This elderly Bay Area couple was being robbed. The suspect was in their home, caring for them

The information he’d just seen on his computer screen was gut-wrenching. His parents had been cruelly betrayed — financially and emotionally.

Berkes had finally succeeded in logging in to his father’s online banking records. He’d had financial power of attorney for years but hadn’t exercised it. His parents, both in their 70s, were fiercely private about finances and proud of their meticulous bill-paying systems.

But there were worrisome signs that both were increasingly in cognitive decline, so Andrew had spent months calling, faxing and emailing their online-only bank to gain access to their accounts.

Now, even at a quick glance, he and Elizabeth could see that the checking account log was filled with charges that were absurd for the elderly couple: eyelash extensions, a tanning salon, a fitness club in Alameda.

Andrew and Elizabeth looked at each other. They knew immediately what must have happened.

Andrew and Elizabeth, both 43 and the parents of three children — Sonali, 9; Sarita, 13; and Daniel, 16 — moved back to Moraga, where he had grown up, in 2007. Both took jobs at De La Salle High School, she as director of faculty and he as chair of the religious studies department and special assistant to the president for mission.

Living just down the street from Andrew’s parents, Leslie and Cheryl Berkes, was a big plus. The older couple were excited to spend time with their grandchildren, teaching them to bake, hosting them when they were off from school. There were regular family dinners at the house where Andrew and his two siblings grew up, which the couple had owned since 1986.

Leslie Berkes, now 75, a retired organizational psychologist for large institutions, is a Vietnam veteran with two doctorates— one in clinical psychology and another in organizational psychology. Cheryl Berkes, also 75, had a career as a high school English teacher and real estate agent. Both were community stalwarts, active in their church, the Boy Scouts and other local civic organizations, their children say.

Perhaps because both were so accomplished and intelligent, they could compensate when each started experiencing memory loss relatively young, in their late 60s.

The first inklings came in 2016, when Leslie was hospitalized several times for falls and episodes of confusion. At 115 pounds on a 5-foot, 9-inch frame, he was skin and bones.

The couple’s grown children finally persuaded them to accept some help. They’d find a caregiver for weekdays when Andrew and Elizabeth were at work. That person could make sure Leslie took his 12 medications, drive the couple to doctor appointments and morning Mass, and prepare lunch.

 This elderly Bay Area couple was being robbed. The suspect was in their home, caring for them

Andrew and Elizabeth Berkes had to move his parents into an assisted living facility as their condition declined.

Kristen Murakoshi / Special to The Chronicle

After several weeks of looking, they settled on Heidi Miller, now 47. “She was lovely, friendly, helpful,” Elizabeth said. The former nurse’s assistant had great references and her background check was clean.

In late 2016, they arranged for her to work as a part-time home health aide for $25 an hour.

“After we hired her, it seemed like a miraculous turnaround,” Elizabeth said. “Dad gained weight. He looked a million times better. He stopped going to the hospital.

“It was a huge relief for us.”

Two years later, the Berkes family all crammed into the home of Andrew’s sister in Southern California over Thanksgiving. The adult children observed that their parents’ cognitive facilities had deteriorated more than they’d realized. Especially troubling: Leslie was sleepwalking.

They had a family meeting and discussed getting more care. But the couple were adamant that they were fine. They flatly rejected the idea of moving to an assisted living facility.

Andrew and his sisters decided he should at least look at the couple’s bank accounts to get a sense of what kind of care they could afford down the road. Between work pressures, child-raising, bank stonewalling and technical issues, that took until April 2019.

The bank charges Andrew saw that day in his kitchen were just the tip of the iceberg.

It turned out that his parents’ retirement, checking and savings accounts had been ransacked. Credit cards had been issued, ringing up big-ticket purchases that sounded like a game-show shopping spree run amok.

The purchases, according to a sworn FBI affidavit, included four cars, clothing, jewelry, restaurant meals, a Princess Cruise, a trip to Disneyland, breast augmentation, liposuction, gym memberships, meal-service subscriptions, carpeting, high-end mattresses.

There was $18,000 for athletic wear from Lululemon and Athleta. An additional $14,000 went to services for five pets, including vet procedures and a “14-day dream dog package.” There were tens of thousands of dollars in ATM withdrawals and unauthorized checks.

All told, there were at least 1,500 unauthorized transactions, totaling at least $363,000.

And, according to the FBI affidavit, the forensic evidence made clear that Miller was the culprit.

Andrew and Elizabeth immediately contacted the Moraga Police Department.

They said their parents were being robbed and that the thief was at their parents’ house, caring for them.

“My mind was racing,” Andrew said. “I thought, ‘If she’s gotten into these accounts, what else is she doing?’ Not only on the financial end but on the physical end. Could she be manipulating my father’s medications?”

They hoped the police would rush to their parents’ house with sirens blazing and arrest Miller right then and there.

But the police explained that they needed time to investigate, assigning two detectives to the case.

 This elderly Bay Area couple was being robbed. The suspect was in their home, caring for them

The Berkes family waits for staff to unlock the gate after a visit in Moraga.

Kristen Murakoshi/Special to The Chronicle

The police walked the couple through what to do.

