Ex-church elders get prison for bilking elderly woman

Montana News, May 14, 2003
By Vera Haffey, The Montana Standard

DEER LODGE — Jehovah’s Witnesses church elders who fleeced a 100-year-old Deer Lodge woman out of more than $6 million were remanded to Montana State Prison after a sentencing hearing in Powell County District Court Monday.

Darryl Willis, 64, Helena, and Dale Erickson, 54, Missoula, were sentenced Monday to 10 years in prison with four years suspended each for felony charges of conspiracy and theft; three years with one suspended for felony conspiracy, and two years with one suspended for securities fraud, also a felony. That amounts to an aggregate 25 years in prison with 10 suspended.

The two are also ordered to make $6.5 million in restitution. And, during the probationary period of their sentence, they may not control anyone’s finances.

District Judge Ted Mizner said the sentence represents a ‘‘small measure of justice” for Una Anderson, whose life savings and family ranch were lost in a befriend-and-betray scheme. The men used a complex system of trusts and interlocking companies to steal Anderson’s money, lived in expensive homes, drove luxury cars and traveled extensively abroad to places like London and the Caribbean while depleting her trust fund money, according to court records.

Erickson and Willis sat calmly throughout the proceedings. Afterwards, their family members wept in a huddle in the courtroom.

Anderson, who is now 101, said she is glad that justice was served, but is sad for the men who made poor decisions and ruined their lives.

‘‘It’s sad to think of those two young people,” she said of Erickson and Willis. ‘‘My life has been good, but it’s almost over. They had everything ahead of them.”

A few spectators and family members attended the sentencing hearing in the biggest theft case in Montana history. Some were called as witnesses and questioned, then cross-examined.

Brandon Morgan Willis told the court his father was generous and loving, the kind of person who would go back to a store to return money if a cashier made a mistake and gave too much change. The elder Willis ‘‘lost his savvy” when poor health fell upon him in the mid-1990s, leaving his decision-making skills compromised, Brandon Willis said.

But prosecuting attorney Mark Murphy pointed out that Willis continued drawing a wage for managing Una Anderson’s trust, despite his claims to ill health and an inability to perform. That included a brokerage fee of $400,000 for illegally and secretly selling Anderson’s Powell County ranch.

Family members and a social worker for Adult Protective Services, Janel Pliley, testified at the hearing and asked the court to impose the maximum sentences allowable by law. Leveling the maximum penalty would make it easier to prosecute the 250 or so cases of elder abuse she handles each year. That would be 40 years in prison.

Sarah Kelson, who lives with Una Anderson at her aunt’s modest home on the outskirts of town, described the white collar criminals’ attitude towards the charges as ‘‘cavalier,” and said they expressed no remorse. She also asked for maximum penalties.

Kelson Colbo, whose grandfather was Una Anderson’s first cousin, said Erickson and Willis used Anderson’s trust with the church as leverage to convince her to trust them with her finances.

The case was brought to the attention of Sheriff Scott Howard in September 2001 by members of the elderly woman’s family and Pliley. Because of the magnitude of the allegations, County Attorney Chris Miller and Howard enlisted the help of state officials.

Assistant Attorney Generals Mark Murphy and Melissa Broch led the prosecution team. Murphy specializes in white-collar crime, and Broch is experienced in complex litigation.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday May 14, 2003.
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