Jack Falk’s 400-pound bike — adorned with lights, clocks, license plates and other decorations — made him a Tacoma icon before his death last year.
Falk, 65, often rode along Pacific Avenue to the Washington State History Museum, where he was a long-time volunteer. And it was to a worker at the museum that Falk confided his belief that someone was stealing his money.
It turned out that a caretaker for the developmentally disabled Falk had drained $8,000 from his accounts.
With the number of residents over age 65 expected to double by 2050, crime aimed at the elderly “is going to be an increasing problem in our community,” said Pierce County deputy prosecutor Erika Nohavec, whose team got the caretaker convicted.
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Falk’s was one of 70 cases of elder abuse the team prosecuted in 2014.
Pierce County has made a push in recent years to better prevent and prosecute the physical and financial abuse of seniors. The Prosecutor’s Office has set up a team specializing in the crime and is working with others, including police, doctors and nurses and financial experts.
The approach is similar to how cases of child abuse and domestic violence are treated, Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said.
Last week, deputy prosecutors Nohavec and Sven Nelson, two detectives, two state Adult Protective Services investigators and a victim’s advocate were in Denver for training to help Pierce County law enforcement agencies investigate and identify elder abuse.
They will now train at least 200 to 300 officers here over the next couple years, using part of a $370,985 U.S. Department of Justice grant.
The prosecutor’s office was one of nine agencies to get the award, which aims at getting multiple agencies, including victim service organizations, involved in combating the problem.
“Prosecutors many years ago sloughed it (elder abuse) off, and they’re starting to realize that this is really serious stuff,” said Bob Riler of the county’s Aging and Disability Resource Center. “I can’t tell you how much that means that they’re moving ahead with this.”
Matthew Santelli, a caseworker at the center, said one case that sticks with him involved a woman who was at risk of eviction because her son was allegedly taking her state benefit cards and other resources.
That case went to Adult Protective Services, and Santelli said he thinks it’s still pending. In the meantime, someone was assigned to help oversee her finances and pay her bills.
Nohavec was first assigned to focus on elder abuse cases in 2011.
She started by having other areas of the Prosecutor’s Office send her cases in which victims were seniors (in most cases in their 60s or older) and appeared to have been targeted at least in part because of their age.
That first year she was the entire elder abuse team and prosecuted 20 cases.
Since then, the team has grown to include another deputy prosecutor, a legal assistant and a half-time victim’s advocate. They have held steady at 70 cases annually in recent years.
“We’ve done all we can to get them here,” she said.
Now, she’s taking on a new role in the prosecutor’s office, and Nelson will lead the team.
He said he’d like to get see the various stakeholders in cases — such as Adult Protective Services, prosecutors, police and victim services —routinely gather to discuss individual victims, similar to the way child abuse cases are handled.
That can help determine which resources or actions might make sense for a particular victim, such as guardianship.
Previously, Nohavec had been an intermediary among stakeholders.
“I started kind of being the bridge between different agencies,” she said.
The cases and needs of elder abuse victims often are complicated by the fact that many perpetrators are family members or other caregivers, according to the prosecutor’s office.
“In many cases, they weren’t being brought here to prosecute,” Lindquist said.
Now, after an initial push to find more cases of elder abuse to prosecute, the long-term goal is to see those crimes decrease, he said.
Nohavec’s team started about the same time that Tacoma-Pierce County Crime Stoppers launched a campaign to encourage people to report senior abuse.
Even if what’s reported isn’t a crime, law enforcement at least can bring the case to the attention of social services agencies, sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said.
“They can remain anonymous,” he said. “If family members are afraid of other family members, they can call Crime Stoppers to tell.”
Tips can be called into 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).
In Falk’s case, Mark Sylvester, who oversees security at the museum, reported to police that he believed his friend was being exploited.
After an investigation, prosecutors charged the woman managing Falk’s finances with using his account for her own expenses. She was convicted and sentenced to 26 months in prison.
After the theft was discovered, Sylvester’s family took over helping Falk oversee his finances.
The detective and deputy prosecutor involved helped break everything down for Falk about the criminal case, Sylvester said.
“They were just wonderful,” he said. “Helping him understand it. Helping me understand it, so that I could explain it to him.”
Falk was very kind, he said, and enthusiastic about helping with the museum’s landscaping, where no dandelion was safe.
“I know that he was relieved to see these people who were going to help him,” Sylvester said.