Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Peter Grotte-Higley was 3 years old in 1939 and living in what was then Czechoslovakia when the Nazis sent his Jewish father to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
As World War II came to a close, the invading Russian army forced 10-year-old Peter and his mother into a “collection” camp, where he recalls hearing people being beaten at night.
Grotte-Higley survived to tell the story of his eventual freedom, his success in the British advertising world and his retirement at age 58 with a healthy savings account and pension.
But at the age of 81, Grotte-Higley is trapped again – this time placed by a private guardianship company in a boarding house where he gets three meals a day and shares a room with another man. He isn’t free to come and go, as he wishes. And he wants out.
“It isn’t a very clean place. My health is getting worse. The food is not adequate for somebody that’s got bad kidneys. I’m not getting the care I need,” he told two Journal reporters.
Over the course of 70-plus years, Grotte-Higley has gone from being a prisoner in a Russian “collection” camp to being a “protected person under the law” in New Mexico. He says he has no access to any money and no way to find out his status as a court-assigned ward of Ayudando Guardians Inc., which last month was indicted along with its two top principals for alleged embezzlement of client funds.
The home where he has been placed isn’t licensed or inspected by the state. A manager could not be reached for comment.
When two Journal reporters on Tuesday attempted to take Grotte-Higley to Ayudando’s offices in Albuquerque at his request, a caretaker at the home barred him from leaving. A reporter who went inside to help Grotte-Higley gather up his documents and photos then was asked to leave the premises.
“Call the police,” an indignant Grotte-Higley told the reporter. “I am not a prisoner here.”
But under the state’s guardianship system, those like Grotte-Higley typically have no freedom to come and go, or to have visitors of their choosing. Their life decisions are dictated by a guardian or conservator appointed by a judge. They are at the mercy of the courts to find out where their life savings went. If they ever find out.
Without children or close family, Grotte-Higley on Jan. 28, 2016, was deemed mentally incapacitated in Bernalillo County District Court. Unable to handle his living and financial affairs, he was suffering from a number of medical issues. Six months earlier, his wife of 17 years, Nancy, died in her sleep.
An employee of the Jewish Care Program of Albuquerque is listed as the petitioner who asked the court to approve a guardianship/conservatorship for Grotte-Higley, who still tries to attend synagogue on Saturdays at Congregation Albert if he can find a ride or get a cab.
The circumstances of his guardianship are unclear because state law requires so much confidentiality, ostensibly to protect the incapacitated person’s privacy.
A court docket sheet, the only public record available, shows state District Judge Denise Barela-Shepherd of Albuquerque appointed Ayudando as Grotte-Higley’s guardian and conservator in February 2016. Why he needed a guardianship/conservatorship isn’t specified – although he had been suffering from health problems and recalls signing papers agreeing to the guardianship.
The medical reports that gave the rationale for him being deemed mentally incapacitated aren’t public. The docket sheet says four annual account/reports were filed between August 2016 and April 28 of this year.
The reports, also confidential, are required by state law to inform the judge about the incapacitated person’s well-being and finances and whether a guardianship/conservatorship is still needed.
Grotte-Higley recalled receiving a conservator report “just one time” that didn’t detail his finances. He recalled the judge in the case ordering Ayudando “to give a detailed report on my spending (and income) but they never did.”
Judges in New Mexico are bound by a judicial code of ethics to refrain from discussing pending cases in their courts.
Guardianships and conservatorships, whether via a family member or professional firm, are supposed to be a last resort for people who can’t manage their affairs, many of whom have dementia or Alzheimer’s.
New Mexico’s system is under review by a special state Supreme Court task force set to propose reforms and ways courts can maintain better oversight of clients they place under guardianships.
The federal indictment of the 11-year-nonprofit Ayudando Guardians shocked many in the guardianship and legal community because Ayudando specialized in caring for the elderly and mentally or physically incapacitated. A federal indictment unsealed July 19 alleges the firm’s two principals and their families used client funds, including their monthly benefit payments, to support a lavish personal lifestyle.
Company credit cards were used to purchase up to $4 million in goods and services over the past three years that didn’t appear related to client needs, federal documents allege.
One federal agent in a search warrant affidavit described Ayudando as a company “permeated by crime.” Grotte-Higley said he knew nothing about what he called the Ayudando “scandal” until alerted by the Journal.
Grotte-Higley agreed to be interviewed by the Journal reporters last Saturday at a Northeast Heights restaurant. In recent months, his health had recovered to where he went to social events, including the monthly meeting of Albuquerque Recorder Society, a musical club that he had attended several years earlier but stopped.
