A judge and a prosecutor in two Minnesota counties have dismissed felony charges against a Burnsville woman who was accused of bilking her elderly mother as she succumbed to dementia, finding that the evidence against her failed to establish probable cause that any crimes had been committed.
A bitter family feud led to criminal charges against Catherine O'Connor, who was charged in Kandiyohi County in 2014 with stealing her mother's property from her brother's lake home in Spicer, Minn., and selling it on eBay. She also was charged in Carver County that year with exploiting her mother as a vulnerable adult, after a forensic audit raised serious questions about the transfer of her mother's Edina home to O'Connor, as well as $453,350 in gifts that O'Connor helped her mother make to family members between 2011 and 2013.
O'Connor could not be reached for comment. But her attorney, Wayne Jagow, said that while the criminal charges are now resolved, her reputation "has taken a beating" because of the initial coverage of the complaints in the Star Tribune.
"It has frankly been a nightmare for her this last year due to the actions of a couple of family members who were simply angry because they didn't get what they thought they were entitled to receive," Jagow wrote in an e-mail.
Jagow said it's the third case of its kind in the past four years that resulted in a dismissal of charges. Another client of his lost her job at Wells Fargo after an identical situation resulted in media reports.
"I am not sure what the answer is to prevent this happening to someone else who has a vindictive family," Jagow wrote.
The brouhaha involves some of the children of the late Patricia Putnam Heinrich, who was named Mrs. Minnesota in 1960 and went on to work for Dale Carnegie and Heinrich Envelope Co. in Minneapolis. She amassed an estate worth over a million dollars.
District Judge Jennifer K. Fischer dismissed the charges against O'Connor last month in the Kandiyohi County case, finding a dearth of evidence to support allegations that she had stolen anything from her mother. The charges were based on a complaint by her brother Jay O'Connor, who said that she had stolen the items from a lake home in Spicer that his mother had given to him.
Fischer noted that Catherine O'Connor, who goes by Khaki, admitted to selling certain items that had belonged to her late mother, but she said her mother had given her the items and produced "numerous photographs" showing that she had them in her own home long before her brother had accused her of stealing them.
"The photographs show china vases and other items on display in the [O'Connor's] home as many as 15-18 years ago," Fischer wrote, noting that O'Connor also had produced a letter from her mother, dated May 17, 2012, stating that she was giving her and a sister "complete sets of silverware, china, and crystal."
Prosecutors argued that the evidence depends on whether O'Connor or her brother was most credible. Fischer disagreed, writing that O'Connor's photographic evidence makes her brother's allegations "inherently improbable," and noting that the state had failed to produce any evidence to substantiate the charge against O'Connor.
Peter Ivy, chief deputy Carver County attorney, took notice of the ruling when on Tuesday he dismissed theft and financial exploitation charges against O'Connor. In a three-page memo explaining the dismissal, Ivy noted that the charges were based largely on findings of Dr. William B. Orr, a forensic psychiatrist who reviewed Heinrich's medical records after her death as part of a contested probate proceeding among O'Connor and some of her family members.
Two of Heinrich's lawyers who had been involved in her estate planning initially declined to speak with investigators, citing attorney-client privilege. But after O'Connor was charged, they came forward and said that Heinrich knew what she was doing when she executed a "transfer-on-death deed" giving her Edina home to O'Connor.
"If Patricia Heinrich remained legally competent to proceed, then she retained legal prerogative to distribute her property in any manner she wished," Ivy wrote.
Since the charges were filed, additional evidence was produced indicating that Heinrich was able to make rational decisions when she made her estate planning decisions and gave her power of attorney to O'Connor, Ivy said.
Ivy said this decision to dismiss the charges "in the interests of justice" was not made lightly.