Two Brighton roommates allegedly concocted a brazen scheme to bilk an ailing, elderly neighbor of $450,000 by agreeing to use the money to care for the woman’s beloved cat as long as it lived.
But instead of safeguarding the assets for the pet, a tabby named Puddy Cat, the two women are accused of going on a spending spree, buying a $28,000 Mini Cooper car, an iPad, a Vitamix blender, and a Netflix subscription — all while the 74-year-old woman, who suffers from dementia, was in a nursing home. They also siphoned off tens of thousands of dollars in cash, Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Michele Granda said in Suffolk Superior Court Thursday.
The two roommates, Randi Berkowitz and Patricia DiGiacomo, were arraigned on a 63-count indictment in what authorities called one of the most startling cases of elder exploitation they had seen in years. They pleaded not guilty, and their attorneys said the elderly woman was not a victim, but had a deep emotional attachment with the defendants, trusting them to make sure her cat was cared for.
The prosecutor put forth another scenario.
Granda said that before the woman granted Berkowitz power of attorney in December 2012, she had $216,000 in her bank account. When a conservator finally stepped in and terminated Berkowitz’s legal access to the woman’s money, just $2.16 remained in the account.
“They befriended this victim and the victim made the fateful mistake of naming Miss Berkowitz as her power of attorney,’’ Granda said. “Once Miss Berkowitz became the elderly woman’s power of attorney, she and Miss DiGiacomo siphoned off the victim’s cash, credit, and condo for themselves.’’
Granda said that the women, who share a Brighton condo, did the most damage to the alleged victim’s assets after learning that the elderly woman had drafted a will creating the “Puddy Cat Trust’’ designating her money for lifetime care for Puddy, and for donations to 23 animal welfare agencies.
To block the woman’s condo from being sold under the will, Berkowitz arranged to buy the condo for $1 even though it was valued at $275,000 at the time, prosecutors alleged. As part of the legal proceedings, the condo’s locks have been changed to keep Berkowitz and DiGiacomo out.
Granda said Berkowitz and DiGiacomo used an “identity shifting’’ ruse as they gained the alleged victim’s trust. Berkowitz added to the elderly woman’s confusion by portraying herself as DiGiacomo and using a driver’s license with her own picture, but DiGiacomo’s name, prosecutors said.
“The victim doesn’t know anybody by the name of Randi Berkowitz,’’ Granda said in court, but she does know someone she believed was Pat DiGiacomo. The prosecutor said the elderly woman believed the real DiGiacomo was a friend named Devon D’Mato.
Berkowitz, 63, and DiGiacomo, 58, both collect Social Security disability for chronic health issues, officials said.
Police investigating a separate matter involving Berkowitz and DiGiacomo learned of neighbors’ concerns and began looking into their dealings with the woman.
They have allegedly spent tens of thousands of dollars on private lawyers in civil court cases where they sought to maintain control over the elderly woman’s assets. But when they appeared in court Thursday to face criminal charges, they were both represented by court-appointed attorneys.
Berkowitz’s attorney, Susan Rayburn, lambasted the prosecution’s pursuit of her client, saying it has lasted for months and turned Berkowitz’s neighbors against her after State Police made repeated visits to the neighborhood, questioning anyone who knows the women.
“It’s more of a witch hunt than anything else,’’ Rayburn said in court. “It’s vindictive. The community has been poisoned against them.’’
DiGiacomo’s attorney, Sarah Solomon, said in court that DiGiacomo and Berkowitz had developed a strong bond with the alleged victim. “They have a very close and loving relationship,’’ Solomon said.
In the only time their voices were heard in court Friday, both women answered “not guilty” to charges including perjury, embezzlement, and larceny over $250 from a person over 60.
They were released on personal recognizance and barred from going to a Brookline cat hospital where Puddy Cat is being cared for while the civil courts examine the alleged victims’s financial situation.
Sitting in the courtroom Thursday was John Spritzler, a member of the condo association where the women rent a unit. Spritzler said he and most of his neighbors are fed up with the women’s behavior, which he said has included fabricating a deed that entitled them to put a suet bird feeder in a tree in front of the condo building.
“They want to see these ladies evicted, and they never want to see these ladies again,’’ Spritzler said.
The women are due back in court May 15.
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