On Mother's Day, families across the country gathered together to thank Mom for all her love and sacrifices. In Denver, flamboyant socialite Judi Wolf drove over to her mother's house in order to take the elderly woman back to "a party" at Judi's expansive digs in Cherry Hills. But Letty Milstein wouldn't cooperate.
A feisty 83-year-old, Letty is convinced that her daughter and son-in-law, Marvin Wolf, one of the richest men in Colorado, are trying to bankrupt her and force her into a nursing home. It was Judi, Letty says, who petitioned the court to have "my freedom taken away."
As Judi attempted to coax her mother out the door and into her car, an angry Letty got on the telephone and called her son, John Milstein.
"They're trying to take my dog and me and leave," Letty yelled into the phone as her toy poodle, Surprise, was led out to Judi's car. "What the hell is this all about? I have to say these bad words or I'll go crazy.
Denver Broncos v. Arizona Cardinals - HALF PRICE GAME
TicketsThu., Aug. 31, 7:00pm
Denver Broncos vs. Arizona Cardinals
TicketsThu., Aug. 31, 7:00pm
Rocky Mountain Showdown - CU v CSU Football vs. University of Colorado Buffaloes
TicketsFri., Sep. 1, 6:00pm
Colorado Rockies vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
TicketsFri., Sep. 1, 6:40pm
Colorado Rockies vs. San Francisco Giants
TicketsMon., Sep. 4, 1:10pm
"I'm not going to leave the house. I want to stay right here with Surprise."
And not just on Mother's Day, either. All Letty wants to do is live out her life in the brick home on East Fourth Avenue where she's resided for over a generation. But that desire has become the focus of an ugly year-long battle in Denver Probate Court.
Arrayed on one side are Judi, the darling of the society-page columnists, her oilman husband and Letty's court-appointed guardians. They all contend that Letty suffers from dementia and needs 24-hour care and a guardian to protect her--protect her, that is, from her longtime neighbors and her only son.
On the other side are Letty, her neighbors and John, a 42-year-old Harvard law grad who even friends concede may be wound a little too tightly in his mother's apron strings. But that, they add, is a matter between a mother and her son.
Letty's support group doesn't deny that she may need help dealing with the details of daily living. But they also say they're willing to provide that help, with only minimal assistance from in-home health-care providers, at a much lower price than the costly care that now drains Letty's bank account. And whatever "dementia" she suffers from, Letty's friends argue, has been exacerbated by having her life turned upside down by an overly intrusive court system that jumps whenever the Wolfs howl.
Today Letty is a virtual prisoner in her own home. Her telephone calls are monitored. The media, and even nurses sent to look into her situation by Denver police, have been turned away by Letty's "protectors." She has to put up with whatever health-care aides--essentially glorified babysitters--the guardian sends over, whether she likes them or not. And she is kept from her friends, her neighbors and the son she loves, all by order of Denver Probate Judge C. Jean Stewart, while the court determines what ultimate action is "best" for her.
In the meantime, a handful of lawyers fight each other and take their payment from Letty's estate. Between the attorneys, the guardians and a court-appointed conservator, what was once the tidy nest egg that Jules Milstein left to support his beloved wife has been severely depleted--so much so that Letty's fears of being sent to a nursing home may be realized no matter what anyone says or does.
The Wolfs have declined to be interviewed for this story. "I have been advised that because this matter has been scheduled for a hearing, it is not appropriate for me to discuss the issues before the court date for permanent orders," Judi Wolf wrote in response to Westword's request.
Many of Letty's supporters refuse to speak on the record, though they have plenty to say behind the cloak of anonymity. They cite fears of the Wolfs' big money and the 17th Street law firms at their beck and call, as well as their concerns over the perceived bias of the court, which Letty's supporters say has sided with the Wolfs at every turn and ignored Colorado law in the process.
The court files on Letty's case are over a foot thick and tell much of the story. They include a restraining order that bars John from seeing his mother.
So on Mother's Day, when Letty called, John couldn't help her.
"I don't know what to do, Mom," he told her. In the background, he could hear one of the aides telling Letty that Surprise was out in Judi's car, crying.
"Of course he's crying," Letty yelled back. "He has more sense than all of us.
Letty Lippman and her twin sister, Betty, were born April 23, 1914, and grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri. By her own account, Letty came from a wealthy Jewish family of good standing that could trace its roots back to even greater wealth in Russia. Their father protected the girls from the harshness of the world, and Letty grew up used to having things her own way.
After Betty moved to Denver and married Paul Milstein, Letty moved, too, to stay close to her sister. She met Paul's brother, Jules, who immediately fell in love with the petite, dark-haired beauty.
Unlike the Lippmans, the Milsteins were impoverished Jews who had emigrated from Russia to England and subsequently to the United States. Gregarious as he was poor, Jules was a charmer--but certainly beneath Letty's perceived social class. For six years he wooed Letty, promising to work himself to the bone in order to keep her in the manner to which she was accustomed.
In 1939 Letty finally consented to marry Jules. On July 11, 1942, Judith Ellen Milstein was born.
As he had promised, Jules worked hard to support his wife and child, giving up the outdoors and sports activities he'd enjoyed as a young man and putting in more hours to build a contracting business. Whatever money he didn't spend on his family he invested in Denver real estate. Year by year the Milsteins' financial outlook improved.
For the first twelve years of her life, Judi Milstein was a beloved only child, raised by a mother who considered her family a cut or two above the masses. Judi learned ballet and classical music and the fine arts that young ladies of good upbringing should appreciate. If she had inherited her father's pleasant, peasant face rather than her mother's more delicate lines, Judi was still a pretty girl with dark brown hair and eyes.
