By Buffy Pollock
for the Mail Tribune
APhoenix woman faces two counts of first-degree criminal mistreatment after allegedly taking more than $100,000 in payments from a vulnerable elderly man who’d recently lost his wife to cancer.
Gail Louise Olson, 62, has pleaded not guilty to the felony charges, which stem from payments she allegedly received over four years starting in 2008.
A Phoenix police report totaling more than 200 pages outlines how Olson persuaded John Becker Sr. to give her money, sign over his car to her, and take out a life insurance policy for which she was the beneficiary.
His son, John Becker Jr., air-quality manager for the Department of Environmental Quality, and his longtime neighbors, Laurie and Louie Jeandin, said the elder Becker was a sharp, enthusiastic man who was a former Air Force bomber pilot, one-time orchardist and a popular bus driver for the Phoenix-Talent School District during his retirement.
He and his wife, Shirley, moved into their Phoenix home in the fall of 1994, only months after the Jeandins.
“They were the first neighbors to visit when we brought our son home 17 years ago,” said Laurie Jeandin.
“They always gave birthday cards to all the kids around the neighborhood. They were just the kindest people to have for neighbors.”
But the senior Becker’s health began to deteriorate after he lost his wife to colon cancer in 2007 after 63 years of marriage.
“For probably six months he was totally devastated,” said Jeandin. “The night she passed away, I was over there. When they took her out of the house, he followed the gurney, kissing her hand all the way out the door.”
Though he was visited by family and friends, Becker’s spirits would not lift until the following year, when he was befriended by Olson, who lived a block away.
“After a number of months, he started talking about this lady who was so nice,” Jeandin recalled. “She noticed his rhubarb and offered to make him a pie. Not long after that, they were out walking together.
“He seemed to perk up, so I thought, Well, that’s nice.’ One time I visited him and he started talking about how she had no money and her husband wasn’t very good to her, so he was her only real friend. Soon it was, Well, she takes care of me emotionally and I take care of her financially.’ “
Soon, the relationship became more than pies and walks.
His son said Olson would drive Becker to the bank and have him sign off on dividend checks that came in the mail.
“What she did was she allowed him to provide her with funds,” Becker Jr. said. “The way she would do that was she would say, Oh, I’ve got to have a crown fixed but I don’t have the money.’ And of course he would offer.”
Phoenix police Officer Janet Bailey said she uncovered evidence that Olson received payments totaling at least $110,000, valuable coins, a watch and other personal items; was named in a life insurance policy; and had ownership of Becker’s Toyota Avalon signed over to her.
Bailey said Becker Sr. also tried to convince his family that he should leave his home to Olson and include the woman in his will.
His son, who retires this month, said when family members began to suspect foul play, they walked a fine line between upsetting their father’s happiness and protecting him from abuse.
When his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer — doctors later determined he had a frontal lobe tumor that likely affected his memory, emotions and logic — the family could only hope that medications were being administered and that the senior Becker would not alienate loved ones entirely.
“It was just a very helpless situation where you didn’t bring it up,” his son said. “It was very sad.
“She convinced him that his family couldn’t be trusted and he started referring to neighbors who had looked after him for years as busy-bodies.”
Medford police Detective Brenda Garich, who works full time on elder abuse cases, said the Becker case is a textbook example.
The Beckers contacted myriad agencies for help, concerned about loss of contact with their father and his ailing health, but there was little agencies could do unless criminal evidence was found.
Then came a break in the case. The Becker family alerted Bailey that Becker’s wallet went missing days before he fell ill on Valentine’s Day 2012. He told relatives that Olson and her husband, Doug Olson, were holding it “for safekeeping,” Bailey said.
A warrant was served on the Olsons’ home in April. In addition to the wallet, police found 6 pounds of processed marijuana and five plants. Though the home was listed as a registered grow site under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, the pot found was over the legal limit, Bailey said, and Gail and Doug Olson were arrested on charges of possession, manufacture and delivery of marijuana. The Olsons were convicted of the delivery charge Feb. 8 but the other charges were dropped, according to court records.
Reached by phone, Gail Olson declined to be interviewed for this story.
Becker Sr. died on Memorial Day 2012. His son said after the Olsons were arrested, he and other family members were able to “spend his last few months reconnecting and caring for him.”
After Becker’s death, Olson repeatedly called the life insurance company asking to be paid, Garich said.
“The saddest part, after all that she did, was not the financial exploitation but what they did to alienate this man from his very loving family,” Garich said. “They were often shunned from their father’s door for the last four years of his life.”
Jeandin said she planned to attend “every last minute” of the criminal mistreatment case against Olson now winding its way through the courts. A trial scheduled for Feb. 12 has been continued and no new date had been set as of Monday.
A particular memory of visiting Becker in the hospital on Valentine’s Day 2012 still haunts Jeandin, she said.
She said Gail Olson was shouting at Becker in the hospital room.
“She was upset because I had locked his house and the car key was on the ring of keys I had used to lock up his house when the ambulance took him away,” Jeandin said.
“I will never forget, she told him I was with them,’ meaning his family, and I couldn’t be trusted. She was nose-to-nose, yelling in his face. This poor man was so sick and pale against that pillow. She had absolutely no concern for his well-being. It was only hers that mattered.”
Buffy Pollock is a freelance reporter living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.