PEMAQUID, Maine — He left her with 37 cents.
Gwendolyn Swank worked her entire life and when her savings account reached a certain amount, she invested in IRAs, mutual funds and the stock market. By the time she reached her 70s, she had more than $300,000 in assets plus a monthly Social Security check to cover living expenses.
She thought she was set for life. Then in 2004, Rodney Chapman came into her life.
Chapman was a longtime neighbor who for the next six years became Swank’s best friend and worst enemy at the same time. By the time Chapman was arrested at her modest mobile home in Pemaquid in 2011 and charged with theft, Swank’s retirement nest egg was gone — all except for 37 cents.
“I had a pretty good portfolio that I thought would take care of me in my old age. It’s gone,” said Swank, who is now 85 years old. “I never, ever thought he’d take me for the ride he did.”
On June 12, Swank was awarded a $1.3 million civil judgment against Chapman in Lincoln County Superior Court. Chapman is serving a five-year sentence for his crimes against Swank, and according to Denis Culley, an attorney for Maine Legal Services for the Elderly who represented Swank in the civil lawsuit, he has little or no ability to pay.
Swank, who spent most of her life working as a financial bookkeeper, is in financial ruins. She is behind on payments to credit card companies for expenses accrued on behalf of Chapman, and owes her landlord and Central Maine Power Co. thousands of dollars. She owes $60,000 in state and federal taxes for money she withdrew from stocks and IRAs and gave to Chapman. At an age when most of her peers are relaxing in retirement, Swank worked for the first part of this year as a bookkeeper for a local business in hopes of paying down some of her debts.
Lincoln County tied with Piscataquis County in the 2010 Census for having the oldest median age in Maine — 48.1 years. Maine has the oldest median age in the country. That means cases of elder abuse are as prevalent in midcoast Maine as they are anywhere in the country, but according to Lincoln County District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau, the abuse inflicted on Swank falls in the minority of cases where the abuser is not a family member of the victim.
“Usually, it’s a family member who says they need money for some purpose, but then never pay it back,” said Rushlau. “In many of those cases, it’s not clear that they’ve coerced their older family members to get the money. It’s more of an outgrowth of the relationship between them.”
But the case against Chapman was much different. In addition to bilking her of her money, Chapman told a vast web of lies that kept Swank isolated in her home, terrified of the dangers that he had assured her lurked literally right outside her door.
In 2004, Swank was manager of the mobile home park where she and Chapman’s family lived across the street from each other. When Chapman began to fall behind on the rent, Swank let him mow lawns and serve as a handyman to cover some of his debts. Over a course of years, Chapman took advantage of his neighbor’s kindness — and eventually, her deepest fears — culminating in one of the more disturbing victimizations of an elder person that Culley said he has ever seen.
Chapman’s manipulation of Swank grew from something small into something much, much larger. First, he convinced her to buy into an auto repair and recovery business where Swank was to be the bookkeeper. Though she paid for everything from a welder and tools to an expensive trailer to haul cars with, Swank never saw a dime of return on her investment. In fact, now she’s not even sure the business ever existed.
Then Chapman learned that Swank was scared about illegal drug activity in her area, which may have stemmed from a nearby drug bust in 1999. From that kernel of truth, Chapman spun a web of lies that stretched through several years. He told her that he had connections with a judge and a law enforcement agency called the Texas Rangers, who could help eradicate the drug problem. The catch was that he told her the Rangers needed money for transportation, lodging and even to dispose of the bodies of drug dealers.
Swank now knows how implausible the story sounds, but said it seemed all too real when she was going through it. She received phone calls from people who said they were judges or policemen, and Chapman even went as far as pounding on the outside of her trailer at night and staging fights outside. He wouldn’t let her use her own phone — in fact he unplugged it and carried it with him — and restricted visitors and the use of her car. It was all, he said, for her own safety.
“He told me, ‘if you hear anything go back to your bedroom immediately and stay there until I tell you it’s OK,’” said Swank. “I was a basketcase … but eventually I thought ‘gosh darn it, I’m not going to let him win.’”
Lincoln County Detective Robert McFetridge, who specializes in elder abuse cases, said he had received a couple of calls from people who were concerned about the situation, including one from a business where Swank’s checks were starting to bounce. At first Swank was not ready to make a formal statement, but McFetridge credits Lincoln County Deputy Brian Collamore for maintaining contact with her until last year when she was ready to talk. Swank said that day came when she had given Chapman a deadline to return some of her money so she could pay off bills that were long past due.
“The money never came through and that’s when I made my statement and the sheriff’s department came,” said Swank.
McFetridge, who investigated the case, said Chapman’s victimization of Swank was just as serious as if he had physically assaulted her.
“In my opinion, it’s just as serious as if he had beaten her within an inch of her life,” said McFetridge. “When she finally came up and talked with me, she was basically beaten, defeated and at the end of her rope, but she was still trying to cling to the hope that some of what Rodney Chapman had told her was true. By the time we intervened, she was down to living on peanut butter and rice cakes. She was really a prisoner in her own home.”
McFetridge said Chapman admitted to his crimes — though McFetridge said he suspects there were others involved in the hoax — and eventually pleaded guilty to theft by deception. He was sentenced to five years in prison with all but three years suspended.
Jaye Martin is the executive director for Maine Legal Services for the Elderly, which provides free legal representation for senior citizens. She said part of the insidious nature of crimes like this is that perpetrators prey on their victims’ fears in order to create an emotional dependency which clouds their judgment and makes them do things they would not otherwise do. Then when a victim realizes he or she is being swindled, they are reluctant to go to authorities, mostly out of shame.
“There’s a lot of fear that you’re going to lose the help that you need if you blow the whistle,” said Martin. “In this case, someone first established trust and then complete dominance.”
McFetridge agreed. In fact, he recently investigated another case in which a group of people took advantage of a California woman for about $700,000, eventually moving her across the country to Edgecomb where they left her alone in a remote cabin with no contact with the outside world. Nicholas and Barbara Davis, 41, and Jonathan Stevens, 21, were arrested last summer after the 85-year-old woman was found alone in the cabin. The Davises pleaded no contest to a felony charge of intentionally endangering the welfare of a dependent and were sentenced to three years in prison, all suspended, according to press reports in the case that captured national attention.
“In both of these cases, pretty much the way it happened was as if someone took a manual and said this is how you steal money from an elderly person,” said McFetridge. “A, befriend them. B, slowly start making them dependent on you. C, isolate them from other people. D, take everything they own.”
Martin said her organization has seen an uptick in crimes against the elderly, which she attributes to Maine’s aging population and the economic recession. In the past year, the organization has handled 162 cases of elder abuse and exploitation. That’s an approximately 29 percent increase over the number of cases that were handled as recently as 2009. But it’s not a problem that is specific to Maine. The federal Administration on Aging estimates that at least 10 percent of older americans, or about 5 million, experience abuse or exploitation each year, though fewer than 1 in 14 cases are ever reported.
In his judgment on Swank’s behalf, Maine Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm awarded about $874,000 in compensatory damages plus $500,000 in punitive damages.
Culley said there is little hope that Swank will ever receive payments anything close to the judgment amount, but that it’s important so Swank will not be penalized for liquidating assets in the event that she ever needs MaineCare benefits to enter a nursing home or other assisted living situation.
Swank said though she remains financially strapped, she is recovering emotionally from the ordeal with the help of counseling.
“It’s very embarrassing when you have to ask for something when you’ve always been so independent and able to function,” she said. “I feel a freedom now that I can put a couple of bucks in the collection plate at church. For many years, I couldn’t even do that because I needed the money for groceries.”