Then on September 10, 1954, Letty and Jules had a baby boy, John--and the sibling rivalry from hell was born.
"I had more toys," John says, looking back at what he believes are the root causes of the rift with his sister. By the time John was a toddler, Jules's hard work had elevated the family to the upper middle class. Not rich by Judi's current standards, but certainly comfortable.
Letty was a sheltered wife and mother. Jules had built her a large home, which she filled with select pieces of art and furniture. She had a housekeeper and a nanny for John. There were weekly trips to the hairdresser and season passes to the symphony. The Milsteins were in good standing at the local synagogue--not overly religious, but moral people who knew right from wrong. Bad things did not happen in the Milstein household.
Judi attended East High School. A picture in the 1958 Angelus yearbook shows the senior preparing to compete as a finalist in the school's annual Wolcott Sight-Reading contest. In the event, each girl was handed a book to read, cold, in front of judges who evaluated the contestant's ability to recite using the proper expression. Judi didn't win, but her penchant for drama would become apparent later in life.
In the East High library's lone copy of the Angelus, next to Judi Milstein's photograph is a notation that she would be attending the University of California at Berkeley as a philosophy major. Judi stayed at the California school for two years before deciding that she wanted to study Spanish at the University of Madrid in Spain. But that was an ocean too far away, and instead her parents sent her to the University of Mexico in Mexico City.
There she met Issac "Zack" Chayet Volchansky, five years her senior. Zack was an attorney who'd just graduated from Harvard with a degree in international law. The two made a good-looking couple. He stood a little over six feet, with heavy masculine features, dark skin and a mustache. Judi was six inches shorter and curvaceous, with a wide, perfect smile.
Judi and Zack married in Denver on April 15, 1962. After spending some time back in Mexico, they returned to Colorado and lived in the Milsteins' basement before Jules bought them a modest brick home on East Fourth Avenue near Monaco.
The house was in a nice middle-class neighborhood filled with professional people who kept their lawns neat and their homes tidy. Several doctors lived in the area, including Dr. John Denst. He lived across the street with his wife, Dorothy, a registered nurse.
Judi and Zack's first child, Edward Lance Chayet, was born on January 5, 1963. His grandmother Letty cared for him while Judi pursued a teaching degree with a Spanish specialty from the University of Denver. And Letty continued to babysit her grandson--as she would the two who followed, Victor in 1966 and Marco in 1971--when Judi landed a job at Graland Country Day School, a private academy that teaches students from many of Denver's richest and most influential families.
John Milstein, a young boy at the time, recalls his sister complaining about how some of the parents of the students treated her "sort of like the hired help, and she resented it," he says. "I think that's where Judi saw what she wanted--and part of what she wanted was to be on top of that society."
When Zack and Judi decided to move to a bigger home soon after Marco's birth, Jules and Letty moved into the Fourth Avenue house. John was leaving for college; they didn't need the larger home anymore.
But the Milsteins still had plenty of nice things, drove a Cadillac and were regular contributors to the symphony, where their names were engraved on the backs of their seats. And they soon became fast friends with their neighbors, particularly the Densts.
Meanwhile, Judi and Zack were doing all right for themselves, too. Zack's Mexican connections had paid off; word was that if you wanted something done south of the border, you had to talk to Chayet. Between his law practice and assorted business interests, the couple was successful enough to own condominiums in upscale La Jolla, California, and Beaver Creek. They had 240 acres of investment property in Kiowa County; among their cars they counted a Mercedes and a Jaguar, both older models but still collector's items. And Judi continued to pull in $10,000 a year teaching part-time at Graland.
One day Judi received a telephone call from Estelle "Cissy" Wolf. Cissy and her husband, Marvin, had been inquiring about a property in California; the owners, with whom they were to meet, spoke only Spanish. They needed an interpreter, and a friend had suggested Judi, who taught at the school the Wolfs' children attended.
Despite the hundreds of millions Marvin had made in the oil business, he and Cissy lived a relatively quiet life. Cissy's friends knew her to be a sharp, intelligent woman who quietly donated large sums to charities but had made it clear to the society writers for the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post that she did not want her name appearing in the newspapers.
A Nebraska native, Marvin had graduated from the University of Colorado law school. But he and his brothers, Melvin and Irving, made their real fortune in the oil business in the 1960s and '70s, when the U.S. government practically gave away the rights to drill public lands. Before the oil lottery system--the subject of several criminal investigations--was discontinued, Wolf Energy Co. had made what some insiders say was close to $600 million. "Marvin could play hardball with the best of them," says a local attorney who worked for oil-boom clients.
Although it turned out the Wolfs didn't need an interpreter after all, Marvin began using Zack Chayet for business deals in Latin America. According to friends of Chayet, who now lives in California, every time Zack arrived back in Denver, Marvin would meet him at the airport with a new mission.
"Zack was happy," recalls one friend. "This multi-millionaire was throwing him all this business."
But when Zack returned home from one more business trip, his friend says, it was Judi who met him at the airport. She wanted a divorce, she told her husband. She was going to marry Zack's patron, Marvin Wolf.
John Milstein says his family was well aware of Judi's affair with Marvin. "He was buying her furs and things," John adds. His straitlaced parents, who had never really liked Chayet, did not approve of this man, either. But Judi was adamant.
She filed for divorce on June 14, 1982, after twenty years of marriage. She was 40, Zack was 45, and Marvin was 50. The divorce became final on April 22, 1983--three days after Marvin's divorce from Cissy was granted. According to one inside source, Cissy got more than $100 million in the settlement deal.
