“I Thought They Were Going to Kill Me”: How an Elderly Woman Was Defrauded of Her Life Savings

The shocking fate of Veronika Piela, a Montreal woman defrauded of her life savings, is symptomatic of a larger problem. Many seniors are isolated, vulnerable and unlikely to be believed—even when they're telling the truth.

The case of Veronika Piela

Short of breath, her face tensed with 
fear, an elderly woman struggled with her walker on a snowy sidewalk in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood. It was February 14, 2014, and, despite the biting cold, she wore no scarf, gloves or coat.

“Help me,” she asked a passerby, who was surprised to see the frail woman so underdressed. The good Samaritan covered her with some of her own clothes and called emergency services.

When the police arrived, the older woman was shaking. She had no ID. With a thick Russian accent, she kept repeating how much she disliked her new apartment. She didn’t want to return because she wasn’t allowed 
to have visitors or use the telephone.

The officers escorted her back to her nursing home, where they were shown a court order for 89-year-old Veronika Piela to live at the residence.

“If I stay, I’ll kill myself,” Piela told the police. She had run away by sneaking out an emergency exit.

Reliving traumas

Piela knew what it was like to be held against her will. During the 
Second World War, as an 18-year-old orphan, she was interned with thousands of other Ukrainians at a labour camp in Germany, unsure if she would make it out alive. There she met a Polish man named Joseph Piela. Together they survived imprisonment and, in August 1945, married in the camp before being released at the end of the war.

In 1948, the couple emigrated to Quebec’s Mauricie region and then on to Montreal, where Joseph worked as a cook and Veronika as a maid and labourer. They had no children. With their savings, they eventually purchased two homes. When Joseph died in 1987, Piela was alone. She lived on a small retirement pension and, later, on the money from their properties, which she sold in 2007.

Now, once again, Piela was trapped. But providence intervened, as it had during the war. Back at the station, the officers submitted their statement to Elizabeth Kraska, an elder-abuse case investigator for the city’s police department.

“I immediately connected it to another incident that had occurred two weeks earlier,” she said.

On January 28, Alissa Kerner, a social worker in private practice, had called the police to report an Alzheimer’s patient named Veronika Piela. Kerner claimed that Piela was living in squalid conditions and the social worker was seeking urgent help from the police to remove her from her apartment.

The call was transferred to Kraska. Kerner explained that she had been hired by Anita Obodzinski, described as Piela’s niece and legal representative, to conduct a psychosocial assessment of the elderly woman. Her conclusion was that Piela could no longer manage on her own and needed to be sent to a care facility.

“I told her to come down to the station with the protection mandate and evaluation reports,” said Kraska. But when Kerner showed up, she didn’t have any of the documents to prove the subject’s incapacity or Obodzinski’s legal authority to make decisions on her behalf. Without them, the police could only transfer Piela to hospital if they felt she needed help. Yet Kerner insisted that Piela should not be sent to a hospital.

For Kraska, something felt off. At that time, she was moving her own 91-year-old father to a care centre for Alzheimer’s patients, so she was familiar with the process. “He went through several medical assessments, and I was there every step of the way. It was clear to me that Ms. Kerner was trying to hide something,” she said.

On February 5, Kraska raised the alert with Quebec’s human rights commission and public curator. Then she set to work on the investigation. Kraska turned her attention to Piela’s police file, where she found evidence of more suspicious incidents.

On February 2, less than a week after Kerner’s call to the station, police had been summoned to Piela’s apartment. According to the report, Kerner and Obodzinski had knocked on the door, but Piela had refused to let them in. The women soon returned with Obodzinski’s husband, Arthur Trzciakowski, and forced their way in to the apartment.

“I thought they were going to kill me,” Piela had told the officers, in tears. She had alerted the police to the intrusion before her phone was unplugged. Kerner, Obodzinski and Trzciakowski were arrested but released without charges when they showed a protection mandate and claimed the incident was a misunderstanding.

