A Northfield attorney and a former Atlantic County social worker were supposed to help elderly clients with financial and legal services, but instead stole their money to buy cars, vacation homes and pay off six-digit credit card bills, according to charges announced Thursday.
Barbara Lieberman, 62, and Jan Van Holt, 57, of Linwood, were arrested Wednesday for taking more than $2.4 million from 10 victims beginning in 2006, acting Attorney General John Hoffman said. Nine of the victims — all from Atlantic County and in their 80s or 90s — have died. A Cape May Court House woman who allegedly had $20,000 taken from her is now 88 years old.
Two other women are charged with helping the enterprise, including Van Holt’s sister, Sondra Steen, 58, of Linwood. The fourth woman, Susan Hamlett, was the one who sparked the investigation, said her attorney, Stephen Funk.
“It is, therefore, somewhat baffling that she is included in this indictment,” he said. “She is a conscientious employee, not a criminal.”
Hamlett worked for Van Holt’s A Better Choice, an in-home senior service that offered nonmedical help to seniors, including legal and financial planning.
Van Holt and Lieberman allegedly referred clients to one another, targeting seniors with substantial assets and no immediate family.
Van Holt even used her former position with Atlantic County Adult Protective Services, which she left in 2006, to find at least one victim, according to the charges. A 94-year-old died in a nursing home because she could no longer afford the payments on her Ventnor home after Steen allegedly took out a $195,000 reverse mortgage, claiming to be the woman’s niece.
“These defendants were wolves in sheep’s clothing,” said Elie Honig, director of the Division of Criminal Justice. “(They entered) the lives of their vulnerable victims as caregivers, only to shamelessly steal all they owned.
Lieberman — a leading specialist in elder law in Atlantic County — met one of her alleged victims while giving a legal seminar to seniors at Atlantic City’s Jeffries Tower, where the woman lived. The woman lost $320,000 after hiring Van Holt, who then got power of attorney and was named executrix of the woman’s will. She continued to be robbed even after her death in an Atlantic City nursing home, according to the charges.
Lieberman would prepare powers of attorney and draft wills for the victims, giving herself or one of the other defendants power of attorney in some cases, according to the charges. She even transferred some of the victims’ money into her Interest on Lawyers Trust Account — which is supposed to be maintained as a safeguard for funds entrusted to lawyers. Checks from that account were allegedly then cut to Lieberman or one of the other defendants.
Lieberman and Van Holt are each charged with first-degree money laundering, second-degree conspiracy and second-degree theft by deception. Both were taken to the Atlantic County Jail on $300,000 bail. Lieberman was free by Thursday evening after posting bail, according to jail records. It was not clear where the money came from as the state froze about $5 million in assets Lieberman has in various accounts. The state will seek to use that for restitution.
A man who answered the phone at Lieberman’s home Thursday evening said she would not talk to a reporter. Calls to her attorney, Steven Feldman, were not returned.
Steen and Hamlet, 55, of Egg Harbor Township, are each charged with second-degree theft by deception. That charge carries five to 10 years in prison.
Hamlett stopped working for Van Holt after a disagreement, according to the charges. She is linked to two of the cases.
In each case, Lieberman, Van Holt and Steen allegedly continued to provide services to the victim while stealing the victim’s money. They allegedly hid their thefts from the victims while waiting for them to die — then continued to steal from the estates.
Lieberman allegedly stole more than $600,000 from a Margate woman who was in her nineties, using more than half of that to pay her personal credit card bills. Van Holt is accused of using clients’ money to fund a lifestyle that included a Florida condominium and the purchase of two Mercedeses.
The defendants also allegedly stole more than $500,000 from an Atlantic City woman who died at 91; $487,000 from a Margate couple, who died at 81 and 85; $109,000 from a Northfield woman who died at 92; $72,000 from a Northfield woman who died at 85; nearly $26,000 from an Egg Harbor Township woman who died at 90; and $20,000 from a Cape May Court House woman who is 88
“These women allegedly preyed ruthlessly on elderly clients, most of whom were facing the end of their life without family and with only their savings to ensure they would be cared for properly,” Hoffman said. “We’re supposed to honor our seniors, but these women heartlessly exploited them, allegedly stripping them of their life savings and their ability to live out their final days in comfort, peace and dignity.”
Van Holt previously was a case worker for Atlantic County Adult Protective Services but left there in 2006, starting A Better Life. In 2012, she lost a lawsuit against the county, which she said failed to investigate alleged sexual harassment by a male co-worker from 2003 to 2006.
The money laundering charge carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison, with parole ineligibility for one-third to one-half of that time. The second-degree crimes carry five- to 10-year terms.
No first appearances have been scheduled for the women. Calls to lawyers said to be representing Van Holt and Steen were not returned Thursday.
The investigation is ongoing, Hoffman said. Anyone who suspects assets may have been stolen is asked to call the Division of Criminal Justice’s toll-free tipline at 866-TIPS-4CJ.
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