L.A. County looks into possible financial exploitation of heiress

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Los Angeles County officials said Monday that they were opening an investigation into possible financial exploitation of a housebound Palos Verdes Estates heiress by her money manager.

The launch of a probe into the handling of Susan Strong Davis’ affairs came in response to a Times article describing how the 87-year-old widow spent millions of dollars on a four-bedroom home in Beverly Hills despite suffering from what relatives said was dementia that left her unable to make even minor decisions.

Davis’ longtime money manager, John E. Larkin, sold her property for the new home at a $300,000 profit and is overseeing construction. He was also instrumental in arranging her 2005 donation of $600,000 to a charity connected to the Kabbalah Centre, the controversial spiritual organization to which he belongs.

Richard Franco, the acting program manager of the county’s Adult Protective Services, called the article “very troubling” and said elder abuse investigators would begin looking into Davis’ situation “ASAP.”

Separately, Davis’ relatives, who do not live locally, said they had called a county elder abuse hotline and asked for an investigation. Nephew Thomas Dutton Jr. said he was told that someone would visit her home and evaluate her condition.

“Our concern is for her well-being — that she’s not there as a prisoner, that they are not spending her money for things that are not right,” said a niece, Viki Brushwood.

Larkin did not return a message seeking comment.

The county elder abuse investigators are social workers who refer cases to law enforcement if they find evidence for criminal prosecution. If they determine that Davis cannot care for herself, they can work with the county Office of Public Guardian to ask a court to appoint a conservator to make financial, medical and other decisions on her behalf.

Davis has no children and her husband died in the 1980s. Larkin began managing her family trust fund, valued last year at $11 million, three decades ago and subsequently assumed other roles including overseeing her personal finances and in recent years, as relatives noticed her memory deteriorating, a round-the-clock nursing staff.

Davis was lucid in the mid-2000s, family members said. During that period she made the donation to the Kabbalah Centre children’s charity, Spirituality for Kids. Relatives said she never mentioned kabbalah, the study of ancient Jewish mysticism, or displayed any interest in religion.

By 2009, when she signed papers to buy the Beverly Hills property from Larkin, she had dementia, relatives said. To purchase the property and build a large home with three fireplaces and a pool, Davis borrowed more than $2 million against her trust fund. Larkin, one of two fund trustees, did not disclose to the probate judge who supervises the trust that he was the seller in the transaction. Davis’ family members said they knew nothing about the sale or plans to build a home.

The home is in a neighborhood convenient to the Kabbalah Centre’s headquarters on Robertson Boulevard, and Larkin recently asked that a kosher kitchen be installed, the builder said in an interview.