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East Millinocket woman found guilty in theft of elderly mother’s money

Posted Nov. 30, 2012, at 12:27 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 30, 2012, at 6:50 p.m.
A Penobscot County jury found Meredith Purcell (center) of East Millinocket guilty Friday afternoon of theft by unauthorized taking and misuse of entrusted property.  Purcell stole more than $84,000 from her elderly mother.
A Penobscot County jury found Meredith Purcell (center) of East Millinocket guilty Friday afternoon of theft by unauthorized taking and misuse of entrusted property. Purcell stole more than $84,000 from her elderly mother.

BANGOR, Maine — A Penobscot County jury on Friday found an East Millinocket woman guilty of stealing more than $84,000 from her elderly mother — most of which she gambled away at Hollywood Slots.

Meredith A. Purcell, 59, did not react as the verdict was announced, but her attorney, James Billings of Augusta, said after the jury of six men and six women was dismissed that his client was “distraught.”

The jury deliberated for about three hours after hearing testimony over 3½ days at the Penobscot Judicial Center. Purcell was found guilty of theft by unauthorized taking, a Class B crime, and misuse of entrusted property, a Class D crime, between 2007 and 2011.

Superior Court Justice William Anderson said the sentencing would be held after the first of the year, but he did not set a date. Purcell faces up to 10 years in prison on the theft charge and up to a year in prison on the misuse of property charge. She also is expected to be ordered to pay restitution.

Purcell will remain free on personal recognizance bail while awaiting sentencing, Anderson ruled Friday.

The victim and her son and daughter-in-law, who now handle the 89-year-old’s financial affairs, testified Monday but were not in courtroom for the verdict. Other members of Purcell’s family quietly wept as the verdict was read.

“She’s with her family and being comforted,” Billings said when asked about Purcell’s reaction to the verdict after she had left the courtroom. “She’s very upset. She doesn’t agree with the jury’s verdict. She spent a lot of time and effort taking care of her mother for many years and feels like she really didn’t do anything wrong.”

Billings said that Purcell does not have a gambling problem.

“She lost her job,” the attorney said. “She stopped going to Hollywood Slots and denies having a gambling problem.”

After the verdict, Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin described the case against Purcell as an example of “financial exploitation of the elderly.”

The prosecutor said the jury made the right decision by following the paper trail.

“If you look at the bank records, it’s very clear that the money went out of the victim’s accounts and into Meredith Purcell’s accounts and then to Hollywood Slots and to pay off her credit card bills.”

Purcell was indicted in September 2011 by the Penobscot County grand jury and pleaded not guilty to taking money illegally from her mother for her own use.

“Meredith Purcell had her mother’s power of attorney and access to her [bank] accounts,” Robbin said Friday in her closing argument to the jury. “She used her mother’s money as if it were her own personal piggy bank. Meredith Purcell used those funds to cover gambling bills and pay her credit card debt. That is theft and misuse of property.”

Robbin said Purcell drained the money from the annuities set up by her father before his death in 2000 to spend at Hollywood Slots and pay for a family vacation in Florida. The prosecutor told jurors that once the annuities were exhausted, Purcell began taking money from her mother’s Social Security check to gamble rather than pay her mother’s bills as she should have.

“She was frittering away her mother’s money while the bills went unpaid,” Robbin said.

Billings said in his closing argument that Purcell’s parents typically took money out of the annuity accounts, which were set up with about $150,000 in them. In 2008, when Purcell took over pay her mother’s bills, there was just $65,000 left in them. The year her father died, his tax return showed that $15,000 had been withdrawn to cover the couple’s living expenses.

He also challenged the prosecutor’s emphasis on his client’s visits to Hollywood Slots.

“What does wagering at Hollywood Slots have to do with anything in this case?” Billings asked. “The only reason to mention it is to inflame you into making Meredith Purcell a criminal. If Meredith Purcell wanted to gamble away $16,500 of her own money, that’s her business.”

The defense attorney said that if his client spent that amount of money at Hollywood Slots in 2008, 2009 and 2010, it equaled $5,500 a year, or about $100 per week.

The defense attorney also asked jurors to consider the effect a guilty verdict might have on Mainers throughout the state.

“Who in Maine will feel safe acting as the power of attorney for a loved one if some disgruntled individual can come along after the fact and second-guess all that has happened? Is that the message you want to send to the community? I hope your answer is no and you return not-guilty verdicts.”

The individual Billings referred to was William “Billy” Hoxie, Purcell’s brother, who lives in Lincoln. He now controls their mother’s finances, the attorney said Friday.

The victim, a frail, white-haired woman who has suffered a loss of hearing, had difficulty remembering dates and the sequence of events when she testified Monday. She told the jury that her only daughter and one of her sons were given power of attorney for her affairs after her husband died in 2000. In 2008, the woman said, Purcell took control of her checkbook and began paying her bills.

Under direct examination, Purcell’s mother said she did not recall discussing withdrawals from the annuity funds with her daughter. The elderly woman also answered “no” when asked whether she gave Purcell permission to use the money to buy things for herself or to go to Hollywood Slots.

The older woman testified that of the $1,100 or so she received in Social Security benefits a month in 2008, $100 went into a Christmas Club account, $500 went into her checking account and her daughter gave her $500 in cash that she used to buy groceries and clothing, pay to have her hair done and place $5 a week in the offering plate at her church.

The alleged theft was discovered by Hoxie. He testified Monday that he found unpaid bills at his mother’s home in March 2011, including one from the Internal Revenue Service about a late payment for taxes. He consulted Bangor attorney Roberta Winchell, who alerted authorities.

Hoxie told the jury his mother now lives solely on her Social Security income in a low-income housing project.

“The money [from the annuity] should have lasted that woman a lifetime,” he testified. “She doesn’t spend nothing.”

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