Elizabeth texted Miller that she could take a week off starting immediately. It was spring break, so they’d care for their parents themselves.

They changed all the locks on their parents’ house.

Then they texted Miller a story concocted by the police, saying their mom’s purse, keys and cell phones had been stolen, so the locks were changed and the parents could not be reached by phone.

They froze all the credit cards and bank accounts. The police could see that someone was trying to access them all that week.

When the week was up, the police helped them compose a final text to Miller. It said they were so sorry to do this over text, but they had realized their parents needed 24/7 help and were moving them into assisted living ASAP. They’d reach out about setting up a time for her to come and say goodbye.

There was no reply.

“Elder financial exploitation is like a pandemic itself,” said Paul Greenwood, who was a San Diego deputy district attorney for 25 years and headed his department’s elder abuse prosecution unit. He now consults on the issue. “These thefts occur at an alarming rate.”

Many aren’t even reported. Victims may be too embarrassed or in too much cognitive decline.

California seniors are estimated to have lost $15.9 billion to elder financial exploitation in 2020, affecting about 685,000 people, or 8% of the senior population, according to Comparitech, a website focusing on consumer security and privacy.

Greenwood helped push for California’s Elder Abuse Reporting Act of 2005, which mandates that banks and credit unions report suspected financial abuse of elderly people.

 This elderly Bay Area couple was being robbed. The suspect was in their home, caring for them

Family photos and memorabilia decorate Leslie Berkes’ room in Moraga, including a name plaque that belonged to his wife and some of their wedding photos.

Kristen Murakoshi/Special to The Chronicle

While some financial crimes against seniors are perpetrated by strangers, such as phone con artists or shady investment firms, all too often it can be family members or caregivers — people in a position of trust.

“A caregiver has unprecedented access,” said Dr. Anna Chodos, an associate professor of medicine at UCSF’s division of geriatrics. “It’s a situation that’s ripe for abuse.”

She’s had patients with caregivers whom they considered like family who, as in the Berkes case, opened credit card accounts in their name.

The Berkes investigation took more than a year and ultimately involved four law enforcement agencies: the Moraga police, the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI.

Andrew spent hours every night after work and the entire summer of 2019 reviewing credit card and bank statements to highlight fraudulent charges. He went to phone stores to cancel service to iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches that Miller allegedly bought for her family members.

He discovered that Miller had told his parents she’d handle their taxes and then failed to pay them. With penalties and late fees, they owed about $40,000 to the IRS. He pleaded with Contra Costa County not to put a lien on their house for unpaid property taxes. He contacted all the individual banks and credit card companies, fighting with them to get some reimbursement.

Many did provide at least partial reimbursement, although ultimately about half of the parents’ savings and retirement accounts still were wiped out.

It rankles Andrew and Elizabeth that Chase Bank has refused to reimburse almost $50,000 in charges on one credit card in Leslie Berkes’ name, including unauthorized purchases from Kate Spade, TJ Maxx, Athleta, Costco, an auto imports dealer, a jeweler.

They are suing Chase, saying the bank failed to recognize red flags.

Chase declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

“The things she bought (with that card) should have set off alarms at Chase,” said the Berkes family’s pro bono attorney, Heather Gibson. “There were breast implants, all kinds of eating out, athletic gear, nail salons. Those purchases would have set off an alarm and locked all of my credit cards.”

Miller was arrested at her Alameda residence in fall 2020, charged with credit card fraud and released on a $100,000 bond.

A hearing for her to enter a plea and be sentenced is set for Thursday. The U.S. Department of Justice Victim Notification System wrote to the family last month that Miller is expected to plead guilty.

Anne Beles, an Oakland attorney representing Miller, said neither she nor Miller could comment before that hearing.

The Berkes couple did move into assisted living, forced to rush through a process that the family had hoped would be slow and deliberate.

The police convinced the family that their parents needed to be somewhere safe. All were concerned about what might happen if Miller came to the home. Leslie still needed help managing medications and had the sleepwalking issue.

Fortunately, they had already started looking for places and were able to move them almost immediately into a senior residence in Moraga.

Leslie’s dementia has escalated and he now requires help with activities of daily living such as dressing, bathing and eating. He lives in a memory unit separate from Cheryl, whose short-term memory became more compromised by her Alzheimer’s disease.

Andrew and Elizabeth say those issues were exacerbated by the shock of most of their money being embezzled, as well as the pandemic quarantine. Like many other senior residences, their new home had to ban outside visitors for a year starting in March 2020.

“Their lives were completely and irrevocably changed by her actions,” Andrew Berkes wrote in a victim impact statement. “They will never get the life back that they had.”

Cheryl Berkes also wrote a victim impact statement with help from her daughters. Leslie Berkes was too incapacitated to write one.

“We’ve worked all our lives,” Cheryl Berkes wrote. “We’ve been upstanding members of society who paid our bills on time, not living beyond our means. We have no more chances of working and making money. … (Miller) took away our hope, our confidence, we feel stupid and helpless.

“We included her into the family and she manipulated our trust to get closer to our finances.”

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @csaid

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