Ice cream, compassion, tears help prosector find justice for elderly vicims

Vulnerable seniors are more than just a case to Asst. AG Delaney
2012-09-09T00:00:00Z 2014-09-05T15:30:36Z Ice cream, compassion, tears help prosector find justice for elderly vicimsKim Smith Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 09, 2012 12:00 am  • 

To Assistant Attorney General Jesse Delaney, justice doesn't begin or end in a courtroom.

It often starts with a call like the one she received in June about a home health care worker who may have hit an 89-year-old Alzheimer's patient in the face.

Delaney didn't just green-light the worker's arrest. With Tucson Police Detective Ericka Stropka, Delaney went to see the victim's 91-year-old husband.

Together, they got the couple's life story. How he survived the Holocaust. How they met and married nearly 70 years ago, raised children and retired to Arizona.

And how the woman hired to take care of them in their final years placed them in separate homes, leaving him to pine for the love of his life for all but the two hours a week he was allowed to sit with her.

Within hours, Delaney and Stropka arranged for the couple to be reunited. An ambulance was hired and a hospital checkup scheduled.

As Delaney, 38, held the woman's hand in Tucson Medical Center's emergency room, Stropka tracked down the victim's beloved cat, which the caregiver had given away.

Delaney got the woman settled in a nursing home, just down the hall from her husband, then collected her favorite nightgown, comforter and photos. Together, Delaney and Stropka delivered the cat and personal items.

The couple had been separated 18 months. They were reunited for two weeks.

Delaney likes to think the woman waited to die until she could say goodbye to her husband.

"She barely knew what was going on, but when I told her we were taking her to be with her husband she said, 'Thank you,' and smiled," Delaney says, tears filling her eyes. "She knew. I think she knew what we were doing."

The caregiver is awaiting trial.

"A humble woman"

Roger Nusbaum, an investigator with the Attorney General's Office, describes Delaney as "a humble woman with a unique personality." He and Stropka began working with her in March 2011.

When Attorney General Tom Horne created the Taskforce Against Senior Abuse, he hired Delaney to prosecute people accused of committing health-care fraud in Southern Arizona by forging prescriptions, submitting false bills or abusing and neglecting patients who receive AHCCCS.

Her team includes two AG investigators, two Tucson Police detectives, a victim advocate and a legal assistant.

"We've all worked with someone that makes everyone around them work a little harder to hit their true potential," says Steve Duplissis, chief counsel for the state Attorney General's Office's Healthcare Fraud and Abuse Section. "She inspires everyone ... to dig a little deeper, to do more for those who are victims of crime."

Stropka and Nusbaum say it's rare for prosecutors meet them at a crime scene or ask to meet the victim. Delaney does it all the time.

"She really makes it about the victim," Stropka says. "I know other detectives care, but she understands that part of being able to fight for victims who can't fight for themselves means she has to meet them."

Interviewing elderly victims can be time-consuming because they are often frail, suffering from dementia, lonely or embarrassed at being victimized, Stropka says. Delaney not only stays for the entire interview, she holds the victim's hand, offers encouraging words, strokes their hair.

"She's been to some of our more rancid situations where we're pouring Clorox on our shoes to try to disinfect them," Nusbaum says.

The prosecutor also goes to autopsies, to see for herself what the victims went through, but also to make sure the right questions are asked.

"She literally sits there and weeps for people," he says, "and they are real tears."

personally helped victim

In July 2011, Delaney was with Nusbaum and Stropka when they served a search warrant on the home of abuse victim Ruthann Jacox. They found bags of trash, animal feces and maggot-infested food.

Jacox, a 64-year-old multiple sclerosis patient and retired nurse, went from 195 pounds to 70 pounds after a "caregiver" came to live with her. The caregiver, Lea Hughes, was sentenced last month to two years in prison for the abuse.

During Jacox's last three months of life, Delaney visited her twice a week at the hospital and care facility where she was taken - each time with a Dairy Queen Turtle Pecan Cluster Blizzard in hand.

"We watched the Food Network and talked about our favorite things to cook" and never discussed the criminal case against the caregiver, Delaney says.

When Jacox died, Stropka arranged a small memorial service, and Delaney searched the house for her prepaid funeral receipt.

The two of them were at the airport when Jacox's 75-year-old brother got off the plane from Pennsylvania. They helped him collect valuables from his sister's house before taking him to the memorial service and then to lunch.

"It was like having guardian angels," James Jacox says.

photos on the fridge

On Delaney's refrigerator at home is an old photo of Ruthann wearing her nurse's uniform. Dating back even further is a picture of Nichole Renea Katz, who died in September 2008, one week after her 19th birthday.

Delaney prosecuted her killer, Jonathan Swihart, in February 2010, while working in the domestic violence unit of the Pima County Attorney's Office.

Katz had lost her mother when she was eight and was raised by her dad and brothers.

Delaney cried when the jurors convicted Swihart of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder.

She had grown close to Katz's father and brothers. "My heart ached for them," she says.

Nicol Green, Delaney's friend and former supervisor in the domestic violence unit at the Pima County Attorney's Office, admires Delaney's ability to relate to victims and their family members rather than leave it to victim advocates.

She has no fear Delaney will one day burn out emotionally, but they have talked about it.

For her part, Delaney says she can't imagine ever giving up what she does. When she's stressed she talks it over with her husband, Zach, or with Green. And she cooks.

"Zach always says, 'You being upset is nothing compared to what these people went through,' and I guess I'm comforted by that," Delaney says. "I don't think I'd be a very good lawyer or advocate for victims if I wasn't passionate."

New york upbringing

Delaney grew up in New York, the middle of three girls born to a land surveyor and a nurse who raised them in a strict Irish-Catholic household.

She put herself through school on Pell Grants and a bartender's salary. "My dad was so proud of me," Delaney says. "He was a big believer in giving back and that little people need to be protected."

After graduating from the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego in 2004, she spent 18 months writing contracts before taking a job with the Pima County Attorney's Office because she wanted some courtroom experience.

She expected to stay a year. Instead, she found herself assigned to the brand-new Pima County Domestic Violence Court. She became immersed in the issue and brought more than 150 repeat offenders to trial.

"I fell in love," Delaney says. "It felt really meaningful. … You are in the unique position where you can do good for someone whether they want you to or not."

Then came the opportunity at the Attorney General's Office, where her attention turned to elder abuse.

"There's a similarity in that domestic violence victims often recant or don't show up at trial," Delaney says. "In elder abuse cases, they are often deceased by the time we go to trial or their mental capacity or physical condition prevents them from going to court."

The new unit created by Horne was sorely needed, Delaney says. In the past, offenders escaped prosecution because of the unavailability of the victims.

"Even if they are at the end of their lives or have died, a crime was still committed," Delaney says. "Justice still needs to happen."

She is passionate about helping victims, but Stropka and Nusbaum also praise Delaney's ability to show compassion to the perpetrators, looking beyond the crime to the suspect's background for mitigating circumstances when negotiating plea agreements.

"She understands that we're taking away people's freedom and we need to be cautious," Stropka says. "She believes it's got to be the appropriate sentence based on who they are."

"At the end of the day our job is not to convict people or to punish people - that's not what prosecutors are supposed to do," Delaney says. "Our job is to do justice."

"We've all worked with someone that makes everyone around them work a little harder to hit their true potential. She inspires everyone ... to dig a little deeper, to do more for those who are victims of crime."

Steve Duplissis,

chief counsel, Attorney General's Office's Healthcare Fraud and Abuse section

Kim Smith at 573-4241 or kimsmith@azstarnet.com. On Twitter: @KimSmithStar

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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