Posted Online: April 24, 2013, 8:24 pm

Bettendorf couple found guilty of exploiting elderly relative

Comment on this story

By Rachel Warmke, rwarmke@qconline.com

A Bettendorf couple was found guilty Wednesday of financial exploitation of an elderly family member.

Dennis C. Stoffel, 57, and Laura Stoffel, 58, of 3135 Central Ave., were charged in September with the Class 1 felony for failing to uphold an approximately $100,000 living agreement with Ms. Stoffel's elderly stepmother, who lives in Rock Island.

"This is about as sad as it gets because it's a family matter," said Judge F. Michael Meersman at the end of a seven-hour bench trial in Rock Island County Circuit Court on Wednesday. "It's never fun listening to family laundry being thrashed about."

Wednesday's testimony was riddled with different versions of the same story, the judge said.

"When it comes down to the believability of the witnesses," he said with an indication toward the elderly woman, "I'm siding with her."

Rather than enter a judgment, however, he gave the parties time to reach an agreement out of court. A June 7 status hearing was set; the Stoffels remained out on bond Wednesday evening.

Judge Meersman said the criminality of the case lay in part with the elderly woman paying a large sum of money for arrangements to be upheld and then receiving no compensation when they were not.

She agreed.

"They took advantage of me when I was down and out," the 83-year-old woman testified on Wednesday. "I loved those two and trusted them. They were my family. So when they said to do this, I trusted them."

A resolution is expected to be handled by Mr. Schwartz and a civil lawyer for the older woman, said Assistant State's Attorney Jim Wozniak, who prosecuted the case.

According to court testimony, the Stoffels moved in August 2010 from Florida to the the Quad-Cities. Mr. Stoffel found a job, and Ms. Stoffel cared for her father and stepmother. Ms. Stoffel's father developed a plan to buy a home where the two couples would reside, letting Ms. Stoffel remain at home and care for her parents.

Her father grew ill and died before the plan came to fruition, at which point, "the house deal, in my opinion, was off the table," Ms. Stoffel testified on Wednesday.

Her stepmother, however, wanted to continue with the plan. In March 2011, the Stoffels found a Bettendorf home that the stepmother bought for approximately $100,000.

The stepmother testified she did not see the house before buying it but trusted the Stoffels' judgment. She said when she first visited the one-story residence, she found it had no handicap access, and the deed was in Mr. Stoffel's name.

She said she believed the original agreement was for the deed to be in her name. The Stoffels would care for her and pay for utilities, and the deed would transfer to them when she died.

Defense attorney Jack Schwartz claimed the case was an instance of "buyer's remorse" by the elderly woman. He said his clients are willing to return or sell the home.

"This has destroyed my life," Mr. Stoffel testified. "I will give the house back if this all goes away."

The Stoffels contended the elderly woman wanted her name kept off the deed for financial reasons. They said she changed her mind about moving several times, even after they made the home's doorways wheelchair-accessible. Mr. Stoffel, who does carpentry, testified he also built a backyard deck at the home in April 2012 with detachable stairs in case a ramp was needed.

Judge Meersman, however, noted Mr. Stoffel could have built such a ramp at any time, even during the seven months since charges were filed. The judge also said the elderly woman's health only would worsen, and the small house could not accommodate her potential health care needs, such as a hospital bed.

The judge told the Stoffels that, had they really intended for the elderly woman to join them in the home, "you would have never picked that house."He said the older woman appeared very "financially acute" and had given $100,000 of her money without seeing anything in return.