Catfished: The Woman Who Conned My Elderly Uncle Out of $150,000
My uncle Roger was born at home in 1938, on a rural farm in Iowa. My grandmother was a small woman and he was a big baby. The doctor used forceps to deliver him, and those forceps caused the developmental disabilities that plagued him for the rest of his life. I always thought he was a kind and handsome man, if not more than a little strange, and, if I'm being magnanimous, "not particularly tidy in his appearance."
He said that when he was growing up, he was badly bullied by students and teachers alike. A teacher at the one room country schoolhouse - on more than one occasion - locked him in a closet for "misbehaving." He never quite got along with the other kids. His motor skills - both small and gross - were underdeveloped. His disabilities made him clumsy and bad at sports, which made him an even better target for bullies.
In high school, my grandparents sent him and my mom into town to the K-12 school, where the bullying got worse.
His depth perception was so bad that he couldn't walk down stairs; he had to scoot down on his butt, which detracted even more from his already low popularity. Kids can be cruel, but some of the "offense" may have been more his perception of the situation rather than the reality. For example: After he broke his leg playing basketball in school, all his classmates wrote several heartfelt letters to him wishing him a speedy recovery and a quick return.
His lifelong developmental disabilities made it difficult to express himself and understand situations. He was a good writer and gifted storyteller, although his penmanship was nearly illegible.
He was good with animals and raised numerous prize-winning hogs. Unfortunately, he put as much trust in people as he did in his animals. My earliest memories of him were when he was middle aged. He was a constant fixture at my grandma's house; he would sit, totally silent, at the end of the couch watching TV, smoking his pipe. The one thing I will always remember is that he had a big, bushy beard that scratched my cheek when he kissed me.
He had a tendency to distrust people when they told him something he didn't want to hear and implicitly trust flatterers who manipulated him.
So it was not an entirely unexpected horror when Debbie entered the picture.
Marriages That Were Never Meant to Last
He met a girl at a bar in Denison, with whom he fell immediately and desperately in love. Her parents owned that bar. I remember she had beautiful, long, jet black hair and loved Elvis. I mean: SHE. LOVED. ELVIS.
I was a flower girl in their wedding; I forget to sprinkle the rose petals in the aisle on the way to the altar, so frantically threw them down on the way back, after the ceremony.
I was a huge hit.
Debbie wasn't particularly well-liked by my family. If we're being honest, they thought she was trash. Looking back, she was a nice enough girl. How she ever agreed to marry my uncle, I don't know. It had to be for the money. This isn't so much a reflection on her as on my uncle's personal hygeine and toileting habits in tandem with my family's superiority complex. Garrison Keillor talks about "bachelor farmers," which describes my uncle perfectly. Not very clean, not really socially aware ... basically the kind of guy that wouldn't be most women's first choice for a husband.
Unfortunately for Debbie, she married Roger at a time when everyone suspected there was something terribly wrong with my grandfather (who was later diagnosed with Alzheimer's), my grandmother was losing her grip on sobriety, and my mom decided to pack up me and my dad and move to Denver. In short, she married into the family at a time when our family was spiraling out of control. My grandma had always been the definition of an overbearing, helicopter parent with Roger, which would be tough on any new marriage.
After the wedding, Debbie was forced to live in a trailer between the horse and cow barns rather than the big, comfortable farmhouse surrounded by apple and maple trees. I remember going in the trailer to help my grandma clean it up (ahem ... BACHELOR FARMER) and thinking it was kinda cool but mostly kinda gross. It was a lot like Bud and Sissy's trailer in Urban Cowboy before they realized that they had to clean it themselves.
It was up on the hill, down wind from the barn. That barn wasn't empty. I can just imagine what that poor gold digger was thinking, trapped in a convection oven that smelled like manure.
Predictably, the marriage fell apart before they put my grandpa in the home and my grandma moved into town.
My Uncle, the Bachelor Farmer
My uncle wasn't even allowed to roughneck.
Today, a person with my uncle's disabilities would be given the education and tools needed to succeed in the real world. In the 1940s, though, my grandpa and great-grandpa never thought Roger would ever amount to anything, and had no expectations of him. They set him up for failure and total dependence on them and the community.
After my grandpa was put in the nursing home, my grandma sold the farm and moved into town. My uncle had to live in the basement of that house. Looking back, even though it was a nice set-up, it must have been humiliating for Roger to live there.
I imagine he was upset when my grandpa died, but it was the death of my great aunt, Evelyn, six months later, that was really hard on him.
