For defrauding elderly Pasco widower, man gets slap on wrist

NEW PORT RICHEY — The 87-year-old man was already a widower when Jack Barton entered his life a few years ago.

Then the man became a victim.

Authorities say Barton took over power of attorney, stripped the elderly victim of nearly $400,000, including his house, then stuck him in an assisted living facility.

Arrested in 2007, Barton once faced up to 60 years in prison.

Now the 38-year-old insurance agent could go free with the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist.

That's because the victim's lawyers decided that their client couldn't wait for justice to be slowly served.

It would be years before a criminal trial. A civil suit would take much longer. And it would be even longer before the victim saw his money again.

His attorneys knew the victim, now 90, couldn't wait that long to be repaid. So they came up with a plan:

Mediation.

• • •

Mediation is when two sides come together with an impartial third to hash out their differences and reach some kind of reasonable arrangement.

It's nothing new in civil law, in the business world, even juvenile cases.

But in the adult criminal justice system? Rare is the word.

"I think all the stars have to align for this to occur," said University of Florida law professor Michael Siegel, "for it to make sense to everybody."

It did in this case. Defendant and victim entered into talks with a mediator to settle everything: the criminal charges, the civil suit, the manner and speed with which Barton would pay his victim back.

In November the victim's civil lawyer and Barton's defense attorney asked a judge to let them try arbitration. Barton paid for the mediator.

"They came to the first hearing and said that they would like to see if they can work this out in a global settlement," said Assistant State Attorney Mary Handsel, "so the least amount of money of the victim's was lost."

The victim was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2005. His name is being withheld by the St. Petersburg Times because of his condition.

The lawyer for the victim's court-appointed guardian, Gregory Gay, did not return calls for comment. Barton could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Heather Stathopoulos, was unavailable for comment.

Information for this story was gathered from court records, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

• • •

The victim was a widower when he lost his sister, too. In 2001 he met insurance agent Jack Barton. Three years later their friendship turned to business.

The victim "was dependent on Jack Barton for his decision-making," said the 2007 civil suit filed against Barton by the victim's guardian.

While Alzheimer's unraveled the victim's mind, Barton immersed him in complicated financial transactions from May 2005 to January 2007, authorities say.

The victim once owned his Gulf Harbors home outright. But then he obtained a $325,000 mortgage that deputies said he "has no memory" of. That money went to buy an annuity written by Barton, the report said.

Barton took over power of attorney for the victim — who doesn't remember that, either.

Barton changed the beneficiary of the annuity to himself. He wrote 70 checks off that annuity, the report said, totalling about $375,000 — and incurring thousands of dollars in penalties.

In 2007, a couple who knew the victim found him in an assisted living facility and grew suspicious. They alerted authorities.

Barton turned himself in to deputies on March 13, 2007. He was charged with exploitation of the elderly and scheming to defraud. Those first-degree felonies each carry up to 30 years.

• • •

Here, according to the State Attorney's Office, is what was hammered out in arbitration:

• The mediator determined Barton owes the victim about $442,000.

• Barton paid the victim $25,000. He must also pay $500 a month for next 18 months.

• Barton agreed to repay the rest. He let the victim hold $400,000 worth of mortgages on properties Barton owns — collateral in case he fails to do so.

• Barton agreed not to hide from his debt to the victim by declaring bankruptcy.

• The victim can garnish Barton's future wages. And Barton has to pay interest, too.

• • •

That's Barton's debt to his victim. What about his debt to society?

Thanks to the victim's lawyers, it's considerably lighter.

Barton's attorney asked for pre-trial intervention, a common punishment for less serious offenses. It's a kind of probation that, if successfully completed by the defendant, will result in all charges being dropped.

Remember that Barton once faced up to 60 years in prison. But now he could walk away with no criminal record. Once the financial issues were settled by mediation, the victim's lawyers told prosecutors they had no problem with Barton entering the program.

The state's only role was to reduce the charges to third-degree felonies so Barton qualified for pre-trial intervention — and impose strict conditions.

The state had Barton agree not to expunge the record of his arrest. Barton had to admit to the charges to enter the program. And if he misses a payment or violates conditions such as random drug screenings, he'll break the pre-trial agreement.

Then the state can re-file the first-degree felony charges — even if he's already paid back thousands to the victim.

• • •

Stetson University College of Law Professor Robert Batey said mediation in criminal cases is becoming less and less rare.

In fact, it could be the shape of things to come.

"There is a movement now to try and do this in more cases," he said, "to have victims and perpetrators get together and work out some kind of therapeutic settlement."

How many victims will go for that, wondered Siegel, the UF law professor?

"For the most part victims of crime are not interested in mediating with the person who has harmed them," he said. "They don't want to sit in the same room and face that person and have a discussion.

"They don't see that to their advantage, and a lot of times it would be re-victimization."

But it worked in the Barton case. The deal was signed off in March. The victim's lawyers wanted expediency. They got it.

Many elderly fraud cases don't get that, and Handsel used this example: A New Port Richey couple was arrested in 2005, accused of stealing an elderly widow's home. They still live there, both sides are suing each other, and the criminal trial will likely be pushed back again.

"You have to make a decision as a prosecutor," Handsel said, "what's the best interests of victim vs. what you can do for society?"

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

For defrauding elderly Pasco widower, man gets slap on wrist 05/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 5, 2008 3:04pm]

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