Judi and Marvin were married on September 1, 1983. Soon after, Zack Chayet went back to court--he was represented by Phil Lowery, a local attorney with his own reputation for flamboyance--and asked the judge to reduce his obligation to pay for his sons' education expenses. Marvin Wolf had stolen his wife; he could pay for the kids' schools.
Lowery argued that his client's finances had decreased to a level that made the required payments "unconscionable." Meanwhile, he said, Judi had married into "incredible sums of money...multi-millions."
But Judi's lawyer countered that while his client had married Marvin Wolf, that didn't necessarily make her any richer. Although he refused to divulge details of a prenuptial agreement Judi had signed before her second wedding, her lawyer noted that it "specifically disclaims any obligation by Marvin Wolf to support Chayet's children and in no way improves [Judi's] financial condition so long as she is married to Marvin Wolf."
Lowery demanded to see Marvin and Cissy Wolfs' divorce file, but it had been sealed by the court. He subpoenaed Marvin and attempted to exact information about his finances. During a deposition, Wolf's lawyer started to object, but Wolf waved him off. He'd handle this himself.
"All he's trying to do is find out if I can support his client's children. That's all," Wolf said. But if Lowery thought he had an opening, he was quickly disappointed. "I can tell you I can, Mr. Lowery, with no problem, if that's what you are searching for," Wolf continued. "I suggest your client support his own children and we won't have to worry about it."
Wolf was not about to pick up someone else's tab. He once sued his own son over a business deal. That time, he lost.
John Milstein returned to Denver in 1979 after graduating from Harvard Law School. He'd attended the school at his father's insistence, but he had no desire to practice law. Instead, John worked for his parents and also put together business deals for friends he'd met back East who were now on Wall Street or with big banks. His parents bought a condominium for him to live in.
In March 1987, Jules Milstein died after nearly 49 years of marriage to Letty. In all those years, he had done his best to live up to his promise: to protect her from the world and give her a comfortable life.
According to John, Jules had lost a lot of money in the stock market a few years before his death, but he still left Letty with significant assets. There was the house on Fourth Avenue, now worth about $250,000, as well as its collection of antiques and art, and half-interest in the condominium occupied by John. And there was nearly $400,000 in money-market funds and bank accounts that, combined with Social Security, should have been enough to see Letty through her remaining years in the manner to which she was accustomed.
But Jules didn't figure on a family feud that would spill over into the courts. Mix Judi, John and Letty, says one observer, and "you have a dysfunctional family with a capital 'D.'"
A number of people--from friends to psychologists hired by the court--have remarked on the mother and son's co-dependency. "He's in his forties," says a friend of John's, "never married, and never far from his mother--except when he went away to school. And she's been dependent on him for years, especially after her husband died, for help with the groceries, her finances and for companionship."
In probate-court records, Judi notes derisively that her brother has not worked since he graduated from law school. But then, Judi was only too eager to put her working days behind her, too; John sneers that his sister is a "trophy wife." In one fawning newspaper profile, Judi said she'd made a deal with the "kitchen witch" years ago that she wouldn't invade the airspace occupied by stoves, dishwashers or microwaves. "I would much rather it be a closet," the "titan-tressed" Judi cooed.
By now, Judi was appearing in the papers often. She and Marvin were big patrons of the performing arts and went to all the parties. They threw fundraisers at their new "palace" in Cherry Hills, where the wealthy could eat canapes on behalf of the less fortunate. Cameras caught Judi in the company of actors such as Robert Goulet, opera singers and political luminaries like Governor Roy Romer. And if Judi sometimes stood out amid the more subdued old-money members of society, it was by design.
She became famous for appearing at galas and opening nights in dresses that looked more like theater costumes--low-cut assemblages of bright colors, rhinestones and ostrich feathers. The dark hair was now red, the soft brown eyes shaded blue by contacts. Her nose was thinner, perkier, and her face looked "stretched," John says. "It was like it wasn't even Judi's anymore."
In 1992 the Wolfs donated a reception salon at the Buell Theatre, which was named the "Marvin and Judi Wolf Room." But the publicity did not always work to their benefit. That same year the couple arrived home from dinner one night and were met by the so-called Society Bandits, Marty and Joey Bueno.
The Buenos held Marvin and Judi at gunpoint, bound them and then stole jewelry, cash and other items valued at about $300,000--none of which were ever recovered. At his sentencing two years later, one of the brothers told the judge that poor people get robbed every day, "but because a person is rich and lives in a wealthy neighborhood, people make a big deal of it."
Judi took the robbery in stride and kept up her high-profile appearances. In 1993 the News named her one of that year's "Women of Distinction." She nominated her sister-in-law, Elaine Wolf, for the award the following year; Elaine and her husband, Melvin, have donated large sums of money to Rose Medical Center.
On Valentine's Day 1994, Judi offered a reporter this version of her first kiss from Marvin: "It was everything that I had hoped for...4th of July...Full symphony orchestra... Butterflies...It was last night, because every kiss I get from my husband Marvin is like the first."
In late spring of that year, "the tangerine-clad temptress sashayed across the stage of the Boettcher Concert Hall and presented a spirited narration of the Thrill of the Orchestra as part of a donor-appreciation concert hosted by the Colorado Symphony Association," wrote News columnist Dawn Denzer. "After the performance, several hundred of the Wolfs' closest pals joined them in the luxurious Marvin and Judi Wolf Room for every type of cholesterol-making, complexion-ruining dessert available."
Letty Milstein attended a few of these society tributes. "There were no extravagant gifts," says one insider, "and Marvin certainly wasn't the sort to support Judi's mom, but neither was she completely ignored or mistreated."