She never had any kids of her own, and she loved Roger dearly. She doted on him and took him bowling and was, I think, his best friend.
Roger had odd jobs here and there, but after grandma moved into town, he started mowing lawns. He did that until just a few years ago, to make some extra money. Otherwise, my grandma supported him. And then, he met Bonnie.
Bonnie never had a chance. She probably had even less of a chance than Debbie. As was typical with Roger, he decided to go out with a woman who didn't have nearly as much money or "breeding." My grandma hated her right away, and so did my mom. I was pretty young when Bonnie and Roger got married, so I'm not sure why they hated her so much, except that maybe they thought she was yet another gold digger out to get Roger's money.
Bonnie's face was badly disfigured; we were told that she had been badly beaten with the butt of a gun by an abusive husband. Bonnie's disfigured face meant that Roger didn't have any reason whatsoever to marry Bonnie. We all knew what my grandma was thinking: At least Debbie was pretty.
Roger and Bonnie's wedding was planned for the summer of 1985. My mom and I drove to Iowa for the wedding and then Bonnie, for whatever reason, never showed up. She was in another state and "couldn't make it" for her own wedding!
My mother was livid. She scheduled a trip to England that summer, and the wedding delayed it. Any chance Bonnie ever had of making a good impression on my mom evaporated that summer. We drove back home, thoroughly annoyed, then left for Great Britain for a month. Roger and Bonnie got married while we were gone, under the scathing disapproval of my grandmother (who was also mad at us for forcing her to endure the "trevesty" on her own).
Their marriage wasn't perfect, but they stayed married for more than 20 years. Bonnie would often stay with her parents out of town for days or weeks on end, but spending too much time with my uncle could indeed be a challenge. Of course, being married to my uncle also meant being married to my grandmother. Roger made a paltry amount mowing lawns, which wasn't enough to support them. He had to ask for money from my grandma at least every week, and I'm pretty sure that my grandma made a point to tell him how much she hated Bonnie every time he asked. That went on until 1993, when grandma died.
Roger inherited a good amount of money when she died, but because of his disabilities, it was understood that a trust would have to be set up that would have to last him the rest of his life. Maybe there were times when he and Bonnie overspent, but when she was killed in a head-on collision about 15 years later, there was still a good amount of money left.
No One Ever Advocated for My Uncle
Bonnie's death really upset my uncle. Their marriage wasn't perfect, but he did love her.
My uncle received a big cash settlement from the accident, because the other driver was entirely at fault. Most of her kids loved him deeply (he never had kids of his own), and were a strong support system.
And then there's my mom.
There's ... something about her. She never volunteers for anything. She doesn't like to help her friends and family too much. She has an overwhelming fear that someone is taking advantage of her.
No matter how much evidence to the contrary, no matter how valid the emergency, no matter how "Act of God" the situation may be, no matter that the victim could not possibly have predicted or prevented whatever tragedy occurred, her main concern is Not Being A Sucker. Therefore it is, needless to say, very frustrating having to rely on her for anything.
Her behavior sets off chains of events that are usually entirely preventable; events which she - initially - absolutely refuses to step in and prevent.
When Roger "reunited" with Marilyn, my uncle had been single for several years. He lost his mobile home to flooding and was forced into low-income senior housing, which was much, much nicer than any place he had lived for a long time. It was a modest, one-bedroom apartment in Dunlap. He wasn't allowed to drive anymore because of his increasingly poor eyesight and depth perception. My mom finally bought him a riding mower that he could use not only to make some extra money mowing lawns but also to get around town.
At the time, he had a big-time crush on a lady that ran a local diner, Donna Brazel. He's never been good with money, so my mom had to be in charge of paying all his bills, with money from his trust. Because he grew up in town, everybody knew him and gave him reasonable lines of credit, knowing my mom would pay the bills within the month.
But, see ... my mom's sense of victimhood kicked in, because why should SHE have to pay his bills every month. She came up with the brilliant plan of handing off this monumental responsibility to Donna, who was, you know, a responsible business owner. Donna didn't grow up in Dunlap and there was no reason to trust her, but because Roger had a crush on her, my mom handed her the keys to Roger's kingdom. Unfortunately, Donna and her husband, Greg, stole more than $30,000 from Roger. They took the money he received from the insurance company after Bonnie was killed.
Roger had long said that Donna and Greg had been stealing from him, but my mom said he was just being paranoid. During one of our visits to Iowa, I took the time to examine his bank records and and sure enough! They did, indeed, steal all that money from him.
