DADE CITY — Ruby Dudley's guardian grew alarmed when her bills and bank statements suddenly stopped arriving in the mail. So Karen Patterson, who had been hired to manage the 88-year-old's affairs, began digging.
She discovered the mail was being forwarded to an address on Lake Avenue — the home of Marius Cheatum, a nurse at the Edwinola, the assisted living facility that Dudley calls home.
Dade City police took over and found a trove of loot at the house: cell phones, computers, purses, clothes, bed linens and several small appliances including a blender, coffee maker and mixer.
She had a new off-white wood dining room set. A bedroom set was on order but hadn't yet arrived.
And there, among Cheatum's papers, was mail for 28 other people.
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Dudley moved to the Edwinola from a mobile home park in Zephyrhills after her health began to decline. A bubbly, petite woman, she isn't well enough to leave the assisted living facility. But she still gets dressed up every day — she favors ballerina-style flats in several colors — and likes to get her hair done at the home's beauty shop.
Her sister in New Hampshire told Patterson of a nurse who sometimes called with updates about Ruby.
"They talked about this lady at the Edwinola who was just so wonderful to their sister," Patterson said. "They called her Molly."
Once Patterson noticed the mail irregularities, she said she notified a case worker with the state Department of Children and Families, but got no satisfaction. Then she went to the police.
Dade City police Detective Joe Conrad said he discovered more than $5,000 in fraudulent purchases on Dudley's credit cards. There were more than a dozen ATM withdrawals for another $5,000, he said. Cheatum had a debit card issued in her name on Dudley's account, Conrad said.
He said that's how he caught Cheatum: Images from security cameras show Cheatum — sometimes wearing her nursing scrubs — withdrawing money, which Conrad matched up to activity on Dudley's account.
Conrad said Cheatum first pinned the crimes on someone living in her house named Marie Durgess. But it was all a fabrication.
"There's no such person," Conrad said.
When he confronted Cheatum with the ATM recordings, Conrad said, she confessed to taking Dudley's credit cards and cash.
"She said, 'You obviously have done your homework' — or something to that effect," Conrad said.
And the more he investigated, the more he found. He said Cheatum had taken out credit cards using the names of dead people or names she had simply made up.
There were credit card applications and past-due credit card bills. She was using one card to pay another, and Conrad said he found her notes on how she was keeping track of it all.
No other victims were found at the Edwinola. Officials there could not be reached, but Conrad said the Edwinola has cooperated with the investigation and he believes Cheatum no longer works there.
Conrad ended up referring the other cases to the U.S. Postal Service for prosecution under federal law. A postal investigator in Tampa did not return a call for comment.
Cheatum, 46, is charged with numerous counts of credit card fraud, possessing a stolen credit card and writing a worthless check. She could not be reached for this story, and her public defender declined to comment on the case.
She stayed in jail from her arrest May 9 until last week, when she posted $24,513 bail. Her arraignment is set for later this month. She has pleaded not guilty.
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Patterson, a guardian for 14 years, said she doesn't know whether Dudley is aware of what happened to her. Patterson worries, she said, for elderly people who don't have an advocate watching out for their interests.
"As our country ages, I think it will become more and more of a problem," she said. "And I think we have to see that people are protected."
Sgt. Bill Moltzan, head of property crimes for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, said identity thefts have taken off in the last few years — aided, to no surprise, by the Internet. Technology, he said, makes the crimes both easier to commit and easier to solve.
With online banking and computer records, he said, the trail is long.
A few weeks ago, Patterson met with state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, about possible legislative remedies.
Weatherford was receptive, suggesting a change in law or policy that limits who in a nursing home can access patients' personal and financial records.
"We're just not doing a good enough job of protecting that information," Weatherford said.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.