Daniel L. Rutherford was 49, an unemployed heroin addict living at a trailer court in Pickaway County. He had worked as a state prison guard for about a decade until he was fired in 2003. He told his mother he had stopped using heroin and wanted to find a job.
He helped out around the house in rural Fairfield County, and she generally gave him $100 a week. Then he wanted more, and she gave him more. Then he began taking his mother's money on his own, forging checks and using her debit card without her knowledge.
Daniel Rutherford stole an estimated $55,000 from his mother, authorities said when they arrested him in August.
The amount could not be proved, however, and had the case gone to trial, said Assistant Fairfield County Prosecutor Gregg Marx, Daniel Rutherford was prepared to argue that his mother wrote him checks willingly.
He took a plea deal in Common Pleas Court on Tuesday. He pleaded guilty to theft from an elderly person, a fourth-degree felony, and admitted stealing $1,290 from his mother. Daniel Rutherford was sentenced to seven months in prison.Sitting at home, Millie Rutherford cried as she shared her feelings.
"I had to do it; I had to take him in. I just didn't know how to say no to him," she said.
"I feel like I've been pretty stupid."
She does not stand alone.
Financial exploitation is a form of elder abuse that is thought to be increasing as the U.S. population ages.
Family members, friends and caregivers are the thieves in 55 percent of the financial-abuse cases against the elderly, according to a report issued last year by the MetLife Mature Market Institute, the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, and the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech.
An estimated 1 million older Americans lose more than $2.6 billion annually to all forms of financial fraud, the report found. For each case reported, an estimated four to five are not.
The federally funded National Elder Mistreatment Study released last year estimated that 1 in 20 adults older than 60 had been financially mistreated by family members or by others they trusted. Most prevalent was spending money without permission.
Researchers interviewed 5,777 older adults by phone and wrote that the study's estimates are based on self-reporting of mistreatment, which is "notoriously underreported" by older Americans.
Elderly victims are embarrassed to have been swindled and worry that family members will think they are incompetent and need to be put in a nursing home, investigators and adult-protection workers say.
Sometimes victims are incompetent because they have Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia and cannot testify in court.
Pinning down elder fraud also is difficult because there is no national repository, and each state collects data differently, said Sharon Merriman-Nai of the National Center on Elder Abuse, based in Newark, Delaware.
Predators such as Deborah G. Johnson and Anita L. Esquibel, who obtained power of attorney for 94-year-old Peter W. Svaldi and then stole more than $850,000 of his savings, commonly groom their victims and isolate them from family members before moving in for the crime.
Misused power of attorney is a license to steal, say police and prosecutors in Columbus who worked the Svaldi case. They said it was the worst elder fraud they had encountered.
Home-health aides, financial planners and others in positions of trust also swindle the elderly. Visiting nurse's aide Cindy L. Flagg of Lancaster was sentenced in Fairfield County to three years on probation and ordered to pay restitution this year in such a case. She admitted that she stole several thousand dollars from an Alzheimer's patient she cared for, along with his wife, in Pickerington.
Last year, a federal judge in Columbus sentenced financial adviser Julie M. Jarvis, of the Far North Side, to 5 1/2 years in prison after she admitted stealing nearly $2.7million from two elderly clients.
Strangers prey on older people as well, using mail and telemarketing scams. Traveling bands of con artists offer driveway paving or tree-trimming at reasonable rates and then demand more money, draining hundreds of millions of dollars in all from older Americans annually.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien does not track the number of such cases his office prosecutes each year. "Anecdotally, it appears to me that there's been an increase in targeting of and crimes against elderly victims," he said.
Ohio increased the penalties for theft against people 65 or older and disabled adults in 1999.
The theft committed by Johnson and Esquibel, for example, would normally be a second-degree felony, punishable by two to eight years in prison. Because an elderly person was the victim, the crime was elevated to a first-degree felony, punishable by three to 10 years in prison.
Virtually every jurisdiction nationwide has "bump-up provisions" for various crimes against the elderly and disabled because those groups are deemed more vulnerable, said Ric Simmons, a criminal-law professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. And even if there is no correlation between enhanced penalties and deterrence, he said, such laws are politically popular.
"I tend to be retributive," said Simmons, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan. "Morally, that's a worse crime. I have absolutely no problem making it a worse punishment."
David Kessler doesn't need a study to know the trends. The investigator for Fairfield County Adult Protective Services said most of his cases involve elderly people who have been victimized by their families.
"It is going through the roof," he said.
Family caregivers rationalize their behavior by thinking, "Look at all I do; I'm entitled."
"Because of the economy, it's even more on the increase," Kessler said. "Before losing your house, the last resort is grandma or grandpa."
Also, he said, many who prey on an elderly family member are addicted to drugs or gambling or another vice so powerful that they are driven to steal.
"The No. 1 excuse I hear from the predator is, 'They wanted me to have it' or 'They gave it to me.' But that was based on lies, deception and undue influence."
Millie Rutherford was deceived and pressured by her son into writing him check after check, ostensibly for medical bills at the Veterans Administration hospital in Chillicothe and for car repairs, said Kessler, who was frustrated that he and the prosecutor could not prove the extent of the fraud.
"It breaks our heart to not be able to prove he stole all of it," Kessler said.
In a Licking County courtroom in September, Samantha L. Crawford held out her wrists so a deputy sheriff could fasten the handcuffs.
She had just been sentenced to four years in prison for aggravated theft, a third-degree felony, and aggravated theft from a disabled adult, a second-degree felony. The victim was her mother, 62-year-old Crystal A. Crawford, who has Parkinson's disease.
Behind her mother's back, Samantha Crawford transferred the deed to her mother's house in Newark into her name. She acted while she had temporary power of attorney for her mother, who was in a nursing home at the time recovering from surgery.
Samantha Crawford said she took the house, where she and her boyfriend had been living with her three children, because she was afraid her mother was going to kick her out.
At sentencing, Common Pleas Judge Thomas Marcelain ignored her plea for mercy, noting that this was her second conviction for stealing from her mother. She had received probation in 2006 for theft and forgery convictions related to taking money from her mother's checking account.
At Crystal Crawford's house, which is now back in her name, she reflected on what happened.
Her 36-year-old daughter has used drugs since high school, most recently crack cocaine and methamphetamine, she said. She tried to help by giving her daughter a place to live and money to pay bills.
"Samantha seems to think that anything bad that has happened was someone else's fault," her mother said. "I suppose that's my fault to a certain extent. I always stepped in and tried to help her."
She reported the deed transfer to Newark police when she learned of it last year, and that led to the prosecution and imprisonment of her daughter.
"It's called tough love," she said, "and it gets mighty tough at times."