Wilma Rigo left her crime-plagued neighborhood in Los Angeles seeking what so many others have sought: a place to retire in comfort and enjoy the security of knowing that her needs would be met.
She settled in Leisure World, a small city unto itself in Laguna Hills with a population of 21,000, where 250 security officers patrol the grounds around the clock to protect residents from the kind of robbers who had brutally beaten Rigo's neighbor in broad daylight a decade ago in Los Angeles.
But what Rigo did not anticipate was a different type of crime, one that targets the elderly, the lonely, and one that renders the fortress-like security of Leisure World worthless: two "entrepreneurs" persuaded her to invest $61,000--her life savings--in two questionable financial deals.
"I feel like I've been hypnotized," said the 82-year-old widow, who has spent countless hours writing letters to the district attorney, the governor and even President Bush asking for help in recovering her money. "I'm not that dumb. Really. I never thought that this (rip-off) could happen here."
But it does.
Rigo is what authorities call a classic victim of con artists and swindlers who have targeted Leisure World and other retirement communities and walk away with millions of dollars in cash and property every year.
For its part, Leisure World does its best to warn residents of the scams that target the elderly. Social workers employed by Leisure World run seminars, distribute flyers and counsel people on how to avoid being swindled.
Still, court records and dozens of interviews with judges, attorneys, social workers, law enforcement officials and Leisure World retirees paint a picture of a community besieged by unscrupulous business people.
"I sometimes think of Leisure World as a pool of small fish with the sharks feeding and circling around the perimeters," said Orange County Superior Court Judge James Jackman, who has encountered several probate cases in which the estates of Leisure World residents were raided.
Nobody knows how many seniors in Leisure World fall victim to swindlers. But Allen Cox, supervisor of Orange County's Adult Protective Services, said the division has handled 269 reports of elder abuse in the Leisure World area since 1986--about 25% of which involved fraud and other fiduciary abuse.
And that, officials say, may be only the tip of the iceberg.
Margaret Beck, manager of the county's social services agency, said her office suspects that hundreds of incidents go unreported. "Many elderly people are too embarrassed to let the public know that they got ripped off. It's not something they want advertised."
"You name it and Leisure World's got it," said Cox, who also chairs a multidisciplinary team of law enforcement officials and social workers that meets each month to monitor reports of elderly abuse. "Attorneys, carpet cleaners and family members rip off the residents there. Virtually anyone that comes in contact with them tries to get something in return."
Leisure World is a microcosm of the senior world nationwide in which a panoply of frauds account for $10 billion every year, said Lee Pearson, assistant manager of criminal services for the American Assn. of Retired Persons in Washington, which distributes warnings to its members.
The Los Angeles Police Department formed an Elderly Persons Estate Unit last year after detectives encountered at least 50 cases a year in which seniors with diminished capacity were swindled by befriending strangers, said Detective Chayo Reyes.
The Arizona attorney general set up its Elder Abuse Project to protect seniors--who account for almost a quarter of the state's winter population--from financial manipulation, health quackery and physical abuse, said project director Anita O'Riordan.
Authorities say retirees are prime targets for rip-offs because they are more likely to be estranged from family and friends, to suffer gradual losses of memory and accept deals that offer high-yield interest to preserve their buying power.
As the sitting probate judge in Orange County Superior Court, Tully Seymour said he has seen how seniors become vulnerable. "They can fall prey to service-type people like gardeners, friends and family who get them to sign blank checks . . . anyone in a position of trust," Seymour said.
Daniel Woodward, chief of security at Leisure World, said he sees lesser abuses every day, and residents lose tens of thousands of dollars each year to phony charitable groups. "There are so-called charitable organizations that work this community every day of every year. They seek donations for everything in the news," he said. "We've seen cases in which care-givers enter a resident's life and in three weeks they get power of attorney, the combination for the safe, keys to safety deposit boxes, and control over the resident's life . . . all in the name of taking care of the resident."
Rigo retired in the mid-1970s from her $500-a-month job and decided to move to Leisure World in 1980. She set aside her $61,000 life savings to buy a new car and "to see the world."
That changed when the telephone calls started coming.
An "entrepreneur" said he wanted her to invest money to drill for gas near the Salton Sea. When she asked about the return on her investment, he told her about another "wonderful investment opportunity": his friend in Irvine was manufacturing an oil filter that would never need replacement. He even took her on a tour of an industrial complex in Irvine where the filters would be manufactured.
The man took her out to lunches. One day, he even brought his mother to visit Rigo. She relished the attention, she said.
"He also promised to take me dancing one day," Rigo said. She had told him that "I just love to dance, but I have no one to dance with."
Then Rigo made what investigators say was a fatal step: She canceled three personal certificates of deposit worth $61,000 and gave the money to the businessman--without receiving adequate investment documents in return.
His calls and visits stopped.
Rigo said the district attorney's office told her it would be difficult to prosecute because Rigo's "investment" could be construed as a loan. Investigators have advised her to seek redress with a civil suit.
Rigo is not alone.
Nancy Sloman, 65, of Pasadena was caring for her 85-year-old Leisure World aunt, Florence Batty, who was ailing and mourning the death of her husband.
Sloman visited her aunt every few months and called her weekly. After Batty was released from a hospital in December, 1989, Sloman arranged for a care-giver from a local nurses' registry to provide 24-hour care, and then took off on a trip to Mexico.
When she returned two weeks later, Sloman discovered that the care-giver had sold Batty's condominium, had a new will drawn up with herself as the sole beneficiary, and had bought two one-way tickets to Tennessee for Batty and herself. She found all that out only after her aunt's attorney called to say that the care-giver was trying to get power of attorney for Batty's estate. Sloman was able to stop escrow and sheriff's investigators asked the woman to leave the area.
Sloman has since sold her aunt's condominium and moved her to a board-and-care facility near her own home. "Now, I have to call her three or four times a week just to reassure her that everything is OK," Sloman said.
Such cases are almost never prosecuted. In Batty's case, authorities said she would not have been a reliable witness because of her fading memory.
Toshio Tatara, director of the National Aging Resource Center on Elder Abuse, said that laws are inadequate to deal with financial exploitation of the elderly.
"Elder abuse is at the stage where child abuse was 15 years ago," Tatara said. "Some states do have statutes dealing with elder abuse, but the laws provide for reporting cases of abuses instead of tracking down the crooks."
In Los Angeles, Deputy Dist. Atty. Ardith Javan said that in 10 months she has filed at least 10 cases involving swindling of the elderly. In one, a married couple bilked the husband's aged former mother-in-law out of her house and life savings. They also put the 81-year-old woman in a board-and-care home where she was given "anti-psychotic medication that she didn't need because she was not mentally ill," Javan said.
"For every case we file, there's another one, or possibly two, we can't file," Javan said. "The swindler wedges himself or herself between the older people and their former associates. . . . We've had a number of cases in which some seniors have been beaten and abused, but they don't want to take action because they still feel some connection with the abuser and the people stealing from them.
"But we have to be careful about what we recommend because we live in a society that is ambivalent about how and when to restrict a person's rights and freedoms. . . . While we do not want to have a Big Brother society, we have to step in at some point."