Some crime stories just make me seethe a bit more than the others. One of these played out Friday in a King County courtroom.
When Jeff Barrett won a million-dollar settlement after being hit by a drunken driver, it was hoped the money could help support the severely brain-damaged Boeing Machinist for the rest of his life.
And then when one of his attorneys who had fought his case all the way to the state Supreme Court ended up taking the man into her home, it seemed to the outside world like a feel-good story of selfless community and compassion.
Except, as happens often enough to make one wonder about the human species, she then tried to steal his money — the very money she had helped win for him.
“This is one of the more egregious cases I’ve seen, not just because of the dollar amounts involved, but because it involves someone who had a double duty, as his legal guardian and as an attorney,” said Amanda Froh, deputy prosecuting attorney for King County.
On Friday, Seattle attorney Helga Kahr, 69, was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for a scheme to fleece Barrett out of $283,000 back in 2016, which she used to pay off the mortgage on her home.
Though Kahr was described Friday by friends and neighbors as a woman with a heart of gold — as ready to take on cases pro bono as she was to take in animal strays — the judge wasn’t having it.
“I don’t think you get it, Ms. Kahr,” Judge Kristin Richardson said in handing down the sentence, after Kahr had spoken and not admitted any wrongdoing. “This is a vast and deep abuse of the trust laid in you as a guardian.”
The state logs more than 8,000 complaints per year of financial abuse of incapacitated adults — usually perpetrated by someone they know. But it’s unusual for the thief to be both the court-appointed guardian and the attorney.
This story started back in 1995, when Barrett, then 36, was hit by a driver who had allegedly drunk two or three pitchers of beer at a bar in Kirkland. The accident left Barrett incapacitated for life, and wiped away years of his memories.
“This unfortunate gentleman is suffering from severe traumatic brain injury in many ways,” reads a neuropsychology evaluation from court records. “His ability to learn, retain and recall new information is at less than 0.05 percentile, meaning worse than 99.95 percent of the population.”
Kahr and another attorney won a famous 2004 case that found the tavern could be held liable for “overserving” its customers if then they go out and crash on the roads. According to court documents, Barrett eventually got an insurance settlement valued at $1 million to be used for his care, and went to live with his parents.
After family could no longer care for Barrett, Kahr became his legal guardian in 2014. He later moved into her home. Not long after, a volunteer in the guardian monitoring program, which serves as a watchdog of these arrangements, noticed some strange money moves and requested an official audit of Barrett’s finances.
What Kahr did was fleshed out at a monthlong trial this fall. Facing imminent foreclosure on her Phinney Ridge home, she got Barrett to join a real estate investment scheme in which he would buy a 40% equity stake in the house. In return, he would no longer have to pay rent and his stake could grow with the rising Seattle real estate market.
She pegged the price for his stake at $282,673 — nearly half of his total assets at the time, according to court records.
Of course he didn’t understand what he was signing, prosecutors said. In fact Barrett later told police he had no memory of any real estate deal or that any money had been shifted from his account. A later investigation alleged that after Kahr got the money from Barrett, Kahr never filed a deed granting him the ownership stake. Plus, she kept collecting rent for more than a year, until the scheme came to light.
After a trial stretching over four weeks, the jury deliberated for only about an hour in November before finding Kahr guilty of two felony counts of theft. They added aggravating factors for the victim being so vulnerable.
“He has dementia, he couldn’t take care of himself,” the judge scolded Kahr Friday. “He was reliant on you for everything.”
Kahr was surprisingly unrepentant for someone who had already been found guilty.
“I never had any notion that things would end up as they did,” she told the judge. “There was never any intent to run off with his funds.”
Her attorney suggested she was at most guilty of “sloppy attorney work.” At trial, Kahr had said she had been to a conference about real estate investment trusts and was pursuing one solely as a benefit to Barrett.
This got the judge to seething as well.
“I believed not one word of what you were saying at trial,” Richardson told her Friday.
The judge entered an order barring Kahr from ever assuming a position of trust again with a vulnerable adult — including involving the financial affairs of Kahr’s own 88-year-old mother.
“You’re not going near her money,” Richardson vowed to Kahr.
With that, they handcuffed the attorney and walked her off to jail.
For his part, Barrett, 60, is now in assisted living. After the scheme got uncovered, Kahr paid back the $283,000, using a home equity line on her house (one that she wouldn’t have been able to get if she hadn’t first taken Barrett’s money, prosecutors pointed out).
Like I said up top, this crime, though it’s not violent and didn’t do lasting harm, makes me seethe anyway. It’s one thing to steal money from, say, a bank. But stealing from a man who, through no fault of his own, has already lost everything, including even his memories? That’s low.
A year and a half to think about just how low seems like a light sentence to me.
I wondered if this story suggests there are flaws in the system that’s supposed to protect vulnerable victims from financial abuse. But a guardian told me that as bad as this theft was, the good news here is the system actually worked. A volunteer monitor flagged the suspicious money moves and, ultimately, some measure of justice was done.