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Someone to Watch Over Me

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Someone to Watch Over Me

In the days following New Year’s 2000, while most people were recuperating from their millennium hangovers, Dick Pland was dealing with a different type of headache. His 73-year-old brother, Jim, was being discharged from Oakland’s Summit Medical Center after surviving a near-fatal bout with pneumonia. Dick now needed to find a home for his ailing brother, a cantankerous alcoholic who drank himself to sleep and screamed racial epithets loud enough for the whole block to hear.

Shortly before his brother was due to leave the hospital, Dick met with Summit discharge planner Linda Tschappat, a registered nurse in charge of devising a post-hospitalization care plan for Jim. One of the most pivotal duties of discharge planners such as Tschappat is to find a nursing home or a board-and-care home for patients who continue to need supervision and care after they leave the hospital.

When the subject of a nursing home came up, Pland recalled that Tschappat showed him a booklet listing dozens of nearby nursing and residential-care homes. Dick recognized one of the facilities: McClure Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Oakland, where his 100-year-old mother, Louise, lived. As for the rest of the sites, Pland had no clue about them, since he lived in the Sierra Nevada hamlet of Jamestown, where he served on the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors.

So Pland asked the hospital’s discharge planner to recommend a home that fit the needs of his loner brother. “I thought because of my brother’s circumstances — he had some mental problems as well as physical — then it should be some small facility where there aren’t five hundred people stacked in, but a small, neighborhood-type facility,” Pland said. As he recalls, Summit’s Tschappat suggested there was a small place nearby, on Randwick Avenue in Oakland, which might suit his brother’s needs. It conveniently served only a handful of patients and was run by a young gentleman named Van Williams.

Dick Pland drove over to 42 Randwick Avenue to check out “Van’s Home.” There were no signs anywhere differentiating the Victorian structure from all the block’s other vintage houses. Williams greeted Pland at the door and showed him a room where his brother could stay for just $1,000 a month. The place looked clean, the furniture new. Williams demonstrated how the doors didn’t open without a key, so the elderly clients wouldn’t leave and wander the streets unsupervised. The caretaker also assured Pland that he would take Jim to his doctor appointments. Pland liked what he saw and arranged to have Williams take care of his brother. Pland’s impression was that Williams was a nice and respectful young man.

What Pland wasn’t told was that Exzadrian Van Williams was a career criminal on federal probation, with a history of ripping off the elderly. Nearly two years later, the 29-year-old con man faces twelve years in state prison for stealing approximately $1 million of assets from elderly people, including the Rockridge home belonging to Pland’s mother.

Not on trial, however, are Williams’ unindicted co-conspirators: the hospitals and social workers who funneled clients to a con man with a rap sheet going back to the age of ten. Summit Medical Center officials sent patients to Van’s Home even though they knew it was an illegal operation. Negligence of this kind is rendering impotent new California laws designed to protect the elderly from predators such as the man known as Van Williams. The people who pay for this dereliction are innocent and vulnerable senior citizens such as Louise Pland.

Unfortunately, it’s all too common.

On paper, the theft of Louise Pland’s home never should have happened. By the mid-’90s, state legislators were hearing horror stories about their elderly constituents being snookered by crooked telemarketers and health-care assistants. Lawmakers realized that abuse of the elderly was a probable growth industry. After all, Census officials predict that within 20 years California’s population of people 65 and older will double to 7.4 million. Meanwhile, the attorney general estimates that there are 225,000 cases of elder abuse in California each year. And a 1996 federal study suggests that for every case reported, five go unreported.

So in July 1998, the state started requiring people who take care of the elderly to submit fingerprints in order to conduct a criminal background search when they apply for certification. If the computer pulls up prior convictions for anything from theft to assault, licensing officials deny the application. Two years ago, state lawmakers even extended the fingerprinting requirements to janitors and other maintenance workers who have any contact with clients at nursing homes.