Marilyn Done Him Dirty
It was Bonnie's family that first sounded the alarm on Marilyn. They said that some woman had appeared out of nowhere and carpet bombed him with her entire arsenal of womanly wiles.
We called Roger immediately.
We wouldn't believe it (he said). Out of the blue (he said), he received a call from Marilyn, his long-lost love of many years ago! He said they had a brief fling at a carnival back in the 1960s. He said he messed up with her back then and wasn't going to let a prize like that get away again.
So, of course, a thousand red flags went up for everybody. He sounded hypnotized and she sounded like a scammer.
The stepfamily that was there for him, the stepfamily that had put up with and cared about and took care of him for so many years, even after the death of their mother, were in a total panic over Marilyn.
My mom did not panic.
The thousand red flags that went up for everyone else did not go up for my mom. She said it was his business who he falls in love with, and we needed to leave him alone. She said he was finally happy and he could do what he wanted. And then she shut down and wouldn't deal with it, as she so often does in stressful situations. I tried talking to him myself, but there was no talking to him. He didn't want to hear anyone's concerns. All he wanted was to be happy.
What, we didn't want him to be happy?
And while Donna and Greg were robbing Roger blind? Marilyn listened to every word about that money; she was the only one besides me (the eternal child) that took Roger's claims seriously. After all, he was talking about a lot of money. It was Marilyn who finally took him to the lawyer in Omaha to sort things out.
I'd like to send out a big "THANK YOU" to Donna and Greg: Your deception touched off a wave of resentment that Roger should never have had. Your deception made it much easier for Marilyn to swindle him out of his last remaining dime. It was your deception that allowed her to secret him away to Arkansas, convinced that no one in Dunlap really cared about him, and were all making fun of him behind his back.
And he never really did get his money back, because Marilyn pocketed nearly every dime of that payout.
In January 2009, our family had just been stationed at Fort Hood. My mom came along partly to help out with the move but mostly for the opportunity to travel. She got more and more calls from Bonnie's kids, who were worried sick about Roger. They were also worried sick about his settlement money; they were afraid "that woman" was going to steal all his money, money they rightly felt should stay in the family.
Marilyn first convinced my uncle that everyone in town was against him. She worked tirelessly to convince him that they weren't taking care of him or watching out for him, but that they all thought he was stupid and couldn't do anything on his own. She managed to convince him that they were treating him like a child, didn't really like him and were only being nice to him because he was a rich Dunham. Of course, none of that was true, but I gotta admit: She was good. She had him believing all that nonsense.
Now that she convinced him that everyone hated him, she easily spirited him away from a town he had refused to leave for seven decades. Regardless of how much Bonnie begged, she couldn't get Roger to move. Marilyn had him out of Dunlap in a few short months.
Of course, she wasn't doing any of this out of love, she was doing it to keep herself out of trouble (bad checks) and him destabilized. She moved them from town to town, about every 3 months or so. All this while my uncle was sick with diabetes and after a major heart attack. They ended up in a dumpy rental trailer in Magnolia, Iowa. It wasn't quite as bad as their neighbor's house, who was obviously a hoarder. (The walls in the kitchen were so thick with grease you could supply KFC for a month.) Marilyn kept him drugged, isolated and unwashed. I told my mom we needed to help him, but she still refused to do it. You know, "autonomy" and "choice" and such.
She did, however, still want to ditch the responsibility of paying his bills, so we talked to the lawyer who acted as Trustee on Roger's account. He told us that there was a fair amount of money in the account, far too much to qualify for public assistance. He told us that we should pay off all Roger's debts and buy some necessities, like a pre-paid funeral plan, to pay down the account. He made it very clear that this money should not be used to buy things like cars or other luxury items they didn't need.
We went back to the trailer and my mom, first thing, told my uncle he should buy a car with the money left in the trust. I was almost too dumbfounded to talk; I overcame my surprise pretty quickly and corrected her. No, Uncle Roger, you can't buy a car with the money. Buy a pre-paid funeral plan and pay off all your bills.
Needless to say, when we returned to Colorado, I had a miserable, nagging feeling about my uncle's situation.
He and Marilyn did go out and buy pre-paid funeral plans. Oh, and a $30,000 truck. Oh, and he put the title in her name. Only her name.
Then she moved them to Arkansas.