He has relied on taxis to get to and from the meetings, but recently made the acquaintance of Journal reporter Olivier Uyttebrouck, who also plays the recorder.
In the past, Grotte-Higley has been allowed to leave the boarding house if accompanied by a “responsible person” or if transported by taxi, he said.
During the near three-hour interview with Uyttebrouck and reporter Colleen Heild on Saturday, Grotte-Higley recounted his life, promising to be as “objective as I can.” He maintained a sense of humor throughout, reminding the reporters he was born in what was then Bohemia. “I’m a typical Bohunk,” he added.
Grotte-Higley said he agreed to be placed in a guardianship at a time when he was more severely ill than he is today. Before Ayudando was appointed, Grotte-Higley had a quadruple bypass, high blood pressure and at least one stroke, he said. He also recalled a series of falls.
Grotte-Higley did not know the U.S. Marshals Service had a court order to oversee Ayudando’s operations until a reporter told him. He wondered why he hadn’t seen an Ayudando representative in weeks. But he wanted to call the telephone number set up by federal authorities for clients and their families to call if they had questions.
He got a recorded message asking him to leave his contact information.
“How the heck do I get out of that place?” a frustrated Grotte-Higley said of his living arrangement, pounding his fists on the table.
Holocaust survivor program
Grotte-Higley had already been involved with the Jewish Federation of New Mexico.
Grotte-Higley said a social worker with the Jewish Care Program of the Federation has been trying to help him move to new lodging. She didn’t return a phone call seeking comment on Wednesday.
Grotte-Higley on Tuesday planned to visit the Ayudando office on Central Avenue SE to speak with the U.S. Marshals Service about his case.
But a woman who identified herself as Deborah Brem, a manager for Malama Enterprises that manages the boarding house on Tennessee NE where he lives, told Journal reporter Uyttebrouck that he could not take Grotte-Higley to Ayudando’s office.
“I can’t let this happen,” Brem said. “There is nobody that he can speak with right now.” Grotte-Higley would need permission from Ayudando Guardians to leave the property, she said. “At this point, Ayudando is still in place.”
The reporter told Brem that Ayudando Guardians and its two principals are under federal indictment for looting client accounts and money laundering, and that Grotte-Higley wants to speak with someone about the consequences of the indictment for his finances and well-being.
“I’m very well aware of the situation there,” Brem responded.
When reporters called Grotte-Higley later Tuesday on his cellphone, he said he could not talk freely because his caretaker was there with him. The Journal tried three times to reach Grotte-Higley at the same number on Wednesday, but he didn’t answer. The calls went straight to a voice mail – that had not yet been set up.
Struggle for dignity and self-respect
Through the help of the Red Cross and the Czech “underground,” as he called it, Peter Grotte-Higley and his mother escaped from the Russian collection camp. They had to cross the Ore Mountains, winter was approaching and “we were still wearing summer clothes.”
“It was an awful Nazi nest,” he recalled of the war years.
But when the Russians arrived, “we lost everything. They were worse than the Nazis. You know they were beating people during the night, waterboarding them I think. I saw them march up a group of people and the next thing we heard was gunshots.”
Grotte-Higley reunited with his father in England. But he doesn’t know whatever happened to his mother, who stayed in Czechoslovakia to help her parents after their escape from the camp.
Grotte-Higley says he managed to start a business in England that extended “all over” Europe. When he retired at the age of 58, he said he had a savings of well over $250,000 in U.S. dollars.
His retirement in America brought him to the Albuquerque area, where the woman who became his second wife lived.
He said he has two monthly pensions, including one from the United Kingdom that provides about $1,400 a month, and a second pension from a German insurance company for which he once worked.
Over the past year Grotte-Higley relied on a series of Ayudando Guardian representatives for transportation, trips to the doctor and for a $100-a-month debit card for his incidental expenses.
But at least twice when he tried to use the card to pay for purchases, he was told there were no funds on the card.
“I was at Walmart,” he recalled. “It’s highly embarrassing. How can they embarrass me like that?”
Grotte-Higley often expresses frustration about his lack of independence, saying he is unable to leave the house to walk for exercise. A sociable man, he complains that he has little social stimulation in the home.
He also does not know what became of money he had saved or the two pension payments he once received.
“The judge told them (Ayudando) to give a detailed report on my spending and finances,” he told the Journal. “They never did.” Or at least, Grotte-Higley said, he never saw it.
“Look, I have no money whatsoever,” he said. “I need a little bit of money to maintain my self-respect.”