Kraska also found a report from February 12, two days before Piela was discovered in the street, when officers had been called to help a bailiff with a Superior Court order to evict Piela from her apartment and bring her to a nursing home.

The court order had been granted in December 2013. Piela—described as an Alzheimer’s patient incapable of living alone—was not present during these proceedings. The judge ruled in favour of eviction, and Piela was sent by ambulance to a nursing home. The lawyer representing Obodzinski for the hearing was Charles Gelber, Kerner’s husband.

“Help me.”

Kraska had seen enough. On February 17, she and four officers went to Piela’s nursing home. There they discovered that the elderly woman had been placed in a small, stark basement room. Her only possessions were the clothes on her back.

Kraska walked toward Piela slowly, as she did with her own father, and spoke to her in Polish, a language she had learned from her parents. “Her face lit up,” said Kraska.

During their exchange, Piela appeared mentally sound and exhibited no signs of Alzheimer’s disease. The only medication Kraska found in the room was a prescription to treat Piela’s rheumatism.

“Help me,” said Piela, “or I’ll commit suicide.” Kraska put her arm around the elderly woman and promised to get her out.

“She’s only interested in the money from the two homes I sold,” Piela said of Anita Obodzinski.

Defrauded

Thanks to Kraska’s intervention, Piela was quickly placed in another care centre, the location of which was kept secret for her own safety. But she had another urgent problem: she’d been stripped of all her money. When Piela checked her bank accounts, she discovered that $474,000 had been transferred to a trust registered to Charles Gelber, on behalf of Obodzinski. In order to get her money back, she had to regain her legal autonomy. Piela hired a lawyer.

The proceedings to invalidate the protection mandate—which provides someone control of another person’s physical and financial care in case 
of their incapacity—began at the end of February 2014 and continued for two years. During that time, Piela had to go to court 20 times. The anxiety she experienced caused her to develop heart problems and high blood pressure, for which she was hospitalized. Despite her poor health, Piela was determined to provide her testimony.

“I met Anita Obodzinski in 2007,” she explained to Superior Court judge Hélène Langlois in November 2015. “She showed up at my house with her mother, an acquaintance of mine, and wanted to buy one of my duplexes.”

The sale fell through, but Obodzinski offered to take Piela to her medical appointments and help her with chores for $100 a week. Their arrangement came to an end in June 2013, when Piela said she accused Obodzinski of stealing from her purse.

In her defence, Obodzinski claimed she was officially mandated to care for Piela and manage her property. But the protection mandate, dating from March 2013, when Piela had undergone knee surgery, was shown to have been forged. An expert witness from the forensic-science laboratory testified that the signature on the document wasn’t Piela’s.

Under Quebec law, the protection mandate requires both a medical assessment and a psychosocial report to be put into effect. Kerner had supplied the latter. And she had asked Dr. Lindsay Goldsmith, a Montreal family doctor, to conduct the medical evaluation. Goldsmith claimed that she had carried out her evaluation in November 2013, in Piela’s kitchen, with Obodzinski translating the questions and answers to and from Russian. Goldsmith concluded that Piela wasn’t able to take care of herself or her property and that she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Piela, however, maintained that she had never met with a doctor.

In court, geriatric physician Dr. Catherine Ferrier disputed Goldsmith’s findings. After completing her own medical tests, she found that Piela was capable of making decisions and administering her affairs. Ferrier told the court that it was unlikely that Piela was suffering from Alzheimer’s in November 2013, since the disease may stabilize, but it doesn’t improve.

The court ruled that the reports by Goldsmith and Kerner were unreliable. The mandate was revoked in November 2015, and Piela was declared able to take care of herself and her property and exercise her civil rights. She was free, and her money was returned to her.

