Woman gets 10 years for role in theft of millions from seniors

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Sondra Steen
Sondra Steen

Update, April 12: Jan Van Holt pleaded guilty April 12 and is scheduled to be sentenced May 13. Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that she be sentenced to 12 years in state prison, including 5.5 years of parole ineligibility. Charges against Hamlett remain pending. 

A New Jersey case serves as a warning to senior living professionals and those they serve: Be careful in whom you place your trust.

A New Jersey woman has been sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to money laundering in a scheme that officials said resulting in the theft of millions of dollars from the older adults whom their senior care business was supposed to help. Sondra Steen also will be required to pay a to-be-determined amount of restitution to the alleged victims.

Steen was indicted on March 16, 2015, along with her sister, Jan Van Holt, the owner of A Better Choice, a company that purported to offer care and legal financial planning services to older adults. They were charged with conspiring with Barbara Lieberman, an elder law attorney, to steal more than $2.7 million from 12 elderly clients from January 2003 through December 2012.

Lieberman pleaded guilty to money laundering and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She forfeited $3 million in assets as well as her law license.

In pleading guilty, Steen admitted that she helped her sister and Lieberman carry out the scheme to steal from clients of A Better Choice and Lieberman. “Steen used the stolen life savings of elderly clients to pay for her own luxuries, such as pet care, pool supplies and a vacation condo,” said New Jersey Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “Her predatory and conscienceless behavior has earned her a lengthy prison sentence.” Steen won't be eligible for parole until she has served 4.5 years in prison.

Van Holt faces charges of first-degree conspiracy and money laundering charges as well as second-degree counts of conspiracy, money laundering and theft. She worked as a caseworker for Atlantic County Adult Protective Services from 2002 through December 2007, when her employment was terminated. Five of the 12 alleged victims targeted by Steen, Van Holt and Lieberman were recruited as clients after they encountered Van Holt through her position as a caseworker, according to the attorney general's office.

Van Holt generally was the one to identify potential clients, the office alleged, approaching them to offer the services of A Better Choice and Lieberman. The defendants allegedly targeted older adults with substantial assets who typically did not have any immediate family, offering them non-medical care and services, including help with chores, errands, transportation to appointments, scheduling, budgeting, paying bills, balancing checkbooks and other tasks.

Once an older adult accepted Van Holt's offer of services, Steen usually would be put in place as the victim's primary caregiver, the attorney general's office said. Lieberman then would be brought in to do legal work, preparing powers of attorney and wills for the clients.

The defendants allegedly took control of the finances of their victims by forging a power of attorney or obtaining one on false pretenses. They then added their names to the victims' bank accounts or transferred the victims' funds into new accounts that they controlled. Thereafter, the defendants allegedly stole from the accounts to pay their own expenses, including, for Van Holt and Steen — who lived together — veterinary bills for their pets, pool supplies, two Mercedes owned by Van Holt and lease payments on a Florida condo.

A portion of the money was used to fund each victim's expenses to keep victims unaware of the thefts, the attorney general said, adding that, in some cases, money from one victim would be transferred to another victim to pay expenses and cover up the thefts. If the victim owned stocks or bonds, Hoffman's office said, they were cashed, and the funds were deposited into the account allegedly controlled by the defendants.

When Lieberman prepared wills for the victims, she typically named herself or Van Holt as executor of the estate and named Steen as a beneficiary, or she named other beneficiaries who had little or no ties to the victim and never actually received anything from the estate, according to the attorney general. The women allegedly continued to steal from the victims' estates after they died.

Also indicted with Steen in 2015 were Susan Hamlett, who worked as an aide for clients of A Better Choice, and William Price, who has since pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme and stealing $125,000 from an elderly couple he met when he was a caseworker for Atlantic County Adult Protective Services.

Price was sentenced in October to five years in state prison. Hamlett faces second-degree counts of conspiracy, money laundering and theft.

The attorney general noted that Van Holt and Hamlett are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

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