But it was John who spent the most time with "Mommy," as he still calls her. Whenever he mentions Letty, John's brown eyes tear up.
"Actually, he is very devoted to her," says Chuck Watts, who moved in next to Letty in early 1994. "He was there all the time, driving her on errands, taking her grocery shopping and to the hairdresser.
"They were very loving, although not always harmonious," Watts says of John and Letty. "They each had their way of doing things and were certain that their way was right and the other's was wrong. But it never blew up into anything."
Sometimes Letty would complain that John, a vegetarian, had insisted she cook vegetables for herself. "Letty is a notorious junk-food junkie," Watts says. "After he'd leave, she'd confide, 'I don't care for vegetables. I just buy them to make John happy.'"
Watts found Letty to be a spry, opinionated woman who wasn't afraid to share those opinions. He discovered her outspokenness shortly after he moved in, when she let him know that he wasn't keeping his yard up the way his predecessor had.
"The woman who lived here before had been there for something like thirty years," Watts says. "She had been a big gardener, and all summer long her backyard was one big floral display. I didn't realize it until I went to visit Letty, but her sunroom faced that backyard. So for all those years she got to look at those flowers, then along comes someone new and her world's turned upside down."
Despite their rough beginning, Watts came to like Letty. "Actually, she's something of a battle-ax," he says with a laugh. "That's not bad--it's just Letty."
Letty wasn't one to discuss world affairs over the backyard fence. She was more interested in the things that mattered most to her, Watts says. Things like her dog, Surprise, a gift from Judi and Marvin. And especially John.
"It was John this and John that," Watts recalls. "How he had gone to Harvard and Yale. How well he took care of her. What a good son he was."
Letty only rarely spoke about Judi, who was extremely jealous of John because of the amount of money they'd spent on his education, she told Watts. "She said her daughter had married into money," he recalls, "but she was not particularly impressed with Marvin. She also saw no reason to leave Judi any of her estate when she died...She said John would need it more."
Letty impressed Watts as not needing much help, physically or mentally. "Sure, she was getting older," he says. "And she might forget where she put something for a while. But she seemed to do just fine in her little world...at least until all this other stuff blew up."
The fuse was lit at the end of 1994, when Marvin and Judi brought over attorney Lawrence Henry to help Letty revise her will. They seemed particularly concerned that she and John shared joint tenancy on her accounts (even though Letty remained sole recipient of any dividend checks) and that John was named as the beneficiary of those accounts upon Letty's death.
Judi had prepared a list of her mother's assets, including "personal jewelry, diamond ring, diamond wedding band, diamond wristwatch, pearls and gold chains...plus all other jewelry." Judi drew a bracket at the side of the list and repeated the word "all."
But Letty said she didn't want Henry to represent her, and she refused to have her son's name taken off the accounts. In a book she kept of her affairs, on January 6, 1995, Letty noted, "Marvin is taking my...funds and assets and changing my accounts so he'll end up with them."
Marvin was doing some writing of his own. On January 9, 1995, he sent Letty a message on his personal stationery: "Letty...Since you refuse to cooperate and went back on your word to follow through when we met with Larry, this is your bill to pay. I simply won't put up with your actions anymore."
Along with Henry's bill for several hundred dollars, Marvin included his opinion that John was manipulating his mother. "Either go after him," he wrote Letty, "or lay down and let him step all over you...It's your choice."
On February 10, 1995, Henry sent a letter marked "private and personal" to his "dear friends," the Wolfs. In it, he described how Letty wouldn't cooperate and how John's lawyer, Michael Merrion, had challenged Henry's assertion that he represented Letty. "I am now advising Letty," Henry wrote the Wolfs, "that I cannot further represent her under all the confused circumstance involved." He asked the Wolfs to pay him "since Letty never committed to pay me." Letty ended up giving Marvin a check for Henry's bill.
After that, Letty hired her own attorney, Robert Horen, to look after her interests. Among other things, according to court records, she told him that Judi and Marvin were after her estate and wanted her put in a nursing home. She also told Horen how proud she was of John.
With the help of John or the Densts, Letty still went to the hairdresser every Friday and grocery shopping once a week. She had no major medical problems, and while she and John had discussed whether she was maybe getting too old to drive her 1987 Cadillac, if John wasn't around she wasn't afraid to climb behind the wheel. Letty wrote her own checks to cover her bills, never once overdrawing her account. And she kept going to the symphony, her favorite outside entertainment.
A couple of days after Christmas 1995, Letty was in her backyard with Surprise when she fell and broke her hip. Using her arms, she crawled thirty feet to her kitchen, where she tried to call John. He wasn't home, so she called Dr. Denst, who ran across the street. When Judi was contacted, she reportedly told Denst that her mother would now have to be placed in a different sort of living arrangement.
When John heard about Letty's accident, he rushed to Rose hospital. Marvin and Judi were already there, and Judi was telling a doctor what should be done for her mother.
"I said, 'Don't you think Mother should be making her own choices?'" John recalls. "And she said, 'Not when she's been diagnosed with textbook dementia.'
"I said, 'So, what--you've got a Ph.D. or M.D.?' But she just smiled and walked away."
It was at that point, John says, that the doctor told him Judi had already taken her mother to several doctors over the preceding two years to have her evaluated for dementia.
Dementia is a normal by-product of aging--although there can be other causes, such as alcohol use--that is marked by a subject's mental deterioration; dementia often continues to worsen through the aging process. It is one of the most frequent reasons given by petitioners asking for a court-appointed guardian. But the diagnosis is highly subjective, and the condition can vary in degree of incapacity from someone who keeps misplacing her car keys to someone who is unable to care for herself.
