By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Mary P. Jameson wanted to be certain that her money would be safe for her heirs after she died. So as one of her final acts, she hired a lawyer whose credibility was unquestioned in the town of La Plata: Frank P. Jenkins.
Jameson's niece, Cecilia Johnston, was put in charge of executing the will, but Jenkins, a longtime family friend, was to help with the practical matters -- moving money among accounts, paying bills and taxes. Jenkins had performed similar services for two other relatives, Johnston said, and no one noticed any problems.
This time, though, the problems were almost immediate.
Last week, Jenkins, 44, was accused of stealing more than $300,000 from Jameson's estate and charged with theft. Investigators are exploring the possibility that he stole from several other clients, and they are encouraging others who dealt with Jenkins to reexamine their finances for irregularities.
"This was a family that has known our family for decades. He wasn't a stranger," Johnston said. "I mean, how could this happen?"
Authorities in Charles County have the same question.
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To say Mary P. Jameson was meticulous is a bit of an understatement.
After her terminal cancer was diagnosed in April, Jameson, who worked for several decades at the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, sat down with her niece to work out the seating arrangements at her funeral. She instructed Johnston to buy dozens of file folders to keep financial matters organized, and she prepaid for Jenkins's services, telling her niece to contact the lawyer as soon as possible after her death.
Jameson, 73, of Bryantown, knew the drill. Only a year before, she had worked with Jenkins in handling her late husband's estate. Johnston, 47, had never before executed a will.
Jameson died July 10, leaving behind four accounts totaling more than $899,000, according to her niece and charging documents. Jenkins told Johnston to move all the money into one account, and eventually, the lawyer took control of the money, according to the charging documents.
That's when Jenkins started acting strangely, Johnston said. He refused to provide even basic documentation that bills were being paid and that accounts were being maintained, Johnston said. When questioned, he would change the subject, she said.
"He would start to answer and then ask me questions: Did I get the plumber? Have I gotten things for the house? 'How's the dog doing?' 'How's cleaning?' " Johnston said. "He just kept putting me off."
On Sept. 4, Johnston decided to go to the bank to check on the money. She found two -- not one -- with a combined value of $500,000, and neither was earning interest, according to authorities. When Johnston started asking questions about the accounts, bank officials told her that they could not answer because neither was in her name, according to the documents.
Johnston, a lieutenant with the Charles County Sheriff's Office, asked some of her colleagues Sept. 7 whether something was amiss or she was just paranoid. The next day, she confronted Jenkins. He told her that he had spent $375,000 of the money to buy property in St. Mary's County, which he intended to flip for $500,000 to "make me look good to all the family members," Johnston said.
"I don't even think I could form words other than 'We bought property? We did what?' " Johnston said. "He was full of surprises, just one thing after another."
Diane Richardson, a spokeswoman for the Charles County Sheriff's Office, said Jenkins appeared to buy the property before Jameson's death, although it is unclear why. It was clear, she said, that he did not intend to give it to Johnston as a pleasant surprise.
On Sept. 9, officers from the sheriff's financial crimes unit froze the accounts and arrested Jenkins, Richardson said. A sheriff's office audit found three accounts worth just over $587,000, leaving about $300,000 unaccounted for, she said.
A woman answering the phone at a number listed to Jenkins hung up when a reporter identified himself, and no one responded to subsequent messages. A sign outside Jenkins's office and a message on his voice mail indicate that his practice is closed indefinitely.
On Tuesday, Jenkins agreed to be disbarred, said Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel with the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission. Hirshman said Jenkins had never before been publicly disciplined as a lawyer.
Court records show that a former client sued him in December 2007, alleging that he had failed to perform legal services on her case, but the suit was dropped after Jenkins repaid the woman $500.
Jameson's heirs have not divided her estate, Johnston said, because bills and estate taxes have not been paid. Johnston said she has no access to the money and is not sure when she will get it.
That, though, is a secondary concern, Johnston said. When her "Aunt Pat" died, Johnston said, she felt like she had lost her mother -- again. Johnston's mother died when she was in her 20s, and Jameson became "the person you call instead of calling your mom."
To let a friend pillage Jameson's estate -- and her memory -- would be truly unjust, Johnston said.
"In the big scheme of things, it really doesn't matter how much money," Johnston said. "He's a trusted friend of the family. And he stole from people he knows, who trusted him to take care of us."