My mom and I got in a big fight over that. I asked her how she could allow it. She said that was what he wanted and there was no talking to him about it. She made no attempt to tell him how incredibly stupid the whole thing was, and made no attempt whatsoever to stop it.
And here I am: Roger still thought of me as a small child, and I hardly know any relatives or people in Dunlap. And, after all, he is an adult and I was told he could do what he wants. I was utterly powerless to help him.
Ignoring Problems Doesn't Make Them Go Away
About a year later, my mom called me in the middle of the night to say we needed to rescue my uncle from Arkansas. She used the word "rescue." She said Marilyn had run off with another guy and Roger had to get out of there immediately. She said he was in danger.
I was livid. I didn't even have to say anything.
"I know, I know. DON'T SAY IT," my mom said on the other end of the line.
We left first thing the next morning.
We got there and things were worse than we imagined. Marilyn had already moved out, so my special needs uncle was coping on his own the best he could. He was on a lot of prescription painkillers, couldn't remember when he had last taken his heart or diabetes medications, was fat as a house and was covered with chewing tobacco-colored spit. He couldn't get in and out of the bathtub on his own, so he hadn't had a shower or bath for about 9 months. He looked pale, defeated, and downright awful.
There were pee soaked pet pads all over the house and the kitchen was a putrid mess. We got him out of the house right away, but before we could take him home, we had to deal with the disaster Marilyn had wrought all over the county.
As soon as they got to Arkansas, she convinced him to buy some of the most worthless land possible. Three parcels of worthless land in a small town about 45 minutes outside of Little Rock; a town in which neither land nor houses were in any demand whatsoever. Never mind that there were very strict stipulations of what could be placed on the land. Marilyn and Roger plopped down a whopping $30,000 for three small parcels; we eventually sold them for $3,000.
Oh, and I almost forgot: When they purchased the land, they thought the realtor was joking when she said "no trailers." She wasn't.
Then Marilyn ran out of money. Her social security check wasn't enough, so she stole my uncle's social security check. And then, when that money ran out, she just threw all caution to the wind and started writing bad checks from their joint account to anyone still dumb enough to take them.
Trying to close that bank account was more fun than I've had in a long time. I found warrants in the house related to her bad check writing; how she was not on some sort of "bad check writer person" list, I do not know. All I know is that closing an account when businesses keep presenting checks to the bank for approval is a drawn-out and nerve-wracking process that can take several days.
The first day, you try to close the account, or at least remove your name. If the account is empty or, in my uncle's case, owing, so that my mom had to pay them money just to get the balance to $0, and there are checks waiting in the chute, all you can do is wait for that negative balance to appear. If the balance stays at zero for two days, they'll close the account.
For two days, we prayed that Marilyn wouldn't write any more bad checks. She finally stopped.
Before we left, Marilyn had the audacity to show up at the house. She put on her best victim face, but no one was buying it. I raged at her, and she knew better than to call the police for ANYTHING.
And then there was my uncle. Marilyn had been living with another man, and there was my uncle, sitting unwashed in an adult diaper and filthy clothes, defending her. Like it wasn't her fault she'd been stealing from him those last three years. My uncle wanted to forgive her! He was angry at me for yelling at his beloved.
Why couldn't I forgive her?
Rationally, he knew he had to leave, but there was still that tiny glimmer of hope that she might come back home and everything would be okay.
But why would she come back? All the money was gone. All told, with the truck and the land and everything, she took about $150,000 from him.
We brought my uncle back to Colorado. He was miserable, living with my mother, but that was the best thing. When he couldn't put up with her any more, we took him out to the Assisted Living place in his hometown. He seemed happy there.
They wouldn't let Marilyn anywhere near him.
Eventually, he had to move to the nursing home and he passed away from COVID in October 2020. The isolation was hardest on him.
We heard rumors that Marilyn was arrested for prostitution in Arkansas. She avoided selling the land (yes, her name was also on the deed) until we made it very clear that if she allowed my uncle to be destitute (he couldn't get public assistance if he owned real estate), the consequences would be dire.
When she still lived in Arkansas, she put up the truck as bond for her boyfriend; he skipped bail and she lost it.
Unfortunately, we couldn't charge her with elder abuse unless we stayed in Arkansas. My uncle would never have testified against her, anyway; it took him a long time to see how badly she had taken advantage of him. He believed for a long time that she was simply "misunderstood."
I don't think he had the capacity to protect himself from women like Marilyn, or to understand how dirty she did him. Hopefully his story can be a lesson for other families. Protect your loved ones from Jezebels.