In the hospital, Dr. Deb Halterman was assigned to Letty's care; John says his mother complained frequently about her bedside manner. "She'd come in and pat my mother's hand and say, 'There, there,' like she was a child," he says. "It was condescending, and my mother was definitely not used to being treated that way."
John was also concerned because Halterman seemed to be communicating only with the Wolfs. Then one day he got a call from his mother. She was being sent for rehabilitation to Shalom Park, an expensive "assisted living" center near Cherry Creek Reservoir that was far from her home. She didn't want to go.
Calling around, John found Manor Care, a rehab center that was much less expensive and only two blocks from Letty's home. His mother liked the sound of that, he says. But when he told the doctor, she said it "wasn't in the plan."
The night before Letty was to be transferred, one of John's nephews called from the hospital. Letty was refusing to go to Shalom Park. His nephew asked John to calm his mother down.
John demanded to talk to Penny Timmen, a hospital social worker, who agreed to give Letty a couple more days to consider her options, he says.
But the next day, when John arrived to visit Letty, he found an ambulance van waiting to take her to Shalom Park. She was in her room, screaming that she didn't want to go. John told Timmen he was going to call the police.
"She said, 'Are you threatening me?' And I said, 'Take it however you want,'" he recalls. Timmen went to get another social worker, only to have her colleague side with John and Letty.
In the meantime, Judi, who was already at Shalom Park, had called and wanted to know what the delay was. Judi told their mother that if she went somewhere else, "Blue Cross won't pay," John says.
But Letty was adamant. In the end, she went to Manor Park and "fired" Dr. Halterman, as she noted in her book. At Manor Park, Letty was assigned a new doctor, Dr. John Westfall, whose clinic is affiliated with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. But Judi kept trying to convince her to switch doctors again, John says. At one point the rehab center sent Letty back to Rose for a test. While she was there, John received a call from a nurse, who said Judi had called Rose and told officials there that her mother had "fired" Westfall and rehired Halterman.
John raced to Rose and confronted his sister. He spotted Letty's medical records and asked his mother for permission to read them. In her notation about the plan to send Letty to Shalom Park, Dr. Halterman had written that she'd met "with the family" and Letty.
"She never met with me or my mother," John says angrily.
There was also a "transfer notification" that read: "I understand that I am being transferred from RMC Transitional Care Unit to...Shalom Park." The notification was signed not by Letty, but by "Judi Wolf--Daughter" and social worker Timmen.
John was outraged that Judi was making decisions for their mother when Letty was fully capable of making them for herself--and had the right to do so. He again threatened to call the police. "Judi threw on her mink coat and left," he recalls. (Timmen declined to comment, saying her role was "confidential." Through a spokeswoman, Halterman said that Letty hadn't been her patient for a year, then declined further comment.)
After 24 days at Manor Care, Letty finally went home. She still needed 24-hour care: She couldn't get around well, and if she fell again and cut herself, she would be in danger of bleeding to death because of Cumaden, a blood thinner that Dr. Westfall had prescribed to prevent blood clots in her hip area. To help with her daily needs, Letty had picked a certified nurse's aide with whom she got along well; the aide alternated time at the house with John. A nurse and therapist who worked for First Choice, an in-home health-care provider whose bills were paid by Medicare, also visited regularly.
By March, Letty was reaching the end of the time that Medicare would cover those costs. First Choice asked for a meeting. With Letty, attorney Horen, Judi, John and neighbor Dorothy Denst in attendance, the First Choice representative outlined a plan in which the company would continue to provide six hours of care a day. A Denver police officer was also present; John had invited him because he wanted a witness.
But Letty had already decided to ask Greta Pollard, the director of Tender Loving Care, a home-health-care provider with which the Densts were familiar, to evaluate her and, if necessary, provide services. And John and the Densts had worked out a plan to cover any of Letty's other needs.
When Letty turned down First Choice's plan, the company representative commented that she might need a guardian. She was capable of making her own decisions, Letty retorted.
After the meeting, Judi wrote down the police officer's badge number and name. A few days later Marvin called the police department and asked what the officer was doing getting involved in a private family matter. Then Stan Rosenbaum, one of Marvin's 17th Street lawyers, called Horen. On Judi's recommendation, First Choice was now going to provide 24-hour care for Letty.
But by now the Denver Police Department was not the only agency alerted to the growing family fight. Dr. Westfall was talking about asking the court for a restraining order against the Wolfs, John says. And one of Letty's former nurses had contacted Adult Protective Services, a state agency that watches out for the elderly, to register her concerns about the Wolfs' treatment of Letty. Adult Protective Services had contacted the Denver District Attorney's office, which assigned an investigator to call Letty.
Letty made the mistake of telling Judi that she was going to talk with the DA's investigator. On the first Friday in April, 1996, Judi called her mother and said she was going to take her to see "Dr. Haines"--even though Letty was still waiting for Greta Pollard's evaluation.
John couldn't find a Dr. Haines in the phone book. He talked with Dr. Denst, who kept a directory of area doctors; he couldn't locate a Dr. Haines, either. When Judi called Letty that afternoon, John told her that he and Dr. Denst were going to take the matter up with Adult Protective Services.
Judi never took her mother to that appointment.
She did go to Letty's house that weekend, though, and take all her jewelry, Letty told John in an angry phone call. She'd also demanded to know where her mother had safety-deposit boxes. "The Wolfs thought there was a lot more money than there was," says John, "but Dad lost a lot of it."
On Monday, April 8, Letty's attorney got a call from attorney Susan Haines, who said she was representing Judi.
Letty wasn't receiving proper care, Haines told Horen, and the Wolfs were taking their case to probate court to request the appointment of a temporary guardian and conservator for Letty.
