The head of Ability Consultants, a Cortez non-profit represented as a “one-stop” help agency for disabled people, was recently convicted of trying to bilk an elderly Cahone, Colo., widow out of her home shortly after the death of her husband.
After a three-day trial in the 22nd Judicial District Court in Montezuma County, Barbara Jean Howe, 66, was found guilty on Oct. 23 of attempted criminal exploitation of an at-risk adult – 85-year-old Joyce Cook – and attempted theft of more than $100,000, specifically her residence.
It took a jury only a few hours to convict the defendant of charges that had been reduced by District Judge Todd Plewe just before their deliberations began.
Howe had reportedly convinced Cook to sign over her home and two acres of land along Highway 491 to Ability Consultants in February 2018, through a quitclaim deed, according to testimony, a move she said would protect it from being seized by creditors.
She told Cook that this would also make her eligible for long-term handicapped housing, but no indications of Howe rendering such assistance was produced.
But soon after the deed transfer was recorded, Howe contacted a realtor about selling the house and also discussed getting a $100,000 loan against the property with an officer at the Dolores State Bank to buy a home of her own and pay off some debts.
Cook had testified she believed she was simply “investing” in Ability Consultants, and had no idea her home was to be sold until a realtor showed up with a “For Sale” sign and told her to be ready to move out in 30 days whenever the property sold.
Officials in Dolores County, where Cook’s home is located, testified they were concerned about the transfer of the property — Cook s e e m e d “out of it,” one noted – and had cont acted the Dolores County Sheriff’s office, as did Pam Thompson, vice president of the bank.
This resulted in an investigation by Undersheriff Tim Rowell and CW Markhart, a county social worker. Shortly after they interviewed Howe, she went to a notary and had the deed transferred back to Cook, then asked Rowell for a letter clearing her of all wrongdoing.
Ultimately 22nd Judicial District Attorney Will Furse filed the two felony charges against Howe.
She was originally charged in June 2018 with the actual criminal exploitation of an at-risk person and felony theft of more than $100,000 — charges for which she went in front of a Dove Creek jury last summer.
However, because of a failure in the court’s recording device, hours of critical testimony were not preserved, and that proceeding was declared a mistrial by Plewe. A new trial was set with a change of venue to Cortez because the jury pool in Dolores County had been essentially tapped out.
But the second trial also threatened to get bogged down by a technicality, and getting the case into the hands of the jury again turned dicey.
After the prosecution had rested its case, Public Defender Jonathan Jourdane asked the judge to grant a motion for acquittal, arguing that even though there had been testimony from Dolores County officials that a quitclaim deed had transferred the property to Ability Consultants, the actual document – which was “best evidence” – was never introduced in court.
Plewe concurred this was a problem, noting he was “surprised” that none of the prosecution witnesses had been asked to produce a copy of the deed, and therefore no legal description of the property had been provided to the jury.
“Certainly, had the deed been admitted, the jury would determine this,” he said.
Still, Plewe noted, he had to view this omission in a light most favorable to the people, and sufficient evidence had been presented to allow the jury to decide if Howe were guilty of attempting to bamboozle Cook out of her home.
“Certainly, the defendant was on notice the lesser charges would be included,” he said.
Prosecutor Jeremy Reed had pointed out during closing arguments that the death of her husband Wayne and financial setbacks, including fear of losing her home, had left Cook in a confused and vulnerable state of mind.
Although sentencing was set for Dec. 17, Plewe instructed Howe to immediately cease assisting any clients who were seeking disability benefits.