DADE CITY — By all accounts, Lillian Lothrop was sweet and warmhearted at first blush.
The 87-year-old, spry for her age, was well liked on her bend of the street in Traveler's Rest. In the quiet retirement community perched among the hills in northeast Pasco, where the full names of homeowners are painted on yard signs, she was known for taking care of friends, driving them on errands and tidying houses while snowbirds were away.
It wasn't a job, just hospitality, her daughter, Retha Charette, said. Sometimes Lothrop would accept gifts from her friends: money, a car. But other neighbors thought Lothrop took advantage of the trust she earned.
All this came as news to Charette last week when she learned her mother was sitting in the Land O'Lakes jail, accused of swindling a man with Alzheimer's out of thousands of dollars.
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Lothrop befriended her neighbor Robert Potter about a decade ago, her daughter said. She cared for him like her other neighbors. They became close.
A Dade City police report says Lothrop exploited her friendship with Potter, 86. Over six months, she got him to write 15 checks payable to her totaling more than $34,000.
Lothrop was charged with grand theft from a person 65 or older and jailed on $15,000 bail.
In her mugshot, she wears a pearl-inset pastel pink cable-knit sweater and a frown.
Records show Lothrop had other questionable transactions with Potter in the past.
Potter spent time in the hospital a few years ago, a 2010 sheriff's report states. Lothrop helped him with daily care when he got out. At some point, Lothrop's daughter ended up with Potter's new Toyota Corolla. Neighbors Thomas and Maria Blondet heard about the car trading hands and called authorities.
Blondet said Potter's wife died years back and he was helpless without her. Blondet felt like Lothrop was taking advantage of Potter's condition and said that she'd done similar things to other people in the neighborhood. "She's helping them, but at the same time she's helping herself."
Lothrop told deputies she "did everything for (Potter)" when he got out of the hospital, and never expected payment, according to the report. She said Potter offered her the car because he was no longer able to drive.
Charette came to visit from Massachusetts and took the car home. Deputies questioned Potter, who said he might have given his car away but couldn't be sure.
No one was arrested, but Charette was forced to return the car.
That combination of uncertainty and vulnerability is what makes Alzheimer's patients susceptible to losing everything, said CARES' Chris Powers.
"(Alzheimer's patients) just believe everybody. They're very dependent and they trust people," she said. "They know there's something wrong and they're not quite sure. (They're) not going to admit that they don't remember being told something."
Usually, said attorney Hugh Umstead, who deals with such cases, it's a caretaker who steals from them. "What people don't understand is that taking an elderly person's money is as detrimental as if you went in their house and beat them up. Money is safety."
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Charette can't conceive of her mother stealing from anyone.
"No, no, no, absolutely not."
When Charette flew to Tampa in 2010, they met her at the airport in the Corolla. Potter handed her the keys.
Charette described her mother as a shirt-off-her-back giver who asked for nothing in return.
Lothrop and her husband moved into Traveler's Rest four decades ago. They lived in an Airstream. Before that she worked as a traffic supervisor in Massachusetts and on a chicken farm.
Her husband died about 13 years ago, and Charette bought her a bright yellow home in the back of the subdivision. She said her mother got a Realtor's license so she could help friends sell their homes, but records do not list Lothrop as a license holder. When Potter was moved to a retirement home two years ago, she assisted in selling his home.
"She helped that man," Charette said. "Unbelievable."
Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson contributed to this report.