There would be an emergency hearing before Judge C. Jean Stewart--the next day.
At her request, Horen went to court prepared to contest the appointment of a guardian for Letty Milstein. But he was at a decided disadvantage: It soon became apparent that Judi had been planning for this for some time.
She was claiming that her mother was incapacitated due to dementia.
Her petition cited the legal basis for such a finding: "Person lacks sufficient understanding or capacity to make or communicate responsible decisions concerning his or her person, and needs a temporary guardian as a means of providing continuing care and supervision of the person. The person's welfare and best interests will be served by the appointment of a temporary guardian."
Then it got more specific: "Mrs. Milstein is recovering from a hip fracture and was recently released from a nursing home. Mrs. Milstein is suffering from progressive dementia. She is unable to self-administer her medications and is incontinent.
"She is often confused and disoriented to the point that she is unaware of her own care needs and lacks sufficient judgment to make adequate decisions...She fails to recognize her needs and has discharged health care personnel in the past."
Judi requested that Gordon Wolfe and his agency, Human Network Services, be appointed temporary guardian. He'd been recommended to her by Haines.
It was true that Letty had discharged some home-care providers--the ones she didn't like. But she'd retained others, and she'd made arrangements to hire more through Tender Loving Care. Besides, Letty didn't need much assistance, Horen argued. She didn't suffer from incontinence, except for one single stress episode after her injury. And her mind was as good as it had been in December 1995, when she'd been fine on her own with her housekeeper, her friends, her son and her dog.
Although Horen didn't have much time to prepare for the hearing, the law was supposed to be on his client's side.
After a 1987 Associated Press investigation into guardianships found "a dangerously burdened and troubled system that regularly puts elderly lives in the hands of others with little or no evidence of necessity, then fails to guard against abuse, theft and neglect," legislatures across the country began changing the rules. In 1988 the Colorado statutes were revised to require that state courts follow certain procedures before appointing a guardian for an elderly person.
But in Letty's case, Judge Stewart apparently overlooked several of these procedures.
For one thing, the appointment of a guardian must be based on medical information, usually a letter from a doctor. Haines had presented a letter, allegedly from Halterman, claiming that she'd been Letty's physician since November 1995 and had diagnosed her with dementia "resulting in short-term memory loss." Letty's recovery from the hip fracture had been slow, according to the letter. "Unfortunately, because of the underlying dementia, she had great difficulty performing activities of daily living.
"Due to some social issues within her family," the doctor continued, she had been unable to see Letty for some time. However, it was still her opinion that Letty was incapable of living in her home without the assistance of a health-care provider.
Horen objected to the letter's admission. For starters, it wasn't signed, and Halterman--who arguably was not even Letty's primary physician--was not present for questioning. The letter made only a vague reference to short-term memory loss, and it did not mention incontinence. Nor did it suggest that 24-hour care was necessary. Besides, could Halterman be objective given the fact that Marvin Wolf's brother and sister-in-law donated such large sums to Rose Medical?
Judge Stewart said she would not consider the letter when rendering her opinion. The only medical evidence she then had was the testimony of two caregivers from First Choice and a nurse from Rose--none of them qualified to diagnose dementia. Even so, the hearing continued.
Under Colorado law, the courts are supposed to follow a hierarchical list when choosing a guardian: Spouses, adult children and family friends all rank higher on that list than professional guardians like Gordon Wolfe. Wolfe has previously drawn criticism for his work as a guardian; Haines, in addition to being Judi's attorney, represented Wolfe when those claims got to court. (When Horen asked the court to make Wolfe turn over records of those court cases, Wolfe's attorney complained that compliance would be "unduly burdensome.")
Finally, according to the statutes, the court is supposed to begin the process with the least restrictive form of guardianship.
Stewart followed none of these procedures. Based on little more than the testimony of two First Care representatives who claimed Letty needed 24-hour care--and said John Milstein was an impediment to his mother receiving proper assistance--the judge appointed Wolfe as Letty's guardian. He was given complete authority over her life.
"No family member or neighbor shall interfere with the Guardian's administration," Stewart ordered. "Schedules, visits, outings and contacts with Letty should be cleared through the Guardian."
Stewart, however, did order Wolfe to "work with Mrs. Milstein to implement the program with her comfort and her wishes in mind." And mindful of Letty's complaints that her daughter was doing this in order to drive her into a nursing home, Stewart also prohibited Wolfe from obtaining out-of-home care "except for medical emergencies or for her protection."
The judge also appointed Norwest Bank to be Letty's temporary conservator, which included paying "reasonable" fees to Wolfe and his designated health- and personal-care workers. And the bank would take over writing checks for groceries, travel and entertainment--a chore Letty had performed capably until her injury. In return for its services, the bank would pay itself $10,000 a year.
At a May hearing, Wolfe recommended that a permanent guardian be appointed. But since Letty's resources would not cover such an expense, he suggested that in the next year she be placed in a nursing home "regardless of her condition or desires of anyone."
The "interactions between all family members is pathological and dysfunctional with dysfunction between John and Mrs. Milstein most evident at present, perhaps because Mrs. Milstein is refusing to see Judi," Wolfe told the court. He recommended that an independent professional evaluation be done of John and Judi. "Such evaluations would help sort out recommendations to govern the degree of involvement or authority for each child in Mrs. Milstein's life in the future," he said.
But before such an evaluation was conducted, in July Wolfe was back before the judge, urging that visitation be limited because John and neighbors like the Densts and Watts agitated Letty to revolt against her home-health-care aides. John intimidated the aides, Wolfe said, and Letty's "histrionics" drove them from the house.
