The Tragedy of Elder Abuse and Isolation
SPECIAL TO THE WESTCHESTER GUARDIAN
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day was launched on June 15, 2006, by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organization at the United Nations. A month -long observance is held each June, its purpose to promote understanding and awareness of the cultural, social, economic and demographic processes affecting elder abuse and neglect.
A case in upstate New York is a textbook, if extreme, example not only of what can happen to persons who are taken advantage of and become victims of neglect, but also of the bureaucratic, legal and economic nightmare suffered by their families.
For most of her life, Susan G. Vosilla, who lived in Jewett, N.Y., suffered from a variety of ailments, including diabetes, partial blindness and substance abuse. Mostly incapacitated, she died in 2011. Her family, including her sister and brother-in-law Doria and Dr. Lee McGunnigle, operates the Villa Vosilla Boutique Resort in Tannersville, about 12 miles from Jewett. They contend that she died prematurely due to the neglect of her fiduciary and guardian, Anthony C. Bucca, a Tannersville attorney. They allege that he pirated some $430,000 from her estate.
The case has dragged on for years in the Greene County Surrogate Court in Catskill, with numerous accusations and lawsuits, allegations of legal and judicial misconduct, a succession of attorneys and accountants and the threat of financial ruin looming over the heads of the family and the resort business. The family fears that the latest legal maneuvering may result in the loss of the resort.
The allegations in this complicated case are as follows:
In 1990, Susan Vosilla had been battling substance abuse and stole a credit card and damaged a car belonging to her mother, Nattalina Vosilla, according to Lee McGunnigle. Anthony Bucca became her court-appointed attorney. She was estranged from her family for a time but McGunnigle says they subsequently reconciled. She suffered strokes in 1993 and 1996, after which she had “15 years of total sobriety,” although her health deteriorated, he said. The family had no further contact with Bucca during that time or knowledge of any contact he may have had with Susan.
Nattalina Vosilla was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 2010. Bucca approached the family and said he would apply for guardianship of Susan because she was incapacitated and incapable of caring for herself. The family says he took advantage of her diminished mental capacity and had his associates whisk her away from her mother’s funeral to sign papers giving him power of attorney.
“No one is going to make financial decisions when they’re coming home from their mother’s funeral,” said McGunnigle. “It would be absurd to make a decision like that at that time.”
Bucca has claimed in court papers that Susan made that decision of her own free will and that she purposely wanted the family left out of her affairs and will, which they deny.
McGunnigle said his wife, Doria, signed the papers handing over her guardianship to Bucca because the family had just had 18 months of taking care of her mother, her own health was suffering and they could not handle the burden of another guardianship and more caregiving.
The family says Bucca told them he would protect Susan and her assets from anyone who would try to steal from her. Instead, they say, he filed a will and trust naming himself, his family and others who had no relationship with her as beneficiaries. They say that for 12 months he assured them that she was being well cared for with $430,000 that comprised the bulk of her assets, and receiving necessary medical treatment.
Instead, they say, he sent e-mails and letters to the village attorney seeking to prohibit them from communicating with her. They say he never collected her mail or Social Security disability checks, nor did he provide her with house cleaners, walkers for her three dogs, visiting nurses, medicines or food shopping. His lack of care for her hastened her death, they charge. “We knew she had a chronic illness but we didn’t we know she was going to die,” McGunnigle said.
When she died, they say, she had been living in squalor, with nine months’ worth of garbage and waste from her three dogs in the house. They have produced photos that they say document the abuse and squalid living conditions at the time of her death. They say she died unattended and was cremated before an autopsy could be performed, against their objections, ostensibly to obliterate any evidence of maltreatment or lack of care. Instead of using the $430,000 to care for her, they say, Bucca used it enrich himself and the other beneficiaries.
Bucca has repeatedly denied in court that he committed any wrongdoing. Repeated attempts to reach him to comment for this story were unsuccessful. Several telephone messages left on his office answering machine were not returned.
Nattalina Vosilla created wills in 1986 and 1993 evenly dividing $300,000 among the four McGunnigle children. The court ruled that that money was part of the estate and was to be returned to it. Doria Vosilla was ordered to sue her children to force them to return the money, which she did, although the money was not returned.
Bucca subsequently petitioned the court and Judge George R. Bartlett III to have Doria removed as the executrix of her mother’s estate. A ruling on that has not yet been handed down. The family contends that Bucca seeks to gain control of the Villa Vosilla hotel as an asset of the estate, which they say would lead to its closure. The hotel is apparently the last of its kind in the upstate region, catering largely to Italian-American guests and preserving a culture they say would disappear if it were to close.
McGunnigle said the hotel, which normally does good business during the summer, has been getting cancellations because of the case. “It’s a tenuous time for our family,” he said. “This is 54 years of our life’s work ruined by greedy strangers.”
The case has attracted the attention of Kerri Kasem, daughter of the renowned disc jockey and television personality Casey Kasem, who died in 2014. Before his death he suffered from a neurodegenerative dementia and became incapacitated. She subsequently filed a lawsuit, which is pending, charging her stepmother, Jean Kasem, with elder abuse and inflicting emotional distress on her and her siblings by denying them contact with him prior to his death.
She has been in close contact with the Vosilla family and supported them throughout their case. Kasem flew to New York from California to attend a hearing on June 2 at the Greene County court building, and addressed the family’s supporters at a protest outside the court before the hearing.
When Bucca was about to enter the building, he attempted to speak to the protesters, who were livid and harassed him. Although he did not appear to be in serious danger, court and local police separated him from the protesters and escorted him into the building.
Kasem has also been in contact with New York State Assembly members to lobby for a bill preventing isolation and abuse of incapacitated persons.
“I was afraid [Susan] would be taken advantage of, but not by attorneys,” McGunnigle said. “I couldn’t care less about the money. The money’s gone. This is about my sister-in-law. I will be relentless in my pursuit of justice.”
Susan Vosilla and elder abuse
www.change.org (search “Vosilla”)