Investigation into alleged La Jolla elder abuse continues
Editor’s Note: Though the alleged perpetrator has been named in some other news reports, La Jolla Light is refraining from using her name unless charges are filed against her.
By Pat Sherman
San Diego Police are continuing to investigate an incidence of alleged elder abuse and extreme animal neglect in La Jolla that surfaced March 7 when the victim’s family contacted local media.
A 58-year-old woman is accused of abusing Robert Stella, a 90-year-old war veteran and retired state department employee she was living with in his home in the 6600 block of Avenida de las Pescas.
Stella’s granddaughter, Emily Criscuolo, said that when the family had Stella removed from his home in February and transferred to a local senior care facility, he was disoriented, malnourished and dehydrated with severe bedsores. They allege the woman routinely tied him to his bed and locked him in his room without food or water.
Stella’s home and yard were piled with trash and hoarded items, and overrun with dogs and cats later removed by animal control officers.
SDPD Media Relations Lt. Kevin Mayer said police are investigating charges of financial abuse and neglect (a form of elder abuse, Mayer confirmed), in addition to animal neglect.
“The suspect is the caregiver and alleged wife of the victim,” Mayer responded, via e-mail. “These cases can be very complicated and take time to investigate. No arrest has been made at this time. The investigation is continuing.”
Dan DeSousa, a lieutenant with the San Diego County Department of Animal Services, said that on March 2, Stella’s caretakers — including an Arkansas man renting space in the home from the alleged abuser — relinquished five cats and four dogs to animal services, which were in fair condition, with minor medical skin conditions.
Stella’s family contacted animal services again on March 7 to alert them to the conditions in the home, at which time they returned and seized another five cats and four dogs (including a Jack Russell Terrier, Pomeranian, Chihuahua and Manchester Terrier). At that time, animal control discovered and removed a cat from the bathroom that had been dead for days.
DeSousa said charges filed by animal services will likely be animal neglect, a misdemeanor which carries a sentence of a “slap on the wrist” fine to six months in jail. “Animal abuse is deliberate,” and harder to prove, DeSousa said. “It’s entirely up to the courts what they believe is an appropriate sentence.”
Criscuolo said her grandfather met his alleged abuser in 2001, in an alley behind Stella Maris Academy (operated by Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church), at a time when he was still overcoming the loss of his wife, Maria, who died from breast cancer.
The family says his new suitor moved into the home in 2006, around the same time they allege she took out a $350,000 loan against the house.
Though the family says they believed the woman to be his girlfriend-companion and caretaker, their attorney recently learned of a confidential marriage certificate filed in San Diego County in 2008.
Son-in-law, William Redfield (husband of Stella’s daughter, Michelle), told the Light Stella insists the signature on the marriage certificate is not his, and doesn’t appear to be his, though added, “We’re operating right now as if that is legitimate, just because the only thing we can really do now is to go ahead and get a divorce for him.”
Stella’s family is attempting to have his alleged abuser removed from the home, though the action could be complicated by the marriage.
Weeks prior to the allegations surfacing, the Light received three pages of unsolicited, type-written answers allegedly from Stella to its weekly “10 Questions” column, in which notable La Jollans answer questions about their lives here.
The family confirmed that a telephone number for Stella handwritten at the top of the typed document is that of his alleged abuser. Phone messages left at the number by the Light — which had a woman’s voice on the greeting — were not returned.
A response to the question, “If you hosted a dinner party for eight, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?” beings with “Of course, my beautiful, vivacious and charming wife Victoria.”
UC San Diego physics professor emeritus John Asmus is also mentioned in the document, as one of several men Stella met with “for decades” at Harry’s Coffee Shop on Girard Avenue to discuss politics, travel and current events.
Asmus, who met Stella in 1964 when they were both employed at General Atomics, met his alleged abuser shortly after she and Stella became acquainted. Asmus said he found the abuse allegations “shocking,” though not entirely inconsistent with a recent decline in his friend’s health and living conditions.
“It’s hard to understand that could
happen or that the allegations are true,” said Asmus, though adding, “I don’t see how he was physically capable of hoarding of all the stuff and all the animals that were reported.”
Asmus said the first time he met Stella’s female companion, she operated a cable access TV show on Time Warner called “Victoria’s Secret Library,” in which she would invite guests to take part in panel discussions on books and other subjects.
Asmus would appear when the topic had to do with physics, science or art restoration — his areas of expertise.
“He (Stella) was really down in the dumps with the demise of his wife,” Asmus recalled. “We thought his involvement in the TV programs was really a godsend for him — it gave him a new lease on life.”
La Jolla real estate broker and mediator Joe Klatt twice appeared on “Victoria’s Secret Library” in 2003 and 2004, once on a panel demonstrating dispute resolution techniques.
“She seemed like a very bright, very intelligent, very sincere woman,” Klatt said. “She was well respected, very professional.”
However, Criscuolo claims that smoothness is what allowed the woman to allegedly con her grandfather, including more than $100,000 Stella allegedly gave her to turn a book he co-wrote with his late wife into a movie. Criscuolo said the movie never materialized.
Redfield claims the woman used her cable TV program to “ingratiate” herself to Stella in the beginning.
“She spent a lot of time talking to him about how amazing the book was and how he had to be on the show,” he said. “That’s how the whole relationship started after they met in the alley.”
The last time Professor Asmus saw Stella was a year-and-a-half ago, when he picked him up at his home to join the group at Harry’s a final time.
Because Stella’s home phone had long been disconnected, Asmus said, he had a hard time reaching him, eventually contacting his female companion.
“She got back to me and said next Monday I’ll have Bob at the top of the driveway and you can pick him up,” Asmus recalled. “He was rather feeble at that point. He wasn’t quite his own self but he was fairly conversational. … The yard had lots of stuff in it — that surprised me. … I mentioned it to him. I said, ‘It looks like your garage has overflowed,’ but I didn’t really get a straight response to my question.”
Redfield said Stella is walking again and aware of what happened.
“He’s 90 years old, so it’s going to be a long, slow recovery,” Redfield said. “He could barely talk (before) … but each day is a lot better. He’s had really good days and he’s had some really upsetting days, because he’s had to reckon with all the damage and the wreckage, but he’s really happy to be away from her. He’s singing again, which was his passion.”
For advice on spotting and preventing elder abuse, click here.
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