These safeguards were deemed necessary because elder-care providers hadn’t always bothered to ensure that they weren’t letting criminals oversee vulnerable clients. For instance, earlier this year the attorney general’s office dismantled a bogus nursing registry, Caring Nurses, after discovering that the service had placed uncertified caregivers in a dozen nursing homes in Sacramento, San Joaquin, Placer, and Nevada counties. Several of the fake nursing assistants had criminal records that should have prevented them from getting certified. Among their prior exploits: grand theft, assault with a deadly weapon, battery, burglary, vehicle theft, and drug dealing. Although state officials say nursing homes are responsible for making sure that hired caregivers are properly trained and certified, none of the twelve nursing homes using Caring Nurses bothered to verify that they were hiring licensed, noncriminal health workers.

The case revealed a major breakdown in California’s safeguards against elder abuse. Overly trusting care providers could render the state’s background checks meaningless.

In the case of Williams, one simple phone call by any of the institutions that sent him clients could have saved the Pland family the grief it is suffering today. Prosecutors say Williams reapplied for his nursing certificate after he was released on probation in June 1998 from a Colorado federal prison — a sentence stemming from an earlier conviction for credit card fraud and his ensuing escape from an Oakland halfway house. Despite his criminal background, Williams actually was an experienced nursing assistant. Following in the footsteps of his grandmother, Lillie, he became a certified nursing assistant in 1989 after completing 193 hours of study at Berkeley Adult School. Before being sent to federal prison, he worked for a variety of Bay Area health-care providers, including the Stat Nursing and Care Point nursing registries, and hospitals such as Gladman Psychiatric Health Facility in Oakland and St. Luke’s in San Francisco.

Regulators from the Department of Health Services refused to certify Williams because his fingerprints pulled up his previous state felony convictions for grand theft, forgery, and receiving stolen property. In spite of this setback, two weeks later Williams filed a fictitious business name statement with the county recorder establishing the moniker of his new residential-care facility, Van’s Home. According to Deputy District Attorney Laurinda Ochoa, Williams got the money to buy the property from a dying 89-year-old man named Lloyd Lafleur, who gave Williams power of attorney over his finances while incoherent shortly before his death in 1999.

It wasn’t the first time Williams had ripped off an old person during his extensive criminal career. At age 14, police busted him after he tried to cash a $2,000 check he had stolen from the mailbox of an elderly neighbor. And while working in 1990 at Care Point, Williams stole an elderly patient’s credit card and went on a $4,000 spending spree.

But despite his extensive criminal record and his facility’s lack of a state license, Williams met with remarkable success in obtaining client referrals from Summit and other facilities.

Williams’ technique for persuading social workers to refer him clients was hardly sophisticated. Karan Lenoir, a social worker at Westlake Christian Terrace, a 200-unit low-income senior housing complex in Oakland, remembers Williams stopping by her office with fliers announcing the opening of his new care facility. “He was really nice,” said Lenoir, who placed an 80-year-old terminal cancer patient with Williams in December 1999. Lenoir thought she might have met Williams at Oakland’s Center for Elder Independence, but she couldn’t be sure. A human resources representative at the center said she could find no record of Williams ever working there.

Lenoir said she had no idea that Van’s Home didn’t have the state license necessary to operate as residential-care facility. In fact, she conceded, she has practically never verified whether any of the places she has made referrals to were licensed. She was satisfied that Westlake representatives had inspected Van’s Home and found it to be a nice, clean place. “I assumed if they’ve got a building, they’ve got a license,” she said.

A discharge planner at Alameda Hospital also once placed Leslie Lark, a homeless man suffering from severe respiratory problems, at Van’s Home shortly after it opened. Exactly how the planner found out about Van’s Home is unclear, said Janet Dike, Alameda Hospital’s director of quality assurance. According to Dike, the planner made multiple calls trying to find a place that would take Lark and somehow came across Williams’ name.

Asked if the hospital knew it was referring Lark to an unlicensed care facility operated by someone who’d had his nursing certificate denied, Dike said hospital employees don’t investigate such things when making referrals. She said it is up to patients or their families to perform their own due diligence on the care facilities recommended by hospital discharge planners. For instance, Lark was visited by Williams twice before making his own decision to be placed in Van’s Home.

But Collin Wong, director of the attorney general’s bureau of Medi-Cal fraud and elder abuse, said health-care providers have a responsibility to check out the legality of the facilities they’re recommending. Wong said consumers naturally assume that any facility suggested by a hospital representative is in full compliance with state laws and regulations. “When a health-care provider is making a referral,” Wong said, “they are at the very least tacitly endorsing that the facility is legitimate.”

