WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - A Wilmington woman pleaded guilty recently to elder abuse, in a crime that came as a shock even to prosecutors who routinely try these kinds of cases.
"It was something stunning, how much money that she spent in three months time," New Hanover County Prosecutor Janet Coleman said.
Coleman says 40-year-old Christy Paffenroth Ferguson met 80-year-old Tony Ferguson while she was working at a local adult day care facility. After Ferguson's wife of 40 years died of cancer, their daughter hired Paffenroth to serve as his caregiver.
Paffenroth was paid $1,100 a month for her services, plus room and board in Ferguson's home for her and her teenage son. Coleman says Paffenroth moved in as hired help in May of 2012, married Ferguson in December, and by January she'd taken over as his power of attorney.
In May of 2013, prosecutors say Paffenroth took $120,000 out of Ferguson's credit union and transferred it to a joint checking account. She then took out an $80,000 equity line on his house that was bought and paid for.
Then, prosecutors say the spending started in earnest.
"She had plastic surgery…. She got breast augmentation. She got braces. Her son got braces. She paid for private school tuition for a local private school, Christian school, for her son and his friend. Multiple thousands of dollars," Coleman said of some of the bigger ticket items that drained Ferguson's life savings.
After his bank account was empty, prosecutors say Ferguson began cashing in his savings bonds.
"At that point….he was virtually broke," Coleman continued. "In March of 2014, she sold the house for $90,000." The house had previously been valued at nearly twice that amount.
Prior to his marriage to Paffenroth, Ferguson, a retired federal employee, had no debt whatsoever. With no home left, he now lives alone in a nursing home.
"All he wanted to do was go home. He doesn't understand he doesn't have a home," Coleman said. "It literally broke my heart. And everyone else who was involved in this case."
There is always two sides to every story.
"It sounds a lot worse than what it was," Paffenroth said when we talked to her about what happened.
Paffenroth explained that Ferguson and his daughter were estranged, and he was terrified his daughter was going to put him in a nursing home.
At some point after Paffenroth began working as Ferguson's in-house caregiver, they developed a relationship, he asked her to marry him, and she accepted.
"I love him. I don't want to ever leave him. It's never been physical with him. He loves me like a father would love me," Paffenroth said of their unconventional love story. "I have been a single mom all of my life…. It was security, not just financial security, he filled a void."
Paffenroth admits to overspending.
"If I could do it again differently I would," she said.
Having been a single mom for so long, she says it was thrilling to actually be financially comfortable when she got married. She said she did not intentionally blow through all this money so quickly, and she and her husband both enjoyed using the money to take trips and go out to eat.
Paffenroth says Ferguson's daughter wasn't happy about the marriage and called the Department of Social Services and the bank to complain. That's when authorities got involved, eventually charging Paffenroth with Felony Exploitation of an Elder Person.
Her Public Defender, Emily Zvejnieks, thought Paffenroth was innocent, but says Paffenroth decided to plead guilty to avoid the risk of 2.5 years in prison if convicted.
"Elder abuse and elder exploitation exist. I do not believe it existed in this case," Zvejnieks said. "She spent money out of an account that was a joint account created by the two of them, a house was sold that included both of their names on the deed. He knew about all of those transactions. He made it clear that she had permission and he didn't care that the money was spent, and now we have stepped in to say he can't make that decision because he's too old."
Paffenroth was given credit for a few months she'd already spent in jail, and she was placed on probation rather than given active prison time. The fact that she did not have a significant criminal history and the fact that Ferguson did not want her to go to jail were also taken into consideration at sentencing.
At the time the two were first married, Ferguson was considered legally competent. The prosecutor said his physician had previously noticed early signs of dementia, but no legal action had been taken to address that.
"People are competent until they are declared incompetent," Coleman explained.
That involves court proceedings, and it wasn't until after Ferguson's money was gone and his house sold that the courts declared him legally incompetent.
Ferguson resisted the court's efforts and continues to be upset by what happened.
"I don't need your help. Stop bothering us. Leave us alone. We're happy," Coleman recalled of Ferguson's reaction when authorities intervened on his behalf.
"I will never regret the fact of marrying my husband," Paffenroth said. "He even he said I should've never volunteered to a plea bargain."
She says she still visits him at the nursing home, but he is not allowed to leave that facility.
So how do authorities know when to intervene?
Zvejnieks thinks they were too quick in this case.
"For the public or the government to be asking questions about why they are married is really just something that's between the two of them," Zvenjnieks said. "In speaking with them, if their responses are that they are not being abused, that they have given permission for all of these things to happen. Well, I think we take them at their word and we let them make their own choices."
But Coleman says even if Ferguson protested their intervention, the state was acting in his best interests.
New Hanover County courthouse officials say this is an extreme case, but elder abuse and exploitation are disturbingly prevalent. They hope this story will be a wake-up call to others, prompting them to look out for their elderly neighbors and loved ones who might fall victim to abuse.
"If you have an elderly neighbor or friend, look in on them, check on them, be that person who looks out for them, that would prevent a lot of this from happening, because it happens in isolation behind closed doors," Coleman advised.
Coleman said that a neglected yard or house can be a sign of vulnerability. A car that disappears from the driveway can be another red flag that the elderly person is being exploited because an abuser has sold the car for cash.
A socially active elder person who suddenly becomes a recluse can be another warning sign of a problem, as abusers often seek to isolate victims similar to a domestic violence situation.
Experts say loneliness can make the elderly especially vulnerable to falling for a scam because they are so happy for the attention.
"They come into the person's home, and then they befriend them, and then they start cutting the grass and then they say well I'll take you to the doctor's office, and then they take them to the doctor's office, and then they say why don't I clean your house," New Hanover County Clerk of Courts Jan Kennedy said of a common scenario they see at the courthouse. "And then what we have is family members come to us when it's too late, and that person had befriended them and taken everything from them."