and that Howe had intended to help her and her son find more handicapped-accessible housing in return.
Howe then stated on the tape she had suspected “something like this would happen – when people play games, they want to play it their way.”
After the interview, Howe notified Undersheriff Rowell she was transferring the property back to Cook and asked for a statement basically saying she’d done nothing wrong. But instead in June the felony charges against Howe were filed.
It was at this critical juncture of the trial, just as the prosecution had rested its case, and defense attorney Jourdane had begun to move for an acquittal by Judge Plewe, that an unusual and fatal mishap in the proceedings was discovered.
The court reporter found that the electronic device that is supposed to record all testimony, attorney questions, comments and objections as well as the judge’s rulings and citations had quit working, failing to capture about two hours of the remarks of two witnesses (Rowell and Markhart) – both key to the prosecution’s case.
After contemplating his options overnight, Judge Plewe announced his decision on July 25 to declare a mistrial, dismissing the jury and setting a hearing for Aug. 9 to determine when and where a new trial will be held. Plewe indicated it would probably not be in Dolores County, since a large number of the potential jurors had been already used in assembling the first panel.