While Lenoir and Dike can at least claim ignorance of Williams’ licensing status, officials at Van’s best client — Summit Medical Center — clearly knew they were dealing with an illegal, unlicensed facility. Exactly how many patients Summit sent Williams’ way is not clear, but Jim Pland wasn’t the only person who made the trip from the Oakland hospital to Van’s Home. Deputy District Attorney Ochoa, an elder-abuse specialist, said Summit’s Tschappat told her the hospital had been “actively referring clients” to Van’s Home. Ochoa said Tschappat had nothing but good things to say about Williams, to whom she referred Jim Pland. Williams evidently felt good about the relationship too; he listed Tschappat as a defense witness in his recent trial. Tschappat refused to comment for this story.

Williams’ attorney Alastair McCloskey said his client established a business relationship with Summit and other institutions simply by introducing himself to staffers. “I don’t think he had any inside connections there at all,” McCloskey said.

Summit Medical Center spokeswoman Carolyn Kemp said administrators still are determining how many other patients besides Jim Pland were referred to Van’s Home. Kemp acknowledges that discharge planners, case managers, and social workers knew Van’s Home was an unlicensed board-and-care home. Social workers who paid surprise visits to Van’s Home found his clients well cared for, clean, and content, she said. Nobody living there had any major complaints.

Kemp said the sad reality is that many people simply can’t afford to stay at a licensed nursing home or residential-care facility. In Jim Pland’s case, his only income was a $530 Social Security check. “It has to do with economics,” Kemp explained. “Some of us don’t have resources others do, and that’s a tragedy.”

Wong of the attorney general’s office is appalled by Summit’s justification for knowingly sending patients to an unlicensed care operation. “It’s asinine to suggest it’s somehow proper to send someone to an illegal provider of health care,” he said.

It’s also illegal. The state health and safety code prohibits care-placement agencies and their employees — including hospitals and their discharge planners — from referring people to facilities not licensed by the state. Employees who knowingly or reasonably suspect that a care facility is operating without a license are required to report the facility to state regulators. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor.

Kemp noted that Summit’s discharge planner did warn Dick Pland that Van’s Home was unlicensed. Pland confirmed this, but added that Tschappat also assured him that Williams was “in the process of getting that license, which to me didn’t make a lot of difference because I didn’t know what the process was.” Since being questioned by local prosecutors in the Williams case, however, Summit has enacted a policy prohibiting its discharge planners from referring patients to unlicensed care facilities such as Van’s Home.

Williams’ facility wasn’t just unlicensed. Police reports and other public records show that the underground care facility had other serious problems, in spite of the praise heaped upon it by Summit officials. Within a couple of months of the facility’s opening, Oakland police came by to investigate the “unexplained death” of 80-year-old cancer patient Robert Louis Allen. The former shoe salesman had been placed at Van’s Home by Lenoir of Westlake Christian Terrace.

According to the December 19, 1999 police report, an employee claiming to be a nurse told police “at approx 0030 Hrs Allen was given his medication and when she checked on him again at 0222 Hrs he was DOA.” Despite listing the death as “s/c” (police shorthand for suspicious circumstances), Oakland police didn’t send the body to the coroner for an autopsy after speaking to Allen’s doctor.

Nor did the police check to see if Van’s Home was a legal operation, or whether the facility was qualified to handle someone as sick as Allen. State law only permits residential-care facilities for the elderly — the kind of facility Van’s Home posed as — to accept “ambulatory patients,” defined as someone who can leave unassisted in an emergency. Robert Allen did not meet that criterion. The law also prohibits staffers at such facilities from giving injections, a common method for administering morphine, one of more than ten medications Allen took.

Five months after Allen’s death, Dr. Gabriela Kramer of Berkeley filed a complaint with Oakland police and the state’s Community Care Licensing Division, which monitors California’s 6,100 residential-care facilities. She did so after a client of hers who had lived at Van’s Home claimed to have seen drug deals and prostitution going on there. She also reported it as an unlicensed facility.