Not an isolated incident

Meanwhile, Piela’s attorney contacted Quebec’s order of social work, urging them to investigate Alissa Kerner. In September 2014, they suspended her. Given the allegations, the order initiated a review of the social worker’s assessments of other seniors. Thanks to that inquiry, three more stories were brought to their attention and investigated.

One of those cases involved Rose Stein Brownstein. In 2011, when the Montrealer was 76, her son had encouraged her to sign a protection mandate in case of incapacity. The following year, social worker Alissa Kerner had performed an assessment that determined Brownstein had trouble managing her finances and making rational decisions. In October 2012, despite inconclusive medical reports, the protection mandate was put into effect, with her son as mandatary.

But just two months later, Brownstein’s son died of cancer. The replacement named on his mother’s protection mandate was his close friend: Charles Gelber. Over the course of the following year, Brownstein stopped receiving her financial statements, which had been rerouted to Gelber. When she requested copies, she noticed that money was disappearing from her accounts. In December 2013, Gelber had paid himself $17,000 for “administrative services rendered.” Additionally, regular payments, amounting to thousands of dollars, were being transferred to an account belonging to Alissa Kerner.

Brownstein reported the incident to the police and took legal action to prove she wasn’t suffering from Alzheimer’s. She hired a lawyer to demonstrate that the protection mandate should be nullified, and a new medical assessment proved that her cognition was just fine. In March 2015, over Gelber’s objections, a judge found in Brownstein’s favour and she regained her autonomy. The court has yet to rule on the amounts in dispute, but no criminal charges were brought.

Justice is served

For her misconduct, Alissa Kerner faced 11 ethical violations before her professional order—six of them for her involvement in Piela’s case. Another seven disciplinary charges were filed against her in July 2015, and in August 2016, Kerner was suspended for three years and ordered to pay $2,000. She has admitted fault on most counts but expressed no remorse.

“This is the first time we’ve seen collusion and such serious transgressions against seniors by one of our own members,” said Marcel Bonneau, trustee of Quebec’s order of social workers.

In criminal court in September 2017, Kerner pleaded guilty to mischief and breaking and entering into Piela’s home. She was given six months’ probation and ordered to pay $2,000 to the Crime Victims Assistance Centre.

In January 2018, Obodzinski pleaded guilty to a number of charges, including mischief and obstruction of justice. Her husband, Arthur Trzciakowski, also pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful entry and mischief. Obodzinski was sentenced to two years’ house arrest, three years’ probation and 240 hours of community service. Trzciakowski received a conditional discharge and 170 hours of community service.

Before rendering his decision, Justice Pierre Labelle read from a statement: “You latched on to an elderly victim and altered her life. You falsely used the court’s authority to have the victim declared incapable of taking care of herself. You took her life savings, and then you had her forcibly thrown out of her own home. I have no words to express the disgust I feel.”

In October 2018, Charles Gelber was suspended for 18 months by the Quebec bar after he pleaded guilty to seven infractions. The disciplinary committee ruled that his actions “were a direct infringement of Mrs. Piela’s fundamental rights.” Gelber did not appeal the decision.

In March 2014, Piela’s lawyer submitted a complaint against Dr. Lindsay Goldsmith to the province’s order of physicians. No charges were laid. However, Goldsmith, Kerner, Gelber, Obodzinski and Trzciakowski are all named in a civil suit that has been filed by Piela’s estate. The court documents indicate that each party will defend the claims against them. The case is scheduled for November 2019.

With her until the very end

Unfortunately, Veronika Piela can no longer testify.

Exhausted by the proceedings, she died following a stroke in December 2016, at the age of 92. She spent her final months in a Montreal residence for Ukrainian seniors. But she couldn’t shake her suspicion of others.

“She was afraid of becoming a victim of fraud again,” explained Kraska. “When she had to renew her lease or sign documents, she’d call me to make sure everything was in order.”

Piela would tell the officer that she had saved her life.

“I just did my duty,” said Kraska. She was with Piela until the very end.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

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