Real-life family feud in Houston courts

January 29, 2010 7:15:01 AM PST
A real-life family feud is playing itself out in Houston's courts. There are accusations of missing cash and gold, and at the center of it all is one sister accused of stealing from her mother, who has dementia. When Louise Staunton, 94, and her husband were making their fortune in Michigan and raising a big family, they probably never thought it would end up in a fight among their daughters.

"This is the last thing she needs in the twilight of her years," said attorney James Plummer.

One of whom is now in jail.

"She was in jail for Christmas, she was in jail for New Year's," said attorney Reginald McKamie.

Janice Staunton Hines is a City of Houston Health Department Case Manager. She has not been at work since early December.

"She had an emergency. That's what she told us and we haven't seen her since," said Porfirio Villareal of the Houston Health Department.

Hines flew to Michigan for a probate hearing and has been in jail for contempt ever since. The woman who coordinates disaster relief for hurricane victims is now accused of victimizing her own mother.

"This is a case of elder abuse where you take advantage of someone in their late years and it's just wrong," said Plummer.

Houston attorney James Plummer represents Hines' sister. She's suing Hines and Hines' daughter claiming they looted nearly $800,000 from her mother's account. Hines' attorney says they've got it all wrong.

"It was a gift to her. There should be no lawsuit. There should be no jailing," said McKamie.

Reginald McKamie says in 2007, Louise Staunton added her two youngest daughters to her Michigan credit union account. The fine print says it was owned by all three of them. The two daughters then were given power of attorney over their mother's finances. McKamie says they were allowed to do whatever they wanted with the money, but the other side says that's not the case.

"Whatever they did has to either be with her consent or in her best interest," said Plummer.

Instead the lawsuit claims Hines embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars, giving most of it to her daughter ? including $150,000 in gold and $250,000 in cash - all of it in a duffel bag exchanged in the midst of the Presidential Inauguration in January of last year.

"This is an unfortunate event," said Plummer.

He and a Michigan attorney, who has now been appointed as Staunton's legal guardian, are trying to recover the funds.

"It's her money and I filed a petition in probate court to, one, have everybody else's names taken off Ms. Staunton's accounts and declare that she's the sole owner of them since she put all the money in, and have the money returned," said Steven Geller, Staunton's legal guardian.

Hines has returned about $300,000, but is still short and no one knows where the gold is. According to the deposition, Hines' daughter, Akwokwo Redhead, who had stored it in the pantry in her house, lost it. She says she believes her two-year-old son might have thrown it away because he throws everything away.

"I'll let you judge whether or not that's a candid, truthful answer," said Plummer.

McKamie believes it doesn't matter.

"There's nothing for her to give back," said McKamie.

He maintains the money was a gift to be split 50-50 among the sisters. Although a judge in Michigan has been clear, Hines will remain in jail until the money shows up.

"The judge can have her sit in jail, but if she spent the money or if the money is lost, she can't give it back no matter what theory they think that it's gone, it's gone," McKamie said.

Both sides disagree on most of the issues, but they do agree on one thing: this is a big messy legal battle that unfortunately involves family members and that includes Louise Staunton who now has dementia and cannot articulate what she originally wanted.

While the probate case continues in Michigan, there will be a motions hearing on the lawsuit at the civil court house in Houston on Friday. If the case goes to trial, a jury could hear it in the spring.