Yet Walker remained a conservator. Only when a local newspaper reported his guilty plea did the Probate Court strip him of his remaining cases. He later pleaded guilty to stealing from four other clients and is serving a 16-year prison term.
Cribbs, who is still on the bench, did not respond to requests for comment.
"I think it was a case of paralysis," said Manuel Garcia, a forensic accountant who helped the district attorney prosecute Walker.
"The judge is the one who should have taken the action and done something.... I think we need more angry judges."
'Very Little Scrutiny'
It took a crusading attorney from Northern California to initiate action against Bonnie Cambalik, who ran Riverside County's largest conservatorship business.
For years, William H. Sullivan, the county's supervising probate judge, ignored complaints from relatives and warnings from his own court staff that money vanished and jewelry disappeared when Cambalik took over.
Frustrated relatives and friends of Cambalik's wards sent boxes of documents to a group of elder-rights advocates in San Francisco. Among those who looked at them was local attorney Barbara Jagiello.
Disturbed by what she saw, Jagiello flew to Riverside and copied thousands of court papers from Cambalik's cases. Back home, working at night at her dining room table, she unearthed what appeared to be widespread misconduct.
"I realized how it could be a closed circle," Jagiello said. "If the individuals aren't good, there's very little scrutiny."
Tipped off by Jagiello, district attorney's investigators raided Cambalik's office. They found that she had hidden investments, stolen jewelry and drained bank accounts.
Prosecutors said Cambalik stole more than $1 million. She pleaded guilty to embezzlement and perjury and is serving a 26-year prison term.
Sullivan was also ensnared in the scandal. Jagiello discovered that he had bought a two-bedroom bungalow from an elderly man whose conservatorship he presided over.
After retiring, Sullivan pleaded guilty to seven misdemeanor counts of financial conflicts involving the house purchase and other misconduct as a judge. He was fined $27,000.
An Arcane World
Probate Court is a legal backwater, the least glamorous branch of any courthouse.
"No one wants to do it," said Mitchell, the former presiding judge in San Diego. "It's dry and uninteresting, and it's only fuddy-duddy lawyers without color to their skin who do it. That's the public perception of probate law."
The reality is an arcane world of trusts, wills and conservatorships that breeds familiarity among judges, attorneys and conservators. In this atmosphere, the elderly can feel powerless.
Harry Cassel, 80, arrived in Los Angeles' main Probate Court in 1996 with his lawyer, Allan P. Leguay, to fight attempts by his family to have a professional conservator appointed for him.
Relatives and friends insisted that a caretaker was taking advantage of Cassel, who suffered from Parkinson's disease.
Cassel told the court that if he had to have a conservator, he wanted a say in who it was. That was why he had brought along Leguay.
Judge Robert Letteau, then the county's presiding probate judge, said he wanted someone independent to assess the situation. He appointed a second attorney, Thomas B. McCullough Jr., to represent Cassel and advise the court whether he needed a conservator.
Letteau and McCullough had worked together at the same small law firm for four years in the 1970s.
McCullough recommended a conservator whom Cassel did not want. Letteau made the appointment anyway -- without allowing Cassel a jury trial to fight the move. By law, Californians are guaranteed the right to oppose a conservatorship before a jury.
Cassel appealed, using his own lawyer: Leguay. Letteau authorized McCullough to oppose the appeal.
So Cassel had two attorneys on opposite sides of the case and was paying for both of them.
In May 1997, an appeals court overruled Letteau. It criticized him for relying too heavily on McCullough's recommendation and violating Cassel's rights. The court also said it was a conflict of interest for McCullough to oppose his own client's appeal.
Despite the higher court's reversal, Letteau ordered Cassel to pay McCullough more than $40,000 for his work -- nearly a third of it for time spent working against Cassel's successful appeal.
The legal fight ended when Cassel, given the choice he had wanted all along, agreed to have his son and son-in-law act as his conservators.
He died in 2000. Bills from all the attorneys involved swallowed up $400,000 of Cassel's estate.
Letteau, who now works for a private arbitration firm, defended his conduct. In an interview, he said he was concerned that Cassel had not been mentally fit to choose his own lawyer.
"Sometimes you make decisions that intrude on that person's civil rights," he said, "but you're doing it to protect that person."
Robert L. Conn, who replaced Leguay as Cassel's lawyer in 1997, had a different view.