But even one of the aides who testified to John's disruptive influence had noted in a daily log book that Letty was always happier after speaking to her son. Also included in the evidence at that hearing were handwritten instructions given the aides charged with watching Letty:
"Treat her like a disciplined child. Prepare dinner and serve it whether she wants it or not. Do not listen to her bossiness. Do not do anything she demands. Make note of all phone calls in for her (who, when, how long)."
Horen objected to the demeaning orders, as well as to a memo from Wolfe placing severe restrictions on Letty's visiting hours and telephone use. "You have far exceeded your authority," he said. "You're supposed to take into account the incapacitated person's wishes. The court order was not meant to make Mrs. Milstein a prisoner. She desperately wants her freedom back, and we will fight."
While Wolfe had said Letty and John made it difficult to keep aides, one helper, Deb Graves, says she was removed from the job after noting in the daily log that if Letty continued to improve, she wouldn't need 24-hour care. Graves doesn't understand why aides who fought with Letty were kept while those who got along with her were dismissed. "When I went to school, and then in places I've worked since," she explains, "the patient's rights were number one. If the patient didn't get along with someone, that person was gone. But not this time."
Graves noticed other discrepancies. While she'd been told that Letty was incontinent, "she wasn't," Graves says. "She didn't wear Depends. She didn't have to be cleaned up. I have no idea where they got that." She'd also been told that John Milstein was a problem, but she thought he usually had a calming effect on his mother.
"They wouldn't let her see her son, and believe me, she loves her son," Graves says. "They wouldn't let her visit her neighbors. And we were supposed to listen in on her telephone calls."
Letty was angry at all the strangers intruding in her home--and understandably so, Graves says. "I would be, too," she adds. "But I liked her. Here was this woman who had been taken care of her whole life by her husband, then he's gone and she has to deal with this horrible situation.
"She doesn't have the experience to fight the world that is doing this to her. But she still fought."
After several demands from Horen and the conservators, Wolfe finally unveiled a care plan that would cost Letty's estate $17,000 a month. At that rate, her resources would be gone in less than two years, and Letty would have to go into a nursing home. Unless, of course, Judi and Marvin Wolf were willing to foot Mom's bill. But there is no indication that the Wolfs would support Letty. In fact, among the bills charged to her estate were several from the Wolfs, including $160 for a television and $100 for groceries.
Wolfe says he did what he had to in order to comply with the court's orders. It was nearly impossible to balance Letty's wishes with his responsibility to "provide 24-hour care and keep her safe." But under pressure from Horen, he finally resigned as temporary guardian last summer. Wolfe says he quit because he could not condone the amount of money being charged to Letty's estate. "The attorney fees were outrageous," he says. (Wolfe himself settled for $36,000 after charging $40,000.)
Horen lost no time proposing a replacement. He knew the Wolfs wouldn't go for John, Letty's first choice (if she had to have a guardian at all), so he suggested the Densts. Although retired, they were both well-respected medical professionals and in good health. What's more, they offered their services for free to their old friend. Tender Loving Care would be contracted to provide a minimal amount of help during the day, Horen said.
But Judi, who has never requested that the courts allow her to be Letty's guardian, objected to the Densts. She said they would be biased and were part of the problem.
"As to the perceived lack of impartiality, the Densts plead guilty," Horen responded in court. "They are 1,000 percent biased in favor of Mrs. Milstein being able to live the rest of her days in peace and freedom with appropriate safeguards for her welfare with the minimum in intrusion and costs.
"They are heartsick at the current condition in which Mrs. Milstein is being held prisoner in her own home under restrictions which are more intrusive than those she would endure as a prisoner in either a state or federal maximum-security prison."
Once again, Judge Stewart ruled against Letty's wishes.
Instead of the Densts, Stewart eventually appointed Florence Jones, director of Home Care Management, as Letty Milstein's new temporary guardian last fall. Any hope that Jones would be less restrictive were soon dashed; she complained enough about John's "interference" that Stewart issued a temporary restraining order against him. As a result, Letty has seen her son only twice since last October.
And while the cost of Jones's guardianship is less than what Wolfe had proposed, it is running more than $4,000 a month, about $1,800 more than Jones initially told the court.
In addition to being Letty's guardian, Jones also provides the in-home health-care personnel, a potential conflict of interest, according to guardianship-industry watchdogs. (Wolfe had contracted with other agencies to provide the in-home care.) And Jones has also been allowed to put a lawyer of her own on Letty's tab: attorney Glenn Hagen. He's warned the Densts and Watts to stay away from Letty or face legal consequences. He's told the court that Letty still suffers from incontinence--an outrageous lie, Horen complained. And Hagen also told the court that John had struck his mother in front of an aide, even though a police investigation determined there was no basis for the charge. "Lies, lies," Letty muttered at that hearing, before Horen restrained her.
After Letty fell twice last winter--once breaking her wrist, once a hip--John Milstein hired two new lawyers of his own, John Hoffman and Robert Hopp, a former Arapahoe County prosecutor, to fight the restraining order. The two attorneys claim they had Hagen's permission to visit Letty at her home, according to court records. But when they arrived, instead of contacting her employer, the aide on duty immediately called Judi Wolf, who called Jones, who called Hagen, who said he had never given the lawyers permission and that they were to leave.
The court then issued restraining orders against Hopp and Hoffman. They have since resigned John's case.
This past spring, Judge Stewart finally appointed psychiatrist Bruce Leonard to research the Milstein family dynamics. Leonard brought in social worker William Smith, who shares office space with him.
