Correction: Based on an error in a lawsuit, an earlier version of this article reported that a nephew of Heidi Pender had allegedly received stolen funds. The nephew did not receive any money. The lawsuit misidentified the relationship between Pender and the person who received the money.
Pearl Buckley was like an “old Southern grandmother,” always welcoming family into her Fairfax County home, her grandniece Catherine Bray said. Buckley had no children of her own, but she and her husband, Edward, would shuttle Bray to school, help with homework and offer dinner.
When Edward died and Pearl was legally blind and suffering from dementia, the family was there to help. Relatives organized in-home care for the 90-year-old and took her to doctor’s appointments.
But with a single phone call in 2008, family members said they were cut out of her care — and then her life. Buckley’s lawyer told them that he had power of attorney, or broad legal authority to manage her affairs and finances under an agreement she signed years earlier. He was also the executor of the couple’s wills.
James Kincheloe slowly took over every aspect of Buckley’s life over the next 18 months, exercising a control so complete that one relative described her as a “prisoner in her own home.” The family alleges in a lawsuit and interviews that he drained more than $850,000 from her life savings, changed her doctors, cut off her phone and wouldn’t let relatives visit unsupervised.
Most galling of all to her family, the woman who loved having relatives around spent her final moments alone in a hospital. Family members said Kincheloe never informed them that Buckley was dying in 2009.
An attorney for some of Buckley’s family members said it is one of the worst cases of elder financial abuse he has seen in Virginia and all the more troubling because Kincheloe was able to legally circumvent portions of a state law intended to protect the elderly from just such a theft. He fears it may happen again if the law is not changed.
Authorities worry there could be a wave of similar cases as 10,000 baby boomers reach 65 each day between now and 2030, according to a federal estimate.
Kincheloe, 66, entered an Alford plea to a charge of embezzlement in the case in Fairfax County last month. In an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges there is enough evidence for a conviction. Prosecutors say he stole at least $460,000, and he faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced this month.
James Love IV, Kincheloe’s attorney, said his client was wrongfully prosecuted and performed the work he was hired to do.
“I think [the case is] more an example of poor record-keeping than anything else,” Love said. “The money was paid out to caregivers. . . . [Buckley] asked Mr. Kincheloe to get her away from her beneficiaries.”
But Buckley’s family is still reeling.
“To have everything they worked so hard for disappear is heartbreaking,” said Joan Brown, wife of one of Buckley’s nephews.
Edward and Pearl Buckley lived on Blake Lane in Fairfax for more than 60 years, family members said. He was a World War II veteran and a supervisor at Washington Gas. She worked in accounting at the federal printing office. Family members said they dedicated themselves to youth causes such as the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia.
The Buckleys met Kincheloe through the Kena Shriners temple in Fairfax, where Edward was a potentate and considered him a friend, family members said. Kincheloe drafted the couple’s wills and an agreement with Pearl, giving him power of attorney if she became incapacitated.
When Edward died in 2007, Kincheloe was appointed as executor of his estate. And when Pearl’s health and mental faculties began to decline in 2008, he invoked the power of attorney.
Kincheloe had been a town attorney in Clifton, was a special justice for mental health issues and commissioner for the Fairfax courts. His family was well known in the county.
Some of Pearl Buckley’s family members said that pedigree gave them a false sense of security when he called her nephew Leon Fox and his wife, Sandra, in March 2008. They said Kincheloe told them that he would be managing Buckley’s affairs and asked for her checkbook, their keys to her home and a stamp she used to sign her name.
Prosecutors said Kincheloe then entered into an agreement with Pearl, saying she would pay him $9,750 a month to manage her home and affairs — three times her monthly income.
“I assure you that I will be there for you in the manner you have asked me to be, and that you are assured of my commitment to your well being,” it read.
At the time, prosecutors said, Buckley was unable to read and often asked her caregivers to speak to her dead husband. Prosecutors said in court that they think Buckley never signed the agreement — that Kincheloe instead used her signature stamp to endorse it.
