By Colleen Heild for the Albuquerque Journal
LAS VEGAS, N.M. – For Justin Bowers, home is a travel trailer that attracts flies and leaks when it rains. Even so, it’s a step up from where his court-appointed guardian previously had him living – in a 17-man boarding home that charged $800-a-month rent.
It’s not what Bowers, who is from Albuquerque, wants. It’s not what his father, who worked 30 years for the U.S. Post Office, wanted for his son.
Bowers, 34, who has been under state-approved guardianship since 2012, inherited $117,000 when his father died in 2014 – enough money for a better life and, perhaps, more independence.
But in the hands of the now-defunct Ayudando Guardians Inc., Bowers said his trust funds have vanished.
“I just want my money back,” he said last week. “I need that money to get out of this place.”
Bowers, described as mentally disabled but highly functioning, is considered an incapacitated person under state law. Since Chief District Judge Nan Nash of Albuquerque appointed Ayudando as his guardian, Bowers has been placed at two different boarding homes in Las Vegas. According to Bowers’ mother, Ayudando officials said there was nowhere in Albuquerque to house him.
His current residence is a hail-damaged trailer – for which he pays $700 a month. It is part of a boarding home complex outside the city limits of Las Vegas.
Bowers gets one hot meal a day plus a grocery allotment – which this month consisted of oatmeal, a bag of sugar and 24 frozen waffles. He relies on a space heater to keep warm. Bowers was happy the man living in the back of trailer moved out some months back.
Initially, Ayudando paid Bowers’ living expenses from his Social Security benefits. His guardianship services were paid for by the state Office of Guardianship, because he was deemed indigent.
But after receiving his father’s life insurance proceeds in 2014, Bowers couldn’t understand why he was still living in a meager boarding home. Why Ayudando told him “no” when he pleaded for money for food and clothes. Why he could never get a straight answer as to how much insurance money he had left.
Now he thinks he knows. Ayudando president Susan Harris and chief financial officer Sharon Moore, according to a federal indictment issued in July, are alleged to have siphoned at least $4 million from client accounts to support a lavish lifestyle for themselves and their families. That’s in addition to their six-figure annual salaries.
The 13-year-old company, one of the state’s largest guardianship agencies, had about 1,400 clients statewide, 176 of whom were under court-appointed guardianships or conservatorships authorized by the state District Court in Albuquerque. Ayudando catered to military veterans and vulnerable disabled clients in need of someone to manage their affairs or their finances.
Before the U.S. Marshals office closed Ayudando offices in Albuquerque in late August, Bowers said he spoke with a company bookkeeper. All he had left was $500 in Social Security benefits.
“When we found out that all his money’s gone, it was like, ‘What?’ ” said his mother, Dawna Gomez, of Albuquerque. “… He always used to tell them, ‘You guys act like it’s your own money.’ ”
A $117,000 inheritance
Judge Nash, who appointed Ayudando as Bowers’ guardian, is expected to approve a new guardian for him on Monday.
It’s unclear when Bowers’ inheritance vanished.
The U.S. Marshals office hasn’t responded to Journal questions. Court records in guardianship cases are sealed by law.
But the public court docket sheet, listing the filings in the case, shows Nash received regular annual reports from Ayudando, as required by state law.
No actual bank statements or bond were required from the company.
Bowers said he never received copies of Ayudando’s reports to the court but now wonders whether false financial information was provided. He recalls that, sometime back, Sharon Moore told him he had about $87,000 remaining in his trust.
Moore’s attorney couldn’t be reached for comment last week.
In 2013, the docket sheet shows, Nash was asked to remove Ayudando as Bowers’ guardian. Two years later, a motion was filed to review the guardianship. But Ayudando remained Bowers’ court-appointed guardian.
Under the judicial code of conduct rules, Nash isn’t permitted to talk about pending cases. Bowers’ guardian ad litem, Elizabeth Honce, would not comment for this story.
But Bower’s mother recalled that Ayudando initially drew up documents to put the $117,000 inheritance in a trust so that if Bowers died, all remaining proceeds would revert to Ayudando.
