It was an old-fashioned swindle of a vulnerable adult with a new twist: Although the victim, who suffered from dementia, died 17 months ago, a new law will enable his family to seek restitution.
Unlike the other estimated 30,000 exploitation cases reported each year in Minnesota involving vulnerable seniors, this is expected to be the first to test a groundbreaking state law sponsored by a legislator who is now the prosecutor in this case. Under the law, adopted last month, Donald Crispin’s family can legally ask for restitution for the financial hardship their father suffered when, authorities say, “professional scammers” persuaded him to withdraw $65,000 from his bank account and then took off with money, jewelry and a car they talked him into buying.
“The case doesn’t end with the death of the victim,” said Iris Freeman, associate director for the Center of Elder Justice and Policy at William Mitchell College of Law.
Crispin’s saga serves not only as a warning to felon Steven Miller and his alleged accomplice, Marina Lahara, who authorities say moved often and used many aliases to avoid police for nearly four years before her arrest this month. It offers a painful reminder to families of how vulnerable seniors can be.
Miller and Lahara didn’t hack into Crispin’s personal life through computers. They allegedly stole mail. They also met victims face to face, convinced them that the two knew them and then allegedly stole thousands of dollars from seniors in Hennepin and Anoka counties, authorities say.
Donald Crispin didn’t seem vulnerable. He was 82, an ex-Marine who kept in good shape and had worked well into his 70s. He lived alone in Fridley, handling his own finances while talking to his four daughters daily. Nobody suspected he had dementia.
“My dad passed his pilot’s license test in his 70s,” said one of his daughters, Diane Restrepo, of Chanhassen. “After he retired as a carpenter, he ran a liquor store in northeast Minneapolis for 10 years. He paid his own bills, and on time. He was driving.
“This dementia happened suddenly.”
In 2009, Crispin met Miller and Lahara, who claimed they were brother and sister, according to court records. Within weeks, the records say, Crispin proposed to Lahara, who was 35 but told Crispin she was 62 and that her name was Mary Miller. Between Oct. 7 and Nov. 30, a total of $65,807.88 was withdrawn from Crispin’s bank account — allegedly at the request of Miller and Lahara — for two engagement rings, a 2008 Hummer and property that Crispin was told he would partly own, but never saw, authorities say.
Days later, Miller and Lahara vanished.
“My mother died 40 years ago of breast cancer,” said Mary Crispin, of Minneapolis, another of Crispin’s daughters. Lahara “told him that she, too, had breast cancer. She used my mother’s illness to get my father’s attention. How low can you get?”
It’s called a “sweetheart scam,” said Mary Twomey, co-director of the California-based National Center on Elder Abuse. Of the 5 million reported cases of exploitation against vulnerable adults nationally each year, sweetheart scams are among the most common, Twomey said. Nearly half of people 85 and older will have a form of dementia, she said. Many of them are single and lonely.
Miller, 39, of Coon Rapids, was arrested in this case in 2010 and, in January of this year, pleaded guilty in Anoka County court to aiding and abetting theft-by-swindle of a vulnerable adult, a felony. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, placed on 10 years’ probation and ordered to pay Crispin’s family $12,000 in restitution. That order for restitution came only after the Anoka County prosecutor, Debra Hilstrom, and Miller’s attorney agreed to make it part of his plea bargain.
“The family, at that point, did not have the legal right to request it,” said Hilstrom. But they can when Lahara goes to trial.
Hilstrom is a 12-year DFL legislator from Brooklyn Center who last week announced her candidacy for secretary of state.
In 2009, while a student at William Mitchell and before joining the Anoka County attorney’s office, she introduced the House bill that will allow the families of elder-abuse victims to seek restitution. The measure passed the Legislature late in the 2013 session.
Last month, Miller agreed to a plea deal in another case, this one in Hennepin County, in which he was ordered to pay an 83-year-old woman $4,100 in restitution. According to court records, he met the woman in Robbinsdale, told her he could repair her Toyota for $75, and then said he needed $3,700 to order parts to fully repair her vehicle. He cashed a $3,700 check and the woman never heard from him again.
Miller and Lahara also are being investigated in New Hope, authorities in Hennepin and Anoka counties say.
Lahara, 38, of River Falls, Wis., is charged with two felonies in the Crispin case. She is free on $15,000 bail. Her first court appearance is July 3. The family will ask that she pay restitution.
“We want to hold these people accountable,” said Restrepo. “We want to hang this over their heads, so they never victimize another senior, the way they did our dad.”