Sondra Steen, 60, of Linwood, was sentenced to 10 years in state prison, including 4 ½ years of parole ineligibility, by Superior Court Judge Bernard E. DeLury Jr. in Atlantic County. She pleaded guilty on Feb. 8 to first-degree money laundering. Steen is jointly and severally liable for full restitution in an amount to be determined.
Steen was charged in an investigation by the New Jersey State Police and the Division of Criminal Justice. Deputy Attorney General Yvonne G. Maher is prosecuting the defendants and took the guilty plea for the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau. Detective Richard Wheeler led the investigation for the New Jersey State Police Financial Crimes Unit.
Steen was indicted on March 16, 2015 along with her sister Jan Van Holt, 59, of Linwood, owner of A Better Choice, a company that offered elderly clients in-home care and legal financial planning; Susan Hamlett, 56, of Egg Harbor Township, who worked as an aide for company clients; and William Price, 57, of Linwood, who has since pleaded guilty to taking part in the scheme and stealing $125,000 from an elderly couple he met as a caseworker for Atlantic County Adult Protective Services. Price was sentenced in October to five years in state prison.
Van Holt and Steen were charged with conspiring with Barbara Lieberman, 63, of Northfield, a lawyer who specialized in elder law, to steal over $2.7 million from 12 elderly clients from January 2003 through December 2012. Lieberman pleaded guilty to money laundering and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, including 3 ½ years of parole ineligibility. Lieberman forfeited $3 million in assets as well as her law license. The charges against Van Holt and Hamlett are pending.
In pleading guilty, Steen admitted that she assisted her sister and Lieberman in carrying out the scheme to steal from clients of A Better Choice and Lieberman.
“Steen used the stolen life savings of elderly clients to pay for her own luxuries, such as pet care, pool supplies and a vacation condo,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “Her predatory and conscienceless behavior has earned her a lengthy prison sentence.”
“Steen and her co-defendants coldly exploited the infirmity of their elderly clients, betraying their trust and siphoning away assets that took a lifetime to accumulate,” said Director Elie Honig. “This case is especially egregious because of the sums involved and because the victims represent some of the most vulnerable members of our society. We’ll continue to make prosecuting elder fraud a priority.”
“The business Steen helped run, ‘A Better Choice,’ was meant to help the elderly with in-home care and finances, but ironically she made a series of despicable choices by choosing to steal the life savings and assets of clients for her own indulgences,” said Colonel Rick Fuentes, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. “This substantial sentence is the result of the great work of State Police detectives and our partners at the Attorney General`s Office.”
Van Holt worked as a case worker for Atlantic County Adult Protective Services from 2002 through December 2007, when she was terminated. Five of the 12 alleged victims targeted by Van Holt, Steen and Lieberman were recruited as clients after they came into contact with Van Holt through her official public position as a case worker.
It is alleged that Van Holt generally was the one to identify potential clients, approaching them to offer the services of A Better Choice and Lieberman. The defendants allegedly targeted elderly clients with substantial assets who typically did not have any immediate family, offering them non-medical care and services, including household chores, errands, driving clients to appointments, scheduling, budgeting, paying bills, balancing checkbooks, and other tasks. They did not provide healthcare services.
Once a target accepted Van Holt’s offer of services, Steen usually would be put in place as the victim’s primary caregiver. Lieberman would then be brought in to do legal work, preparing powers of attorney and wills for the clients. Lieberman was a leading specialist in elder law in Atlantic County who gave seminars to senior citizens on end of life affairs, wills and living wills.
The defendants allegedly took control of the finances of their victims by forging a power of attorney or obtaining one on false pretenses. The defendants then added their names to the victims’ bank accounts or transferred the victims’ funds into new accounts they controlled. Thereafter, the defendants allegedly stole from the accounts to pay their own expenses, including, for Van Holt and Steen – who lived together – veterinary bills for their pets, pool supplies, two Mercedes cars owned by Van Holt, and lease payments on a Florida condo.
A portion of the money was used to fund the victim’s expenses to keep the victim unaware of the thefts. In some cases, money from one victim would be transferred to another victim to pay expenses and cover up the thefts. If the victim owned stocks or bonds, they were cashed out and the funds were deposited into the account allegedly controlled by the defendants. When Lieberman prepared wills for the victims, she typically named herself or Van Holt as executor of the estate and named Steen as a beneficiary, or named other beneficiaries who had little or no ties to the victim and never actually received anything from the estate. The defendants allegedly relied on fraud, manipulation or forgery in the execution of the wills. In this manner, they allegedly continued to steal from the victims’ estates after they died.
The investigation began after the New Jersey Office of the Public Guardian referred a case involving one of the victims to the State Police. In addition to the first-degree conspiracy and money laundering charges against Van Holt, she is charged along with Hamlett with second-degree counts of conspiracy, money laundering and theft. The charges are merely accusations and the remaining defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Deputy Attorney General Derek Miller is handling the state’s forfeiture action. Acting Attorney General Hoffman thanked the New Jersey Office of the Public Guardian for its referral.