“The judge found that unacceptable,” Gomez recalled, and new trust documents were created.
Another issue arose after her son got a part-time night job cleaning the Las Vegas offices of the New Mexico State Police earlier this year.
His paychecks went to Ayudando, which gave him only $50 a month, Bowers told the Journal.
Bowers said he informed Nash he wasn’t getting his entire $260 monthly paycheck, and the practice stopped.
His paychecks and $998 Social Security benefits pay for his $700-a-month rent on the trailer, gasoline, car insurance and cellphone.
Gomez recalled that during a June 21 hearing, Nash said she was considering appointing a conservator to manage Bowers’ funds.
At the time, an Albuquerque trust company, Desert State Life Management, had made headlines after state financial regulators discovered $4 million in missing client funds.
Ayudando’s Sharon Moore was in court that day as Bowers’ guardian.
“The judge told her, ‘I want somebody to look over your shoulder,’ ” Gomez recalled last week. But no conservator was appointed at that time, the docket sheet shows.
After the hearing, Gomez recalled, Moore came up “and put her arm around me, even though we never got along. She said, ‘You don’t have to worry about Justin’s money. It’s safe.’ ”
A month later, Moore and Harris were arrested on a 28-count federal indictment that charges them with conspiracy, mail fraud and money laundering. They pleaded not guilty and were released from federal custody pending trial by putting up their Tanoan Country Club-area homes as security.
“I’m upset and frustrated,” Bowers said. “They (allegedly) ripped people off, and Sharon is out there living free in her expensive house. She ain’t living in no dump.”
Since the federal indictment, state District Court in Albuquerque is now requiring bonds from conservators managing $30,000 or more. The New Mexico Supreme Court is considering recommendations to enhance oversight, including requiring bank statements of conservators.
But no lawyer has come forward to try to recoup funds on behalf of Ayudando’s former clients. Some say there is little left to recover, because client funds were allegedly spent mostly on entertainment and vacations rather than on assets, such as property.
In the case of Desert State, in which no criminal charges have been filed, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a petition for forfeiture of a Texas cattle ranch, an Angel Fire vacation home and a Downtown Albuquerque office building owned by former CEO Paul Donisthorpe. Several attorneys representing former clients have filed lawsuits against Desert State seeking to recover their missing money.
So far, in the Ayudando case, only Harris’ 2018 recreational vehicle has been seized by the federal government.
In federal court, a judge can order restitution to victims after a criminal case ends. No trial date has been set for Harris and Moore.
‘A better life’
Halbert Bowers died at the age of 62, after retiring from the U.S. Postal Service in Albuquerque in 2011.
Justin was his only child.
“He was a dad who was very much involved with his son’s development and activities,” stated his obituary notice from the Young Funeral Home, in Yemassee, S.C.
Ayudando didn’t permit Justin to attend the funeral in South Carolina, he told the Journal.
Gomez said her son has a knack for remembering numbers, dates and names, and attended special education programs.
Until 2012, he lived with his mother, who remarried in 1995 after she and Bowers’ father divorced.
Gomez said she petitioned the court to place her son into a guardianship after “he got out of control.”
Police arrested him several times on charges that included trespassing and harassment. The cases were dismissed after he was found to be “incompetent” to stand trial. A police crisis intervention officer suggested a guardianship.
Since Bowers was placed under a guardianship, court records show he has had no subsequent arrests.
Gomez said her son had “anger issues” but is now stable and administers his own medication. He drives to work in a 2001 Lincoln Town Car that Ayudando allowed him to purchase for $5,000.
Bowers found the car himself online. But, under Nash’s order, he can’t drive outside of Las Vegas.
When he isn’t working, he says, he watches television in the trailer and on Sundays attends church.
More than anything, Bowers wants to move into his own apartment.
“I just want to get my own place and to keep working where I’m at,” Bowers said. Maybe he can find another part-time job in the morning, such as delivering newspapers or working as a dishwasher, he told the Journal. He hopes his luck will change.
“They said I was supposed to have a better life,” he said.”But how am I supposed to have a better life if they stole my money?”