Lillian Thomey looks pained as she takes a deep breath and pulls her cardigan tightly together.
At 80, she sits on a chair in a small waiting room inside the equally small Harbour Grace provincial court. Her son, Paul, is on a loveseat beside her.
“I can’t believe it,” Lillian Thomey said, shaking her head.
The elderly woman is bracing to see her once-trusted caregivers — her daughter and son-in-law.
Jackie Puddister, 54, and her husband Christopher Puddister, 56, were scheduled for sentencing, concluding a years-long saga over missing money, a home sold for $1, and a family torn apart.
Lillian Thomey’s case highlights the painful, long-term effects financial crime has on senior citizens. While this case has neared its end, reports of elder financial crimes are growing.
Paul Thomey suspects the theft would never have been caught had his mother not been hospitalized.
It was August 2019 and Lillian Thomey was spending a second stint in hospital in St. John’s after suffering what she called a mental breakdown.
During a visit, she asked her son to check on her bank account, which he then did at their local bank.
“I asked for the balance. [The teller] said $563. And I just shook my head,” Paul Thomey said in a recent interview with CBC News.
“This can’t be right.”
But it was right.
A quick look at the list of transactions in Lillian Thomey’s chequing account revealed there were numerous cash withdrawals and store purchases, even while she was in hospital that summer and the winter before.
“I continue scrolling back through the month of July. Same thing … store purchases, cash withdrawals, even made one purchase out of a legal marijuana shop in St. John’s,” Paul Thomey said.
Bank records revealed that while she was in hospital for the second time, over $1,800 in cash was withdrawn and just over $1,400 was spent on store purchases. All in less than five weeks.
And that was just the beginning.
Raising a family
Lillian and her husband John Thomey Sr. raised their four children in Harbour Grace. He was an engineer, and she was a homemaker.
Together they built their lives in a small bungalow on Alberta Drive.
John Thomey Sr. died in 2013, and two years later Lillian asked her daughter Jackie and her husband to move home from Nova Scotia to be her caregivers. They agreed.
In 2015, Lillian Thomey legally sold them her home for $1. She remained living upstairs while her daughter and son-in-law occupied the basement apartment.
“They told me they were [going to] look after me,” Lillian Thomey told a small-claims court hearing last December.
“They stole my money.”
The exact details of how that happened would be revealed in court — in both civil and criminal cases.
‘Inconsistent’ at civil trial
Lillian Thomey filed a statement of claim for nearly $25,000 — the maximum amount allowable in Newfoundland and Labrador small-claims courts — against her daughter and son-in-law in October 2019.
At an emotional and contentious two-day hearing last December, Lillian Thomey outlined the impact the situation has had on her life.
“I’m dying of a broken heart. I’ll never get over this,” Lilian Thomey told Judge Mark Pike.
“My life was stolen from me. If you can’t trust your own daughter, who can you trust?”
Lillian Thomey said she had given the Puddisters permission to use her debit card to buy medication, groceries and other miscellaneous items. There was no formal agreement. In civil court, the couple admitted using the card on her behalf but said there were no specified limitations on what it could be used for.
But Paul Thomey found there were thousands of dollars spent on items he didn’t believe his mother requested or needed, like a $700 purchase at Jump+, an Apple retailer in the Avalon Mall, and thousands of dollars in groceries.
Both Jackie and Christopher Puddister — backed up by the other Thomey brother — said more people had access to the card at times.
Jackie Puddister said the multiple withdrawals — often in $400 increments, which was the maximum allowable amount — went to reimburse them for items and bills they paid on her mother’s behalf.
They repeated that they lost money by moving to Newfoundland, and despite being given a mortgage-free home, got a hefty loan to renovate the property and build a garage.
“I was just trying to survive. I was trying to pay bills,” Jackie Puddister told the court. “I had a light bill — sometimes it was $700 and $800 — I had phone bills, I had cable bills.”
Jackie Puddister and her husband denied any wrongdoing, and blamed her brother Paul Thomey for putting ideas in their mother’s head.
But the judge didn’t buy it.
Mother awarded maximum amount
Pike said Jackie Puddister’s statements were combative and inconsistent.
“From a global perspective, the rates of cash withdrawals don’t make sense to me given the plaintiff’s modest needs and income during the period in question,” Pike said.
