Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA TERESA – Juanita Ramirez doesn’t speak English, but no matter. The despair shows in her eyes.
She sits close to her 35-year-old son, Omar, to whom she has devoted the last 16 years.
She watched him struggle after three brain surgeries. She was there during the long recovery from the horrific 2001 New Year’s Eve accident in which he hit a cow that wandered onto State Road 28 in southern New Mexico. The cow’s horn went through the windshield upon impact, leaving Omar with brain trauma that the family says requires 24/7 care.
At 54, Ramirez figured her eldest son, who was 20 years old at the time, would be taken care of into his old age with a court settlement of about $1.2 million, after attorney fees, reached in 2005 with the rancher who owned the cow.
But the family’s bad luck has returned.
A woman from the state Adult Protective Services Division showed up at Juanita Ramirez’s door in April with unbelievable news: Omar’s settlement money is gone – even though the family provided his care and drew sparingly over the years from the trust account that should have grown with prudent investments.
Meanwhile, the court-appointed trust company managing his settlement, Desert State Life Management of Albuquerque, is under investigation by state and federal agencies. Up to $4 million appears to have been diverted from the nonprofit trust company’s client asset accounts and into business accounts controlled by CEO Paul Donisthorpe.
Criminal theft is alleged, but no one has been charged.
Meanwhile, Donisthorpe reportedly has suffered brain damage from either a stroke or a botched suicide attempt in February – although his signature appears on court divorce papers in March.
Ramirez and her family don’t know where to turn.
“I just felt so bad,” she said in Spanish, with her son Armando translating during a Journal interview last week in their home near the New Mexico-Texas border. “I had so much confidence in them (Desert State). We depended on that money for his future.”
The state Financial Institutions Division filed a petition May 31 seeking a court order to place Desert State in receivership. The state has set up a hot-line for clients and their families to call, and has asked for an expedited court hearing to try to help the estimated 70 or so vulnerable people, like Omar, who relied on Desert State to pay their living expenses and manage their assets.
The case is assigned to Chief District Judge Nan Nash in Albuquerque, but no hearing had been set as of Friday.
Mike Unthank, superintendent of the state Regulation and Licensing Department, told the Journal his agency will help as much as possible but chances of recovering all the missing money for clients are “slim.” Legal “clawback” efforts could end up in lengthy court battles, he added.
“I feel awful about it,” Unthank said. “It’s a terrible situation.”
Loss of vision
Initially, doctors gave Omar only a 50 percent chance of surviving.
Omar lost sight in one eye, and has poor vision in the other. He is able to walk and talk, but loses his balance. Because of the loss of his peripheral vision, he sometimes “bumps” into people in stores who become angry and don’t understand.
Omar can’t be left alone because he has seizures. Juanita has learned how to turn him on his side when that happens.
“I know their family,” said Jackie Alvarado, who runs an El Paso fire safety protection firm that employs Armando, a welder, and his brother Gustavo. “It’s really sad because they are very proud people. And they need help. They need help in the worst way.”
Meeting with CEO
Armando Ramirez met Paul Donisthorpe face to face last summer. He, Omar and his mother traveled to Albuquerque to ask for the release of funds to pay for a new house for Omar and his mother because she was separating from her husband and had to move.
“Paul said no, but that he would help us,” Armando said. “He told us not to worry. He said there’s going to be enough money for him (Omar) when he’s old and when he passes away there will be some left over for the family.”
“Now that this has happened, I realized he was sweet-talking us all the time.”
For years, Juanita had submitted bills every couple of months to Desert State for reimbursement of Omar’s expenses. Not for housing, or food – costs the family absorbed – but for other living expenses, such as buying him a new mattress or taking him on vacation. In any given year, the amount would total about $25,000.
Juanita had been frugal to make the money last, Armando said of his mother.
In 11 years, Desert State provided only one accounting of how much money Omar had in his trust, which was supposed to be invested in stocks and other investments, Armando said.
The family’s attorney in the accident case, Steven R. Almanzar, told the Journal that Desert State came highly recommended as one of the few companies that handled “special needs” trusts, so it was selected to manage Omar’s funds.
“It breaks my heart to hear what’s happened,” he said on Friday. “This gentleman really needs that assistance.”
Armando said he never asked his parents to see the trust paperwork until last year. But during a recent phone call to Desert State, he said he was told that only Juanita, as the legal guardian, could discuss Omar’s case with the company.
“They never provided any translators,” he added.
He believes Desert State “took advantage of my mom and my brother because they don’t speak English. She (his mother) feels like she can’t do anything because she can’t speak with them.”
Court records show Corrales mayor and businessman Scott Kominiak was asked by Donisthorpe’s wife, attorney Liane Kerr, to assist with the state’s financial examination.
Kominiak on March 13 turned over copies of a portion of Desert State bank records and account statements and downloads of files that reportedly came from a computer in his possession but that is owned and was used by Paul Donisthorpe, court records state. Kominiak couldn’t be reached by the Journal on Friday.
Records show money was moved from Desert State client accounts into at least three companies controlled in whole or in part by Donisthorpe, including a cattle company in Athens, Texas.
Meanwhile the Ramirez family is in limbo. Kominiak, according to Armando Ramirez, hasn’t returned their phone calls. Desert State is referring clients to the state Financial Institutions Division. But officials there have told the family they have no jurisdiction pending resolution of the court petition.
The state Financial Institutions Division in a May 5 letter recommended Juanita Ramirez “consult with appropriate personal financial advisors and legal counsel concerning your rights.”
“But honestly we don’t have the money to say, ‘let’s start looking for an attorney,'” Armando Ramirez said in the Journal interview.
Omar’s three brothers are already pitching in to help with Omar’s living expenses.
“My mom is very strong,” Armando Ramirez said. “But she’s like, ‘I don’t know who to trust.’ She can’t trust anybody.”