In March John arranged with Smith to visit his mother for the first time since October. But when John showed up at Letty's house with a Denver patrolman and a former Denver police detective who now works as a private detective, Smith "threw a fit," John says. Smith didn't know that another Denver police detective and a Channel 9 camera crew were secretly watching the action.
The officer went inside with John and Smith, and for the next two hours Letty poured out her heart while her son taped her conversation:
"It's criminal what they've done to me and my son," Letty said. "How could this go on in America? All my rights have been taken away...They've taken my money and keep me from seeing my son when he's done nothing wrong."
Shortly after that episode, John received a call from Letty. Her aides weren't feeding her, she said. John called the police, who said they would do a welfare check.
The responding officer said it looked like Letty was getting enough to eat, that there had just been a mixup in the schedule. But a Denver detective asked two nurses who specialize in geriatric care to look in on Letty.
Nurses Sheri Bremer and Janie, who asked that her last name not be used, called and got Letty's permission to visit. But when they arrived at her home, they were denied entry by an aide. "I was told we were not on the list of 'approved' visitors," says Bremer. "They wanted to know who we were and what our purpose was."
Although they spoke only briefly to Letty that day, she has since called them numerous times, begging them to help her, Bremer says.
While it is evident that Letty suffers from some dementia, that doesn't necessarily render her incapable of making decisions, Bremer notes. "Just because an older person can't work a problem with multiples of seven or spell a word backwards," she says, "it doesn't mean they don't know who they are or can't express what they want.
"You are supposed to work with older people instead of imposing your will on them. In Letty's case, I saw a woman who had led a sheltered, even pampered, life, who was now being told what to do, when to do it, and with whom she could do it.
"She's been isolated from her son, whom she loves, and her friends. Who wouldn't act out?"
For their troubles, the two nurses say they have been bullied and badgered by Hagen, the guardian's attorney. Hagen found Janie's number in Letty's things and warned her to "back off," Janie says. He then subpoenaed Bremer and said that if she didn't tell him Janie's last name, she "might get thrown in jail." Bremer refused, and walked out on Hagen saying that she would see that a major investigation was launched.
The Denver Police Department is still involved in the case. And a half dozen people interviewed for this story say they've also been contacted by FBI agents concerning Letty Milstein's situation. Neither agency will comment on the status of their investigations.
Horen, who resigned this spring when Letty was appointed a guardian ad litem--a legal representative--in addition to the temporary guardian, declined to be interviewed. So did Judge Stewart. Neither Florence Jones nor Hagen returned Westword's calls. Dr. Denst, who received a letter from one guardian's lawyer threatening him with jail or fines if he so much as talked to Letty or John, also refused to speak on the record, though he made his feelings known: "It's a terrible miscarriage of justice. But these are powerful people." His old friend, he added, "may not be saveable."
In fact, it may already be too late to save Letty from a nursing home. Her once-comfortable estate has been reduced by almost $400,000, through fees paid to guardians, round-the-clock caregivers and lawyers, lots of lawyers. Only Horen was actually retained by Letty. But the guardians each had lawyers, conservator Norwest has a lawyer, one of the Wolfs' lawyers sought to be reimbursed from the estate--and then there's the lawyer appointed by Stewart to make sure that what the other attorneys are charging is fair. So far, he's billed Letty's estate more than $7,000. And John's lawyers haven't managed to collect from him or his mother's estate.
Now the conservator is discussing selling Letty's house. Her trips to the hairdresser and the symphony have been curtailed. "And she tells me that they're talking about cutting her cable television," John says.
Letty wasn't allowed to go to a friend's house for Thanksgiving, because John was going to be there. She spent the Christmas holidays without her son. She wasn't allowed to attend Passover services this past spring.
And then came Mother's Day.
Even those who love Letty acknowledge that she has gotten much worse since a guardian was appointed to watch over her life in April 1996. But although several psychiatrists agree she suffers from dementia, they disagree on the severity.
One side says John makes his mother worse. But the other points out that Letty isn't upset by her son. She's upset that the guardian won't let her see John and has put strangers in her home. She's upset with Judi for putting the whole plan in motion.
Although they are disappointed in Judge Stewart and the system she represents, Letty's supporters--her friends and neighbors--are far angrier with Judi Wolf.
But Judi, the guardians and psychiatrists brought in by the court suggest that John is the problem. He's certainly high-strung; he can't say the words "Save my mother" without bursting into tears. But John swears he's telling the truth "on my father's grave and Jesus's blood."
"As is often the case, the adult siblings, sadly, are not always in total agreement about the long-term care of the elderly parent, who, in this case, has been diagnosed by medical doctors and geriatric psychiatrists with 'serious dementia requiring 24-hour care,'" Judi wrote in response to Westword's request for an interview.
"If I had to choose one over the other," counters neighbor Watts, "I'd pick John. He's always been there for her."
In the furor over what John wants and what Judi wants, little attention seems to be paid to what Letty wants. She says she wants to remain in her home and to see her son. But the court has decided that the latter, at least, is not in Letty's "best interests."
There is no evidence that John has ever mistreated his mother or exploited her--even if she chose to help support him financially. Could Letty's situation have been any worse, her supporters ask, if John and the Densts had been allowed to look after her?
Both sides are waiting for the judge to set a hearing date. At that hearing, a permanent guardian could be appointed--and John could be ordered to stay away from his mother forever.
In the meantime, John sits at home, waiting for Letty to call, wondering what plea for help will come next. His mother calls to complain that Florence Jones has threatened to have her locked up in a mental institution if she contacts the police again. She calls to say that she's prevented from attending her own court hearings, that Judi says there's no need for her to go, "but I want to."
"Look at what they do to us--they take our freedom away," she says. "This is cruelty. I can't stand it.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.