Bill Silverfarb/Daily Journal
Dr. Thomas O’Connell has filed a police report claiming he is the victim of elder abuse at the hands of his stepson. Experts say, however, proving a crime occurred is often difficult.
An 81-year-old Redwood Shores doctor has filed a police report claiming elder abuse by his wife’s middle-aged son.
The stepson, however, told the Daily Journal Thursday that the doctor is simply suffering from dementia and other ailments that have clouded his judgment.
Redwood City police confirmed there is an open investigation into Dr. Thomas O’Connell’s claim that his stepson is taking advantage of him by using an ATM card and vehicle owned by the doctor without authorization.
The doctor, however, had the same complaint lodged against him earlier this year by the son who claimed elder abuse against his mother at the hands of O’Connell.
So far, neither have been charged with any crime and since elder abuse is so hard to prove, criminal charges may never be filed in the case, legal experts told the Daily Journal.
O’Connell also happens to be one of the state’s most prolific pot doctors, having recommended the use of medical cannabis to more than 7,000 patients in California.
The doctor’s work with marijuana has doubly clouded the relationship with his stepson, O’Connell told the Daily Journal from his Redwood Shores home, where he is now feeling suddenly trapped.
The stepson stops by routinely, the doctor said, to drop off groceries for him and his 65-year-old wife but then leaves with their car, which the doctor said he is not authorized to use.
The doctor did tell the Daily Journal, however, that he recently had a lapse in judgment by turning over an ATM card to his stepson because he “wanted to trust him.” The only care the family is getting currently is from the stepson since neither really leave the house, the doctor said.
“Food is being delivered to me by the guy who is stealing from me,” O’Connell said.
The whole situation has caused the wife to be torn between her husband and son, the doctor said.
Elder abuse is often a family issue and is often hard to prove, said Claire Ramsey with the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.
The first layer of elder abuse is generally financial and the victim many times does not want to call the police, she said.
It can start out as an elderly parent offering help to their adult child and then turn to the child taking advantage of their parent, she said.
But the issue should not be minimized, Ramsey said.
“If someone takes $500 out of your wallet, that is stealing,” she said.
District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe also told the Daily Journal that proving elder abuse can oftentimes be difficult for a couple of main reasons.
The first is that the elderly victim very often does not remember. Elder abuse can be proved by the surrounding circumstances like if someone actually sees the abuse take place, Wagstaffe said, but otherwise if the victim does not remember there may not be a criminal case.
The second main reason elder abuse is hard to prove is that the victim actually gives consent, Wagstaffe said.
Prosecutors in the county actually took a new approach years ago to prosecuting an elder abuse case by claiming undue influence, which exists mostly in the civil world, he said.
Undue influence is when one person takes advantage of a position of power over another person such as a parent/child, guardian/ward or attorney/client.
Wagstaffe’s office actually got a criminal conviction using the undue influence tactic but it then got overturned by an appeals court, he said.
“Physical abuse and neglect are easier to prove because you can see it,” he said.
O’Connell has never felt physically threatened by his stepson, he said. His main worry is that his retired military pension will vanish.
He has tried to call the bank to cancel the ATM card but got frustrated trying to navigate the bank’s phone system, he said.
“If I had a way to get to the bank I would do it,” he said.
Since first filing the police report in August, the doctor has become more frustrated because he thinks they do not believe him or are not doing their jobs. Redwood City police said the case is still open and they are still inspecting the paperwork but that it will likely end up a civil case, rather than a criminal one.
His stepson did tell the Daily Journal that he spoke with an officer about O’Connell’s claims but suspects nothing will come of it.
“I would really love for him to remember we’ve taken care of him all these years. I’m trying to keep the family together,” said the stepson, who the Daily Journal is not identifying for this story since he has not been charged with any crime.
The doctor, however, thinks he is clearly being abused.
“I’m being victimized by family and can’t get anyone to do anything about it. He has no income but my money,” O’Connell said about his stepson.
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