State licensing investigator Mike Gonzales visited the house on Randwick Avenue on June 23, 2000 and bumped into Jim Pland, who happened to be walking around the front yard. Pland groused to Gonzales that he had an eye infection but that no one would take him to the eye doctor. Pland also identified himself as a diabetic and said that either Williams or an associate gave him his medicine, which was kept in a centrally stored location. He said that Williams fed him and the home’s other two elderly clients fast food from McDonald’s for breakfast and dinner. Van didn’t serve them lunch.

Gonzales concluded that Van’s Home was an illegal, unlicensed residential-care facility. On July 6, 2000, his supervisor, Stan Roman, sent Williams a “notice of operation in violation of law.” The letter warned: “Continued operation without a license may also result in civil and/or criminal action being taken against you.” The certified letter came back to Roman unclaimed.

Later that month, three elderly residents of Van’s Home including Pland called Oakland police to file a missing person report. Such reports are not uncommon at elder-care facilities since seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s often wander off the premises. But in this case, the missing person was not an elderly client, but Exzadrian Van Williams himself, the ostensible caretaker.

According to the police report, Williams had been missing for a day and a half. Pland told the police that when Williams split, he said he’d be back in two hours. Oakland police dropped the matter when Williams returned to the house shortly before midnight.

A few weeks later, community-care licensing investigators received an anonymous complaint that Williams still was running the facility. This time, when state investigators went to Van’s Home, they made contact with Williams himself. Williams maintained that his elderly residents were independent tenants and that his operation was thus legitimate. But state investigators, who had previously confirmed that residents were receiving supervised care, didn’t buy his argument. They told Williams he had to apply for an operating license or close the home and relocate his elderly tenants.

Given his extensive criminal record, Williams knew he couldn’t get licensed. So he announced to his clients that he was selling the house and shutting down. He didn’t say anything about the ultimatum from state inspectors.

With the sudden closure of Van’s Home, Dick Pland found himself in a bind. He knew his brother still needed to be cared for, but he didn’t know where to send him. Dick had been pleased with how Van had taken care of his older brother. For the first time since Dick could remember, Jim wasn’t drinking or smoking. “My brother was a heavy, heavy smoker and drinker, screwed up mentally and physically,” Pland said. “He really got mellowed out, thanks to Van.”

So Pland worked out a new deal with Williams. Jim would return to his mother’s home on Florio Street in Oakland’s desirable Rockridge neighborhood. Meanwhile, Dick would pay Williams $700 a month to check up on Jim a couple of days a week. Next-door neighbor David Del Simone remembers when Jim moved back into the Florio Street house, Williams came over and introduced himself. “Hi, neighbor,” Del Simone recalled Williams saying. “You’ll be seeing a lot of me. I’ll be taking care of Jim.”

“He seemed like a very pleasant guy,” Del Simone recalled, adding that in retrospect maybe he seemed “too nice.”

Over the next few months, Del Simone never saw Jim leave the house. The only sign of life from the Pland home was the flickering of the television in Jim’s room. Then on February 26, the TV stopped flickering. Jim Pland suffered a fatal heart attack.

Within a few months, the Plands would realize they had lost not only a son and brother, but also their Rockridge home. On May 17, three months after Pland died, his brother received a phone call from an Oakland mortgage broker. The broker said he’d been contacted by a man named Van Williams who wanted to borrow $350,000 against the Plands’ Rockridge house. Williams told the broker that the previous owner, 100-year-old Louise Pland, had given him the house as a gift.

Dick nearly dropped the phone receiver. “That came as a big surprise to me,” he said.

The next day, Pland drove to his mother’s house to check things out for himself. His key to the front door still worked. Inside, he discovered a bag full of mail — addressed to Williams at the Florio Street address, where he had apparently taken up residence. Prosecutors suspect that at some point while taking care of Jim, Williams decided to use his relationship with the son to victimize the man’s wealthier and more elderly mother.

Louise Pland’s house on Florio Street stood as a monument to her hard work and perseverance. Her husband had died in 1953, leaving her with a pile of unpaid bills. So Louise took business courses and brushed up on her secretarial skills, which she hadn’t used for more than two decades. She got a job as a secretary for the county’s social services division and eventually saved enough money to buy the Florio Street house. Her neighbors often saw Louise mowing the lawn well into her nineties. She hated having to live in a nursing home.

