Saturday, January 12, 2002

Lawyer disappeared with women's estates, indictment says




By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Schwartz
        Nearly everything that two elderly Cincinnati women left behind for their loved ones when they died — $337,601.19, to be exact — is missing, as is the Cincinnati lawyer they hired to administer their estates.

        Allen Schwartz — a 71-year-old lawyer described by colleagues as a gentlemanly, low-key legal veteran — disappeared in July. In his Walnut Hills office, he left behind his case files and a four-page letter. In it, prosecutors say, he confessed to taking money from the estates.

        “He made it clear he wouldn't be coming back, not voluntarily,” said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen.

        Married with grown children, he lived until his dis appearance on Middleton Avenue, a quiet street in Clifton.

        This week, five months after he seemingly dropped off the face of the earth, a Hamilton County grand jury handed down a six-count theft indictment against Mr. Schwartz.

        The indictments involved alleged thefts from the estate of two women who died in 2000 — Helen Cecilia White of Clifton and Helen Seretha Rainey, who lived at Maple Knoll Retirement Village in Springdale.

        The bizarre case began one day last July.

        Thomas Baldwin, a lawyer who shared office space with Mr. Schwartz on

        Kemper Lane in Walnut Hills, walked into the office and found case files on a table, along with the letter.

        In it, Mr. Allen said, Mr. Schwartz said he had stolen the money and had spent it. It also referred to large gambling debts, Mr. Allen said.

        Mr. Baldwin called the Cincinnati Bar Association.

        It called Hamilton County Probate Court.

        Most of the two elderly women's beneficiaries were left with next to nothing.

        Ms. White's estate was well over $200,000, including proceeds from the sale of her home on Hedgerow Lane in Clifton. Gone, according to court documents, is $226,400.

        Of Ms. Rainey's estate of nearly $150,000, there is $84,905 missing as well as another $26,296 in a separate trust fund set up to help her sister.

        In the White case, Probate Court records show that Mr. Schwartz wrote 10 checks from the estate account from August to December 2000 — checks ranging from $2,100 to $80,000.

        In the Rainey case, a dozen checks are made out to Mr. Schwartz from April 2000 to March 2001, ranging from $200 to $20,000.

        If he is convicted, the six counts carry a maximum prison sentence of 16 years.

        If he can be found and tried, that is.

        “I have no idea where this guy is, but I'm certain he will be found,” Mr. Allen said.

        “If he's sitting on a beach in Fort Lauderdale or somewhere, sooner of later, he'll get a traffic ticket or something and he'll get nailed,” Mr. Allen said.

        Once the indictment was handed down, the job of tracking down Mr. Schwartz was handed over to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department fugitive squad.

        But the lawyer has a five-month head start.

        Phone calls to his former law office are met with a tape-recorded message.

        “If you are attempting to contact attorney Allen Schwartz, please be advised he has abandoned the practice of law,” a woman's voice says on the voice mail message.

        “In fact,” the message continues, “Allen's current whereabouts are unknown.”

        After the Hamilton County Probate Court was notified and, the court began proceedings in late July to remove Mr. Schwartz as trustee in the two cases.

        “Anytime the court feels that a lawyer is violating the law in his handling of an estate, we move as quickly as possible to get him out and appoint someone else,” said Probate Court Administrator Mark Combs.

        Mr. Combs said Mr. Schwartz was a familiar figure to those who work in the Probate Court offices — a frequent visitor filing papers and appearing in hearings for dozens of clients.

        “I think everybody here was just floored when they heard about this,” Mr. Combs said. “He was always a lawyer who presented himself very well. He seemed like the consummate gentleman.”

        In August, the court removed Mr. Schwartz from the White and Rainey estate and appointed Colleen Laux, a Cincinnati lawyer who specializes in estate planning and management, in his place.

        But, nearly all of Ms. White's estate was gone, as was much of Ms. Rainey's.

        Ms. Laux said she is working to try to recover as much of the money as she possibly can, but it is difficult.

        “When I took over there was virtually nothing left,” Ms. Laux said. “And it's hard to recover money from someone who has disappeared.”

        The primary beneficiary of Ms. White's estate was Lawrence Hoffman, a nephew from Hamilton who has since died, Ms. Laux said. But his estate, Ms. Laux said, is still entitled to compensation.

        “I have some legal avenues I can pursue to get these people what is owed them,” she said.

        One is the client security fund administered by the Ohio Supreme Court and funded by lawyers themselves. But the maximum that can be collected from that fund is $50,000 and applicants must show that the lawyer who took the money has either been disciplined by the Ohio Supreme Court or died.

        “There are other things I can try, but what I don't want to do is cost these people $20,000 in attorneys' fees to gain $10,000 for them,” Ms. Laux said.

        Mr. Allen said his office has prosecuted several cases in which lawyers were accused of stealing from estates they were hired to manage, but said this is the only one in which the accused has disappeared.

        “This seems to be the area where lawyers most often get in trouble — stealing from estates,” Mr. Allen said. “If you are fiduciary for an estate, you have that checkbook and you can just keep writing checks until somebody stops you.”

       



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