Guilty plea in theft of $82,000 from elderly relative

A Puyallup woman has admitted to authorities that she stole more than $82,000 from her husband’s elderly grandfather who has dementia.

Jessica Sellers, 37, pleaded guilty on Oct. 4 to charges of theft from a vulnerable adult, according to Pierce County’s Elder Abuse Unit. Her sentencing was scheduled for Nov. 4 in Superior Court.

“There are heavy penalties for exploiting elders, and we vigorously prosecute these cases whenever and wherever they happen in Pierce County,” said Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist.

Lindquist gave the following account of the case against Sellers:

Ralph Penz was diagnosed with dementia in 2005 and soon required assistance via power of attorney to make financial and medical decisions on his behalf. Sellers volunteered for those duties, and Penz later moved to an assisted-living facility.

Sellers told family members that Penz’s home sold for $350,000 and that after taxes and fees, the proceeds from the sale would be $290,000. The home actually sold for $400,000, of which $359,439 was deposited in Penz’s account on July 22, 2013. At the time, Sellers was unemployed and her husband wasn’t working due to an injury, prosecutors said.

Soon after the sale of Penz’s home, Sellers and her husband bought a new car for $26,203, using a check from Penz’s account. There also were purchases of a collector car, puppies, guns, a gun safe, furniture, vacations, snowboard equipment, a large fish tank, and home improvements. In addition, two large checks were written from Penz’s account to Sellers.

A letter from Sellers’ attorney claimed that Sellers and her husband asked Penz for a loan in the amount of $85,548. No documents or any specific information identifying the date or terms of a loan were provided.

Dr. Indra Finch, a licensed and clinical forensic psychologist, concluded that Penz’s ability to make financial decisions was impaired by his dementia.

Sellers’ guilty pleas are an admission that she abused the trust given her in her position as power of attorney, prosecutors said.