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It's Taken Time, but Elderly Scam Victims Will Be Repaid

October 06, 1987|JOHN SPANO | Times Staff Writer

Donald and Esther Brown were "charmed" into investing a chunk of their retirement funds with the sincere savings and loan officer.

Lewis McBride, 88, liked the combination of the convenience of the nearby Costa Mesa branch of Downey Savings & Loan and the "nice" elderly savings representative.

Marion Carden not only gave the officer her money, she accepted her as a good friend.

All four Orange County senior citizens invested money that they were counting on for retirement with the Downey employee, Jerrie Nichols. But ultimately, the Browns, McBride, Carden and 13 others lost $800,000 in schemes orchestrated by Nichols before she was discovered in 1982. She was fired, arrested and convicted at age 68 of grand-theft fraud and writing bad checks.

And after up to five years of waiting, the victims will get their money back, plus interest, as the result of settlements of a dozen related Orange County Superior Court lawsuits.

The deal was worked out Friday before Superior Judge John L. Flynn Jr. Insurers of Downey will pay a total of $1.5 million--$800,000 for losses, about $400,000 in interest and $300,000 for emotional distress for the 17 plaintiffs. They will get their money within 30 days.

The suit alleges that Downey--which did not acknowledge liability in the case--failed to supervise Nichols properly.

A spokesman for Downey on Monday declined comment.

By all accounts, Nichols was personable, knowledgeable, trusted at the bank and particularly effective at getting older people such as herself to trust her pitch.

"She (Nichols) was very believable," said Donald Arbitblit, the San Francisco lawyer who represented most of the claims. "She was elderly, she was experienced in the banking industry, people who worked at her branch believed she knew what she was doing."

She had a way of hitting the right chord with potential customers, Arbitblit said. "She had everyone convinced she was a Christian. She would cite passages in the Bible. Their belief and faith in her was part of the swindle," Arbitblit said.

The missing funds were never located. Nichols was sentenced to two years in prison for grand theft on Jan. 6, 1986.

All the victims met Nichols at Downey's Costa Mesa facility. Nichols passed out business cards identifying herself as "savings counselor" or "senior savings representative," according to Arbitblit.

In each case, she offered, as a special service to "favored" customers, to set up deals at higher interest involving second trust deeds. She would create fraudulent mortgages that the elderly investors would buy into.

In some cases, the mortgage notes were forged. In other cases, Nichols induced victims to turn over to her a blank but signed withdrawal slip for savings accounts, according to court records.

"For several years, she managed to maintain payments to the older customers, apparently by getting money from newer customers," Arbitblit said.

Then in September and October, 1980, monthly payments were not made. Nichols began a check-kiting scheme, writing $5.8 million in checks on accounts in nine separate banks in a 24-day period before she was caught, according to court files.

Nichols pleaded guilty to the criminal charges in 1985. She refused to play any role in the civil case.

According to records in the criminal case, she described herself as "an unofficial loan broker."

For McBride, the settlement was long awaited. He will get back the $74,000 that was never paid back on the $150,000 he first loaned Nichols, plus interest. He said he regrets that his wife, who died last month, didn't see the end of the court case.

He said he gave Nichols his money because he trusted bankers and because she was "a nice lady."

"But she was nice enough to take me along with the rest of them," McBride said.

Brown, retired, said he lost "a little less" than McBride.

The losses have made retirement difficult, he said: "She just took everything we had that was liquid. She got all of our savings."

Carden, a widow, was 66 when the swindle was uncovered. She lost $40,000 in several years, according to her daughter, Mary Jane Symes of Portland, Ore.

"She (Nichols) was very charming," Symes said. "My mother became friends with her and trusted her. She had a way of becoming friends. She sat at a desk at the bank and wasn't like a teller at all. You could go in and chat. She was real friendly."

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