Twenty years later, a court banished Mills from the trade after the state attorney general's office accused him of financial irregularities. By then, he had inspired many others to enter the field.
In most instances, loved ones still act as conservators for incapacitated old people. But professionals now handle about 15% of the cases in Southern California.
Although some have only a few clients, others run thriving businesses, managing the lives of more than 100 adults at once. An elite group focuses on wealthy seniors, employing large staffs and commanding rates of up to $135 an hour.
Conservators hold positions of trust on a par with lawyers, accountants and investment firms. In contrast with those professions, however, they don't have to earn degrees or pass licensing exams. Anyone with a clean felony record who pays a $385 state registration fee can go into the business.
Only now is the state moving to impose basic standards. Beginning next year, conservators will need a college degree, experience in the field or certain levels of training. Most current practitioners will not be affected, however.
Conservators find clients by sponsoring breakfasts at senior centers and networking at legal luncheons. Nursing homes call when residents become too addled to pay the rent, wanting a conservator to write checks for them. Hospitals call when patients have outlasted their insurance, hoping that a conservator will move them somewhere else.
Once conservators identify a prospect, they can go to court and initiate a case without the client's approval.
With rare exceptions, they look for people with money. Frumeh Labow, Los Angeles' busiest conservator, sets a minimum of $300,000 -- enough to guarantee her paycheck for at least a few years, if the client lives that long.
Other conservators have a more modest threshold.
"If the person has six months, the doctor tells me she has terminal cancer and she only has $30,000, I'll take a chance on that," said Jeffrey Siegel, who runs a large Los Angeles practice.
In many cases, professional conservators have done admirable work. Some have saved seniors from con artists or thieving relatives. Others have ensured that lonely adults lived out their last days in dignity.
Many continue to serve clients after their money has run out.
"We're in this business to help people and to protect people," said Ron Patterson, a Bay Area conservator who is president of the Professional Fiduciary Assn. of California. "None of us are here, I believe, to enrich ourselves in any way except the natural way one does in business."
But even some conservators admit they would not want one themselves.
"I can decide who they see. I can put them in a nursing home," said Labow. "It's the biggest imposition on your civil liberties short of being imprisoned."
Quickly in Control
Professional conservators take over with jarring speed.
In many courtrooms, they get emergency appointments on the day they ask for them, based on short forms in which they swear that prospective clients cannot care for themselves.
These hasty hearings are meant for cases in which elderly people are in imminent danger. But professional conservators have made them the norm, The Times found. More than half of their Southern California cases began this way.
Adults are entitled by law to attend emergency hearings. Yet they were not formally notified in more than half the cases The Times examined. Often, judges dispensed with the requirement after conservators told them that prospective wards were too feeble to come to court.
By securing immediate appointments, professionals can gain control over elders before safeguards required in nonemergency cases kick in. For example, in nine of 10 emergency cases, wards were not interviewed by a court investigator before a judge decided they needed a conservator.
The events leading to Jones' conservatorship began in November 2002, when a chance acquaintance, Cindy Gurrola, gave her a ride to the bank. After Gurrola expressed concern for Jones' welfare, a bank employee gave her the business card of a Redlands company that serves the elderly.
Gurrola said she called the number and gave an employee Jones' address. There was no mention of conservatorship or that Jones would be giving up legal control of her affairs, Gurrola said.
About a week later, Jones said, she was napping in her home when a woman walked in and woke her. The woman said she was with "CARE." Jones said she thought that meant California Alternate Rates and Energy, Southern California Edison's reduced-rate program for seniors.
Jones signed a one-paragraph document, not bothering to read it.
In fact, the woman worked for Conservatorship and Resources for the Elderly Inc., the firm owned by Melodie Scott. The document said that Jones nominated Scott to be her conservator.
"I was sleeping here and someone tapped me on the shoulder and said sign this," Jones said. "And stupid, I signed it, not knowing what I was signing.