“The defendants were severely strained for funds and under a heavy debt load and, in my view, this provided a situation that was ripe with opportunity for them to take advantage, by them having the use of her mother and his mother-in-law’s debit card.”
Judge Pike awarded Lillian Thomey $25,000 plus $9,000 damages with pre-judgment interest.
Paul Thomey also went to the RCMP in Harbour Grace with his findings.
The Mounties investigated, and in the summer of 2020, the couple was charged with theft over $5,000. Christopher Puddister faced an additional charge of obtaining credit by a false pretense.
Despite their adamant denial of the allegations against them at the civil trial, the Puddisters pleaded guilty to theft over $5,000.
During a criminal sentencing hearing in July, more information was revealed about the amounts of money involved.
Over the course of one year, $3,697 was misused from her chequing account, according to facts read into the court record during a sentencing hearing on July 15.
Crown prosecutor Jill Quilty said the total amount was difficult to tabulate, adding that she removed purchases which may have been for Thomey herself.
From October 2018 to May 2019, over $4,400 was removed from her savings account — once held as a future fund for her grandchildren.
Paul Thomey then discovered there was also an active line of credit in his mother’s name after noticing an automatic monthly payment of $200 coming from her chequing account.
“I’m back to Scotiabank. They told me that mom’s line of credit has a limit of $20,000, but she’s $3,000 over her limit,” Paul Thomey said.
“Mom started to cry uncontrollably and she said, ‘Paul, what have they got done to me?’”
My life was stolen from me. If you can’t trust your own daughter, who can you trust?
Lillian Thomey said the Puddisters asked her to open a line of credit to get the driveway paved. She agreed with the understanding that they would make the payments as it was now their home.
That didn’t happen. The driveway was paved using money on the line of credit but more was taken than that, and Lillian was the one paying for it all.
A total of $8,760 was missing from the credit line in the form of direct withdrawals, the criminal court was told.
On July 15, the Puddisters were both sentenced to a 10-month term of house arrest followed by 18 months of supervised probation. The charge of obtaining credit under false pretenses was withdrawn when the couple pleaded guilty to theft.
In criminal court, the Crown calculated that Thomey lost $16,873.
Judge Bruce Short said this case has broader implications on how other vulnerable individuals should be treated, and what the consequences should be for what he called the “maltreatment” of those people.
“I will say to Mr. and Mrs. Puddister, on the one hand, you should consider yourself fortunate for the sentence that you are receiving here today,” Short said.
“On the other hand, you should consider yourself very unfortunate that a person put their trust in you and you completely breached that trust and you will never, ever have that trust again. And it is as simple as that, far beyond any penalty that the court can impose on you, you have to live with that.”
44 reported cases of elder fraud
But this is not an isolated story.
The number of reported allegations of elder financial abuse is growing in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Data obtained by CBC News through access to information show there were 44 incidents reported to adult protection in 2021-22. There were 28 cases the previous year, and 34 in 2019-20.
And the actual number could be higher — much higher.
“We know that the reporting, some people say, is you might get one case for every five that gets reported,” said Newfoundland and Labrador seniors’ advocate Susan Walsh.
Walsh, who assumed the role in June, says the majority of financial abuse is by family members.
Reporting suspected fraud involving their own child is a difficult decision, she says.
“Unfortunately, sometimes seniors may give out their card to a family member to go pick up groceries, etcetera, and don’t even know that all their money has been used from their account,” Walsh said.
“You trust your children, but sometimes people hit on hard times and things can happen.”
Walsh recommends that seniors give banking access to at least two trusted family members.
And it’s not just a problem in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We have seen evidence that this is increasing and that is directly related to the fact that we are in an unprecedented time for intergenerational wealth transfer,” said Jana Ray, chief operating officer with CanAge, an advocacy group for Canadian seniors.
Ray says there is approximately $1 trillion worth of assets expected to be transferred between generations over the next several years.
“And so what that does is that provides, unfortunately, opportunity for financial exploitation to happen.”
Ray says there is no Canada-wide tracking method to determine how widespread the problem is.
Today, Lillian Thomey shares a bedroom with another elderly woman at a retirement home in Carbonear.
She misses watching TV in the evenings. She misses her home.
More than that, she’s lost family and her sense of trust.
“Her life was stolen from her, and it was absolutely stolen,” said her son Paul Thomey.
“It’s as simple as that.”