To Grandmother's House We Go

When a Denver probate judge came calling, Letty Milstein lost her day in court.

This month Letty Milstein gained a permanent guardian--and lost her independence permanently.

Refusing 83-year-old Letty the right to appear at her own hearing last week, as well as the right to hire an attorney to represent her interests at that hearing, Denver Probate Court Judge C. Jean Stewart ruled on Monday that Letty needs 24-hour "supervision" for the rest of her life. That supervision includes deciding who Letty can see or call, where she can go, and how she will spend what's left of her estate--already decimated by the court's earlier decisions.

Stewart also determined that Letty will not be able to see the most important person in her life--her son, John Milstein--until he agrees to "court-approved" counseling.

Letty Milstein wasn't the only one banned from the June 3 permanent-orders hearing. Attorneys Drew Petrie and Cris Campbell, who contend that Letty hired them in May, were ordered out of the courtroom by Judge Stewart. So were Letty's former attorney, several guardianship watchdogs and a reporter.

And then, in private, Stewart determined Letty Milstein's future.
Petrie and Campbell claim that Judge Stewart not only violated Letty's rights, but also Colorado's Probate Code and Code of Judicial Conduct. Of primary concern, they argue, is not just the closed hearing, but a secret visit Stewart paid to Letty on May 23, in which she interviewed the elderly woman "in lieu of testimony" at the hearing.

And then Stewart took it upon herself to act as "counsel, expert witness and fact finder" as well as judge, the lawyers charge.

"I've never seen anything like it," adds Campbell. "Everyone I talk to can't believe it."

The scene in Denver Probate Court last week marked the start of the latest, and perhaps last, act in a real-life drama that has pitted Letty's daughter, flamboyant arts patron Judi Wolf, against Letty's son, John Milstein ("Mommy Dearest," May 22).

The relationship between Judi and her much younger brother has never been close. It became more strained after Judi married millionaire oilman Marvin Wolf.

John was Letty's favorite, and she often boasted about his having graduated from Harvard Law School--even though, as Judi points out, he never practiced law. But Judi was extremely jealous of John, Letty told friends and neighbors. Some of them blame Letty's current misfortunes on Judi; they say she may be using her mother to get back at her brother.

Even if that means Letty Milstein winds up broke and in a nursing home, which is the last thing she wants.

In December 1994, Letty balked when Judi and Marvin sent a lawyer over to her southeast Denver home to help her put her estate in order. Among other things, the Wolfs demanded that Letty remove John Milstein's name as the beneficiary on several money-market accounts in the event of her death. Letty refused to make the change.

Marvin Wolf sent Letty a bill for the attorney's unrequested services. Soon after, Letty hired attorney Bob Horen to look after her legal affairs.

In December 1995, Letty, who'd lived alone in her house since her husband's death in 1987, fell and broke her hip. While she was still in the hospital, according to Letty's friends, Judi said that her mother had been diagnosed with severe dementia and would not be able to live at home again--even though Letty had been on her own for years, with occasional help from her neighbors and John.

The following spring, though, with the help of John, Horen and Letty's longtime neighbors, Dr. John and Dorothy Denst, Letty decided to hire a health-care agency to provide part-time help to see her through rehabilitation--at her own home.

But that April, Judi Wolf suddenly petitioned the Denver Probate Court to appoint a temporary guardian and conservator to look out for Letty's "best interests."

Without substantiating medical evidence from a doctor, as required by Colorado law, Judge Stewart determined that Letty was incapacitated because of dementia--a product of the aging process marked by the loss of short-term memory--and in need of a temporary guardian.

Colorado statutes also require that family and friends, such as the Densts, be considered as potential guardians before professionals are appointed and that the least restrictive form of guardianship be attempted. Instead, Stewart named as guardian Gordon Wolfe, the director of Human Network Services, who had been requested by Judi on the recommendation of her lawyer. (That lawyer and her firm had represented Wolfe in several cases concerning complaints about his services.) Wolfe, who has a reputation among guardianship advocates for being high-priced and overly restrictive, turned around and immediately began limiting visits to Letty and her use of the telephone. He also left aides a memo instructing them to treat Letty "like a disciplined child." Letty was angry at their instrusion and let them know it.

Wolfe blamed the restrictions, along with what would later turn into extremely costly 24-hour home health care, on John Milstein's interference. At court hearings, Wolfe's aides testified that John agitated his mother. But one aide, who claimed she was fired when she questioned Letty's need for 24-hour care, told Westword that she and other aides had noted in daily logs that John had a calming effect on his mother.

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