Jury finds Santos innocent of financial elder abuse
In a trial that featured a most unusual defense strategy, former police officer Frank B. Santos Jr. was found innocent on two counts of felony financial elder abuse Thursday in Nevada County Superior Court.
“I definitely think they came to the right verdict,” said Santos, 27, who gained power of attorney to oversee the assets of the late Florence Pena and was named sole beneficiary of the Nevada City woman’s will.
“I’ve been going through this for a year and a half, and the truth finally came out,” he said.
Santos was charged with two felony counts. The first involved bank transfers he made from Pena’s accounts to his; the second concerned his attempt to transfer the title of Pena’s house into his name.
The District Attorney’s Office charged Santos with unlawfully taking more than $100,000 of Pena’s assets between April 1 and June 30, 2001.
Santos contended he was trying to help Pena by spending down her assets so she could qualify for Medi-Cal.
Santos became acquainted with Pena at the age of 14, when he started doing yardwork and chores around her house.
“She was like my grandmother, and she said I reminded her a lot of her grandson,” he said. “We filled a lot of voids in each others’ lives.”
Santos said the relationship blossomed into friendship, and that he began seeing to Pena’s care when her health deteriorated.
Pena, who was diagnosed with dementia two years ago, died Aug. 20, 2001 in a nursing home in Auburn at 77.
“Florence and I, we loved each other and she was repaying everything that I did for her,” Santos said. “She wanted me to have her estate, but I didn’t care about the money. I’d much rather have my friend back.”
As they did throughout the six-day trial, Santos’ family sat on one side of the courtroom Thursday, while Pena’s kin sat on the other.
After the verdict was read, Santos’ father, Frank Sr., crumpled to his knees, crossed himself, and prayed while tears rolled down his face.
Santos’ mother, Connie Santos, also wept.
“I thank God that (the jury) came up with the right decision because I had to let it go,” she said. “It was out of our hands, and I just prayed that they’d make the right choice; and they did.”
Connie Santos said she was both shocked and disappointed that the case wasn’t dropped after her son’s preliminary hearing in December.
“That it actually went to trial I think is very, very wrong,” she said. “It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money, and it’s very hard for a family to go through.”
Juror Mark Narveson said deciphering the Medi-Cal spend-down strategy made reaching a verdict difficult because there were a lot of details to sort out regarding the money and asset transfers.
“Frank might not have made the wisest choices concerning Florence’ affairs, but we couldn’t say beyond a reasonable doubt that he had criminal intent,” Narveson said. “It was obvious that Frank loved Florence, and that they were longtime friends and that she wanted him to have everything. I think Frank was acting in her best interests as a longtime friend.”
If Santos had been properly advised, he would have done things differently, said defense attorney Richard Wilcox.
“But I feel justice was done,” he said.
Deputy District Attorney Jim Phillips said he wasn’t completely surprised by the verdict and had no regrets.
“I think it was the position of this office all along that there was probable cause to bring Frank to trial. But with Mrs. Pena being deceased, we knew it wasn’t an airtight case going in,” he said.
“Twelve jurors from our community said the case hadn’t been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and we accept that verdict even though we have no regrets about bringing the case to trial,” Phillips said.
Frank Santos Jr. said a probate court will decide what happens to Pena’s assets.
The Pena family members declined to comment on Thursday’s verdict.
Tosh Yamamoto, an attorney representing Pena’s family, said the will will be contested, and that a civil financial elder abuse case against Santos is pending.
Santos served on the Placerville Police Department from 1996 until March.
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