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Elderly Couple's Courtship Is Now a Courtroom Issue

November 18, 1997|JON STEINMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Facing jail for eloping with his 84-year-old sweetheart, 92-year-old Charles Barnes stepped from court Monday flanked by dozens of supporters and vowed that "love will prevail."

Barnes, who eloped with Constance Driscoll in September after what he says was a nine-year romance, faces up to five days in jail and fines totaling more than $45,000 if he is found in violation of the court order barring anyone from moving Driscoll from the Northern California residential care home where she had lived.

Barnes' plight drew a squad of elderly boosters to Los Angeles County Superior Court in Glendale.

"I'm supporting their rights to be together," said Neoma Squire, 83, a friend of the couple from a Glendale church. "They don't have long to live, so they should be left alone and allowed to be together."

The sentiments were echoed by the man who performed the marriage ceremony, Senior Pastor Jack Dabner of the United Community Church in Glendale.

"I performed that ceremony because they love each other," Dabner said. "The court assumes a person under a conservator doesn't have a right to marry without permission of a conservator. But that's just not true. They may be older, but they can still be in love."

Dabner said he attempted to visit Driscoll but was rebuffed by administrators at the home.

While attorneys for both Barnes and conservators of Driscoll and her roughly $800,000 estate met with a judge for nearly 30 minutes in chambers, supporters of Barnes waited in the aisles of the court.

"Connie has short-term memory loss, but so do I," said Rachelle Ford, a friend of the couple who visited Driscoll about two weeks ago. Driscoll, according to friends and lawyers, is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

"When I asked her who she was, she said 'Mrs. Charles Barnes,' " Ford said. "She knows who he is. She knew who she married. She loves him. They've been lovers for nine years. This court thing is ridiculous."

Others who packed into the courtroom echoed Ford.

"She just wants to be with her husband--let her," said John Jones, 70. "They're in love."

Driscoll, who has not appeared in court because of conservators' orders requiring her to stay at home and under professional care, is living at a residential care facility in Pasadena. Administrators at the home said they could not let anyone speak with Driscoll without permission of the conservators, who have denied such permission to Barnes, Driscoll's longtime caregiver, Barnes' current caregiver and the press.

While attorneys working for Driscoll's conservators said they want to protect their client's money, Barnes said he is independently wealthy and is not after money.

"I love her," he said, noting that he wants to "be with Connie, not her money."

Jarrett Anderson, a private attorney for the conservators of Driscoll, said he was trying "to protect my client's privacy, to make sure her best interests are provided for and to preserve her dignity." He declined further comment.

Driscoll had lived in a residential care home in Chico, about 500 miles north of Glendale, her hometown, until Barnes brought her back for the September nuptials. Barnes, after the wedding, checked Driscoll into a new home in Glendale. Conservators, when interviewed last month, argued that Driscoll was not to be moved without their consent. Attorneys for the conservators are seeking fees from Barnes of about $46,000 to make up for the costs that they allege his actions caused.

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Barnes' attorney said that the fines are too steep and inappropriate, and that the court order at issue prohibits conservators, not Barnes, from moving Driscoll without cause. Attorneys would not comment on a possible settlement.

"We asked that Judge [Charles] Stoll recuse himself based on his prior disclosures of a personal relationship with Charles Whitesell, the court-appointed attorney for the conservators of Connie Driscoll," said Linda Paquette, Barnes' attorney.

Stoll withdrew Monday, and explained his decision by noting that the case would have been tied up in court for months if the request for recusal motion proceeded, forcing a judge from another county to decide on the issue, causing more delays.

Stoll sent the case to Superior Court Judge Charles Lee, who scheduled a Dec. 11 hearing.

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