Pland and DA investigators soon would learn that Williams had forged Louise Pland’s signature on a deed that handed her home over to him. The deed also contained a forged notary seal. Within weeks of receiving the property, Williams “flipped” it, turning around and selling it to an Oakland real estate investor with plenty of cash on hand and no need to obtain a time-consuming bank loan. The price was only $350,000, barely half the property’s market value.

Investigators now needed to talk to Louise Pland — to ask her if she had really given away her home to a man she barely knew.

On May 21, elder-abuse investigator Kathleen Boyovich traveled to McClure Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Oakland to conduct a videotaped interview with 100-year-old Louise Pland. Boyovich was one of the original investigators assigned to the elder-abuse unit when District Attorney Tom Orloff first launched it in 1999. She knew that eliciting lucid responses from Pland was going to be a challenge. Pland suffered from bouts of dementia and short-term memory lapses. She also could barely see or hear.

During the interview, Pland gripped a monstrous magnifying glass in her right hand to inspect any documents shown to her, and she appeared generally bewildered. At one point, according to Boyovich’s report, the elderly woman refused to answer questions and blurted, “Go ahead and arrest me.” Nor could she remember what year it was, although she did recall the birth dates of her two sons and her own Social Security number. “Did you give away your house to anyone?” Boyovich asked gently, though loud enough for Pland to hear.

“What do you mean?” Pland said, her voice crackling.

Boyovich repeated her question.

Pland grimaced at Boyovich and said, with a hint of indignation, “You know darn well I wouldn’t give away my house that I slaved over for so many years. … Why should I give it to anybody?”

Boyovich persisted: “Did you give it to Van Williams as a gift?”

Pland struggled to recall the name Van Williams. Then it came to her. “He was going to take me home,” she said.

“I think he was very sincere,” she later mused aloud. “I didn’t think he was a crook. … He was trying to help me. That’s what I thought.”

Even before Williams stole Louise Pland’s house, local authorities were investigating him in another case from a year earlier. Oakland police considered Williams their top suspect in the fleecing of Lugertie Whittaker, a 79-year-old woman suffering from dementia. Whittaker had not been a resident at Van’s Home; Williams met her through a friend of his who had been taking care of her. The police had found a May 2, 2000 letter to Jackson National Life Insurance with Whittaker’s forged signature demanding the surrender of two annuities worth more than $217,000. Williams then opened what amounted to a personal slush fund with the life insurance. Prosecutors say he established a joint investment account in both his and Whittaker’s names and then he wrote himself four checks — including one for $18,000.

The district attorney’s office wanted to stop Williams before he could strike again. But by mid-June police had yet to arrest him. Then the authorities got a break. On June 14, 2001 David Del Simone got a call at his law office from another Florio Street resident. The neighbor told Del Simone that people were moving furniture out of Louise Pland’s house. Del Simone immediately left urgent messages with Dick Pland and the DA’s office. Afterward, he spent a while thinking about what he should do next.

“Then it dawned on me,” he recalled. “Maybe I should call over to Louise’s house and see if anyone answers.”

To his surprise, Louise’s old number still worked. A man answered the phone. It was Williams.

“What are you doing in the house?” Del Simone asked.

“I own the house,” Williams replied calmly.

At that moment, Boyovich from the DA’s office returned Del Simone’s call. The attorney told Boyovich he had Williams on the other line and that the crook was over at the Florio house moving furniture. “Keep him there,” Boyovich advised. “And don’t tell him we’re criminally investigating him. We’ll send Oakland police out there.” Del Simone got back on the line with Williams and stalled.

When police arrived to investigate what the dispatcher described as a possible burglary in progress, they saw Williams and a few of his friends loading furniture into a gold Ford F150. According to the police report, Williams explained to the police he now owned the house and was moving some furniture into storage. Williams also claimed he had all the necessary legal documents to prove he was the owner of the house. That was enough to satisfy the responding officer, who simply wrote down Williams’ personal information and drove away without making an arrest. “This incident appeared to be civil in nature,” the officer concluded in his report.