Four days later, prosecutors said, Kincheloe’s girlfriend and later wife, Heidi Pender, entered into a separate agreement with Buckley to serve as her personal assistant for a fee of $35 an hour. The agreement was also endorsed with the stamp.
Over the coming months, relatives said, Kincheloe increasingly isolated Buckley from her family.
No one answered Buckley’s phone, and Kincheloe didn’t return calls. Relatives noticed strange people had moved onto Buckley’s property. They said Buckley seemed afraid to talk in the presence of Kincheloe or her caregivers.
“We would go to visits on Sundays, and when she wasn’t there, we would call all the hospitals,” said Sandra Fox. “One day, we did find her at the hospital. We had no idea why she was there. The nurse said we were under the impression she had no family.”
The treatment raised the suspicions of Buckley’s relatives, but it was what they couldn’t see at the time that was truly devastating.
In a civil lawsuit, the family alleges that Kincheloe or Pender engaged in more than 700 transactions on a bank account in Buckley’s name, which continued even after her death. Prosecutors said Pender was paid more than $165,000 for 16 months as a personal assistant but performed only a small fraction of the work she claimed.
Pender is facing six counts of receiving stolen property in connection with the case.
Buckley’s nest egg also was used to enrich a web of Kincheloe and Pender’s friends and family members, relatives allege in the lawsuit. It says that one of Kincheloe’s sons was paid nearly $36,000, and other associates got more than $50,000 for work on Buckley’s property.
When Buckley died in September 2009, relatives said, they were crushed that they were not notified until the day after her passing. Things grew worse at the funeral: They said the rings Buckley had said she wanted to be buried with had disappeared.
“None of it was done the way Mrs. Buckley wanted,” Sandra Fox said.
In November 2010, Buckley’s relatives hired a lawyer to begin investigating Kincheloe’s handling of the Buckleys’ estates. Kincheloe had not distributed any proceeds and had failed to complete filings with a court overseer who monitors executors of estates, relatives said.
When the relatives’ attorney asked for information about the estates, Pender wrote a letter to the court overseer, which was obtained by the family’s attorney, alleging that some of Buckley’s beneficiaries might have stolen money, jewelry and coins from her. Pender also alleged that the family neglected Buckley and that the neglect played a role in Buckley’s death.
She reiterated those claims in an e-mailed statement.
“That any governmental official would show support for any individual who terrified and held a senior woman hostage, then second guess that senior woman’s decisions on the pretext of protecting her, is to reward elder abusers under cover of law,” Pender wrote.
Family members said the claims were baseless and a smoke screen to cover Kincheloe and Pender’s alleged thefts. After a legal battle, relatives succeeded in having Kincheloe removed as executor of the Buckleys’ estates.
Love, Kincheloe’s attorney, denies that his client tried to isolate Buckley from the family. He said Kincheloe was trying to protect Buckley, who he said was mistreated while in the family’s care.
Joseph Stuart, one of the family’s attorneys, said the case points to a hole in Virginia law. In drafting Edward and Pearl Buckley’s wills, Kincheloe and the Buckleys waived an option requiring the executor to get insurance in the event the estates were misappropriated.
Stuart said the insurance, or surety bond, would have allowed Buckley’s beneficiaries to be reimbursed for Kincheloe’s misdeeds and possibly have prevented the entire mess. Stuart said Kincheloe, who filed for bankruptcy shortly after he was removed as executor, may not have been able to get the necessary insurance if insurers discovered he was in financial distress.
He says Virginia should require attorneys qualifying as executors for non-relatives to get the surety bond.
There are no statistics on the prevalence of abuse by the executors of estates or those with power of attorney, but the National Center on Elder Abuse said 41 out of 1,000 elderly people in one survey said they had suffered major financial exploitation.
Stuart said power of attorney can be an effective tool for managing the affairs of the incapacitated, but it can just as easily be abused.
“It’s like a gun in your home,” he said. “You can use it to defend yourself, or it can be used for bad things. It’s a powerful thing.”
In all, family members allege that $876,000 was stolen from the Buckleys, but that paled in comparison with what else was lost.
“I felt like I was robbed of the last couple years of my aunt’s life,” her grandniece Bray said.