A Cortez woman who represents herself as a “one-stop” advocate for people with disabilities has been charged with theft and criminal exploitation of an at-risk person after she allegedly persuaded an elderly widow in Dolores County to donate her home to the suspect’s nonprofit.
Barbara J. Howe, the executive director of a 501c(3) company called Ability Consultants, is accused of talking 85-year-old Joyce Cook of Cahone, Colo., into transferring ownership of her residence to the company in February through a quitclaim deed – apparently with the intent of either selling it for personal gain or using it as collateral to buy a house of her own.
Cook’s disabled son also lives at the residence.
The charges against Howe were filed in June by District Attorney Will Furse, based on evidence turned up during a three-month joint investigation by Dolores County Undersheriff Tim Rowell and the county’s social-services office.
Howe was arrested June 13 and released three days later after posting $1,000 cash bail, which had been reduced from an initial $25,000 bond.
Sufficient evidence was then presented during a preliminary hearing Sept. 11 to have the defendant bound over to district court.
A hearing set for Oct. 9 could result in either a plea agreement or a not guilty plea and having the case set for trial, Furse told the Four Corners Free Press, or possibly a defense request for more time to consider options.
After the death last December of Wayne Cook, his distraught widow was having difficulty paying for the funeral and other bills she owed, according to Rowell’s affadavit. Howe allegedly convinced her she was in imminent danger of having her home seized by creditors and urged her to donate it to Ability Consultants to prevent it from being taken.
Cook told Rowell that Howe had assured her she would then be “allowed to reside in the house until she perished if she were to sign her home over to Barbara (Howe),” the affidavit recounted.
But in April a real-estate agent showed up at Cook’s property with a “For Sale” sign and a key box, telling Cook she would have to move out immediately once the property sold. The agent later told law enforcement that Cook and her son became very upset and said that was not the agreement they’d had with Howe. The agent left and later contacted Howe and told her she was cancelling the listing.
During his investigation, Rowell and other officers interviewed numerous people who expressed concern about what they had seen transpiring between Cook and Howe.
Kim Young, a home health worker who had cared for Wayne Cook, contacted the sheriff ’s office in April to file a complaint after Joyce Cook told her she’d donated her house to Howe because she was afraid it would be seized to pay bills.
And Melissa Markhart, a caseworker with social services, described Cook as “very upset, crying and shaking” when she visited Cook’s home.
According to the affidavit, Cook told her that Howe had been very insistent that she and her son needed to find other accommodations because their house was supposedly not handicapped- accessible.
However, Markhart said in inspecting the residence, she found it “neat and tidy,” with walk-in showers, toilets with risers, hallways and walkways that were clear of obstacles, and an access ramp from a sliding glass door to the driveway. She said Cook and her son do little cooking, with meals delivered from the senior center, and are provided with housekeeping services several times a week.
Markhart noted that Cook had adequate income for her basic needs and Bergman gets SSI and has home health care.
Howe is additionally accused of conning Cook’s son, Eric Bergman, who also suffers from multiple disabilities, into donating his 1991 Ford Tempo to Ability Consultants just after he’d put new tires on it and was trying to sell it for $1,000 to help with their bills.
Howe allegedly scoffed at Bergman’s plan, telling him he’d never get that much for the vehicle and promising to pay him an unspecified sum if he’d sign it over to Ability Consultants. Bergman told Markhart he’d never received any payment, but later heard Howe had given the vehicle to someone in return for some computer work.
“Eric stated that he feels ashamed and stupid that he has let Barbara take advantage of them like this,” Markhart said, “but he stated again (that) we trusted her because she is an advocate and is supposed to help people.”
Bergman suffers from heart disease and back problems and is a borderline diabetic.
In April, Rowell was also contacted by Pam Thompson, a vice president of Dolores State Bank. In a written statement, Thompson said that once she became aware of the situation, she’d encouraged Cook to ask Howe to return her property because it appeared there had been “a huge misunderstanding.”
When Cook told her Howe had refused to do so, Thompson said, “I felt that this was elder abuse and called Mrs. Cook to tell her I was calling the Dolores County Sheriff ’s Department.”
Just a week later, Howe allegedly came to the bank seeking a $100,000 loan on the same property. In her written statement, loan officer Tammy Beanland said Howe told her Cook’s former residence had been valued at $125,000 and she intended to list it with a realtor.
“(Howe) stated the people in the home weren’t sure about moving but they would have to find something more accessible for them and she wanted to have them moved out in 60 days.
“She told me that ‘it was time to do something for Barb’,” Beanland recalled in the affidavit. “She went on to say it was her intention to borrow $100,000 on the property in Cahone and use the funds to purchase a home for herself in Cortez and also pay off a small loan and some credit-card debt.”
Howe had obtained a quitclaim deed to the property in February after a series of visits to the county clerk’s office during which Cook and Bergman appeared quite passive, according to several employees of the office. “In my opinion, it was like Barbara was running the show,” said one. In their written statements to Rowell, several employees also remarked on what they deemed Howe’s rude and haughty behavior, such as demanding to have her paperwork for the quitclaim deed processed before others already waiting and asking for legal advice they are not allowed to provide.
Deputy Clerk Karen Kibel stated that Howe was “extremely aggressive and insistent that the deed be recorded rapidly,” even though it was incomplete.
And a woman who works in the assessor’s office added, “There was a feeling amongst the employees . . . that Joyce may have been taken advantage of. She rarely spoke while in the office – Barbara (Howe) did all the talking.”
Howe was also reportedly quite testy when Rowell informed her of his investigation and asked for an interview. She demanded to know who had instigated the investigation and stressed that she herself is handicapped and it is difficult for her to get around, despite the numerous visits to the clerk’s office when she was obtaining the deed to Cook’s property.
When Rowell said the investigation was about concerns regarding Joyce Cook’s home, Howe said, “You’re talking about the property Joyce used to own.”
At one point Howe sent written notice to Rowell that any further communication between them should be only in writing, but then she relented and offered to return the property to Cook with certain conditions. On May 11 she faxed Rowell:
“After consulting with various legal people it would be in the best interest of Ability Consultants to return the house at (address) that was donated to Ability Consultants rather than continuing the errors involved in this issue. “ . . . it is better to keep the process of being able to help disabled people than have others accuse Ability Consultants of misdemeanors that are not valid or true.” She added that she preferred to no longer deal with Joyce Cook and that she expected Cook to pay the fee to transfer the property back to her.
On May 15, however, Howe filed a notarized document with the clerk’s office deeding the property back to Cook. She paid the $23 fee.
A week later she faxed a request for “something in writing stating that Ability Consultants and Barbara J. Howe’s names have been cleared in the matters of Joyce Cook and her family members.”
Rowell’s affidavit outlining Howe’s alleged crimes was notarized June 12.
Howe had not entered a plea as of press time.