It wouldn’t be the first time a police officer concluded that an elder-abuse case was “civil in nature.” Despite the attention heaped on the subject in recent years, elder abuse — which includes both financial and physical abuse under the law — still is a new concept in law enforcement. It’s only been three years since the state changed the penal code to specifically address elder abuse. Police officers must now take a course to be educated on the topic. Nonetheless, officers don’t always recognize elder abuse as a crime, said Reggie Henderson, the county’s director of adult protective services. “If you talk to your average beat cop,” Henderson said, “they know what child abuse is, but they don’t know what elder abuse is.”

When Del Simone heard that the police had left without making an arrest, he called Boyovich immediately and told her what happened. “Oh shit,” she groaned.

But the setback was a brief one. After Boyovich told police the DA wanted Williams for elder abuse, officers rolled over to Bridge Storage in Oakland and arrested him as he was unloading the items he had taken from the Pland home.

After being taken into custody, Williams initially insisted upon his innocence and blamed the charges against him on racism. He was, after all, a young black man who mostly took care of elderly white people. He also insisted that Louise Pland gave him her Rockridge home because he was the only other person aside from her who cared about her troubled son, Jim. “I was the only person he had in life that, besides her, cared so much about him,” Williams explained during interrogation at Santa Rita Jail. “That was her main issue. That’s why she grew to like me so much. Nobody else liked him. He was an alcoholic for several years.”

Williams claimed he and Louise also developed a bond because he sympathized with her desire to get out of the nursing home her other son had placed her in. Williams even suggested that Pland’s son, Dick, may have ripped her off — or worse. “My own personal opinion, I felt like he’s the one that killed his brother because the last time I saw Mr. Pland, Mr. Pland looked totally fine to me,” Williams volunteered. “He was alert, et cetera.”

Dick Pland has his own suspicions. In retrospect, Pland said Williams acted fishy on the night he found his brother’s body. Pland said Williams called him in a panic at 9 p.m. saying he was worried that something had happened to Jim. Williams said he’d been pounding on the door but Jim didn’t answer even though the TV was still on. When Pland asked him why he didn’t use his key, Williams said he had locked it inside the house days earlier. Pland instructed Williams to ask the next-door neighbor to borrow his copy of the key. Shortly thereafter, they discovered Jim dead. Pland said he now wished an autopsy had been performed, but at the time he had no reason to be suspicious of Williams. “I’m not saying he killed him,” Pland hedged. “I’m just saying it’s weird.”

Weirder still, Williams had drafted a will in his own handwriting for Jim Pland to sign, although Pland never did so. The bogus will began: “I James Anthony Pland Jr. … leave all my personal property assets of mines that may be inherited from my mother’s estate: Louise Pland (aka: Louise Funkler) … to Exzadrian Van Williams.”

Although the DA’s investigator wasn’t particularly interested in Williams’ theories on how Jim Pland died, she was quite curious about why elderly people always seemed to give Williams money. “I’m a caring person,” Williams said. “I’m compassionate. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know why people like me. It’s not my fault. If I had a family and they didn’t give a shit about me and somebody else came along and took care of me, fine — I’d give ’em everything I had.”

Last month, in mid-trial, Williams pleaded guilty to stealing the home of Louise Pland and fleecing Lugertie Whittaker, and agreed to make restitution in the case of the late Lloyd Lafleur. As part of a plea bargain, Williams has agreed to a twelve-year prison sentence and to pay restitution to the victims. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Julie Conger will formally sentence Williams later this month.

But the legal saga for the Plands isn’t yet over. Louise Pland’s house is currently deeded to Cora Rogers, the Oakland investor who bought the property from Williams in June. In the simplest-case scenario, Rogers could simply return the property to Louise Pland. But, so far, Rogers has resisted doing so. Her attorney, Robert Lane, described Rogers as another victim in this case who “wants to be made whole.” The title company already has reimbursed Rogers and her lender the full $350,000 she paid for the house. However, Lane said Rogers incurred other, unspecified costs that the title company will not cover.

Richard Alexander, an attorney representing Dick Pland in his role as his mother’s conservator, is hoping Judge Conger will convince Rogers and her attorney to voluntarily return the Florio house to the Plands. If Rogers doesn’t, Alexander expects to file a lawsuit on the Plands’ behalf to get the property back. That could take as long as a year and cost the Plands up to $30,000 in attorney’s fees.