4 Atlantic County women charged in theft of millions from elderly

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Northfield attorney specializing in elder law and former Linwood social worker stole victims' life savings, state says  

TRENTON – A Northfield attorney and a Linwood woman who owns an in-home senior care company were arrested Wednesday, March 19 and charged with conspiring to steal millions from elderly clients.

Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said Barbara Lieberman, 62, of Northfield, an attorney specializing in elder law, and Jan Van Holt, 57, of Linwood, the owner of A Better Choice, a company that offered seniors “custom designed life care and legal financial planning,” conspired to prey on the elderly and steal their life savings.

The two women and others allegedly stole more than $2 million from at least 10 victims in Atlantic and Cape May counties, according to the investigation by the state police and the Division of Criminal Justice.

Also charged were Holt’s sister, Sondra Steen, 58, of Linwood, and her former employee Susan Hamlett of Egg Harbor Township.

Lieberman and Van Holt were charged with first-degree money laundering, second-degree conspiracy and second-degree theft by deception.

Lieberman was arrested at her Northwood Court home. Search warrants were executed at her home and at her office on New Road in Northfield. She was lodged in the Atlantic County jail on $300,000 bail.

The state froze approximately $5 million in assets Lieberman holds in various accounts. Hoffman said the state will seek those funds for restitution.

Van Holt was arrested at her West Vernon Avenue home and is being held on $300,000 bail.

Investigators previously filed charges of second-degree theft by deception against Steen – who lives with Holt and helped her operate A Better Choice – and Hamlett, who worked for them as an aide for elderly clients. Steen and Hamlett are free on bail.

According to Hoffman, the women allegedly targeted elderly clients who had substantial assets and who typically had no immediate family, offering them nonmedical care and assistance including financial and legal services.

The women 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 their funds to accounts they controlled. 

The state alleges that Van Holt used the money to buy two Mercedes cars, a Florida condo and pool supplies and to pay veterinary bills for her pets. Lieberman allegedly used stolen funds to pay off six-figure credit card bills.

In one case, Lieberman and Van Holt secretly put a $195,000 reverse mortgage on the home of a 94-year-old woman Van Holt met when she was a county case worker. When the woman hired Van Holt, she was healthy enough and had sufficient assets to continue to live in her Ventnor home. However, after Van Holt and others allegedly stole $112,000 from her and put the reverse mortgage on her home, saddling her with large monthly payments, she was unable to support herself at home and had to move into a nursing home in Cape May Court House, where she died. In applying for the reverse mortgage, Steen falsely claimed she was the victim’s niece, the charges allege.

The women also executed the wills of some victims and continued to steal from their estates after they died, the charges allege.

“These women allegedly preyed ruthlessly on elderly clients, most of whom were facing the end of life without family and with only their savings to ensure they would be cared for properly,” Hoffman said.

Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice described the conspirators as “wolves in sheep’s clothing, entering the lives of their vulnerable victims as caregivers, only to shamelessly steal all they owned.”

“It is particularly egregious that Lieberman, a lawyer, and Van Holt, a former social worker, both of whom had careers ostensibly dedicated to helping the elderly, instead would choose to harm them,” Honig said.

The thefts allegedly began at least as early as 2006 and continued through 2013. Van Holt is a former case worker for Atlantic County Adult Protective Services. She left that job in 2006 and started A Better Choice. Its employees, including Van Holt, Steen and Hamlett, performed a variety of services for clients, including household chores, errands, driving clients to appointments, scheduling, budgeting, paying bills, balancing checkbooks and other tasks. They did not provide health care services. Van Holt also created a company called Elder Hospice, but it was nothing more than a bank account, the acting attorney general said.

Van Holt allegedly referred clients to Lieberman, and vice versa. Lieberman, who gives seminars on end-of-life affairs, wills and living wills, allegedly prepared powers of attorney and drafted wills for clients, giving herself or one her co-conspirators power of attorney. Whoever had the power of attorney allegedly would write checks or make electronic transfers from the victim’s account to their own account or a new joint account with the victim. A portion of the money was used to fund the victims’ expenses to keep them unaware of the thefts, Hoffman said. If the victim owned stocks or bonds, they were cashed out and the funds were deposited into an account controlled by the alleged conspirators. 

The defendants would sometimes transfer victims’ assets into Lieberman’s Interest on Lawyers Trust Account, which lawyers are required to maintain to safeguard funds entrusted to them by or on behalf of clients. However, it is alleged that Lieberman allegedly wrote checks from her IOLTA account to herself, Van Holt, Steen and Hamlett.

First-degree money laundering carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison, including a mandatory period of parole ineligibility equal to one-third to one-half of the sentence imposed, and a fine of up to $500,000. Second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000.

Anyone who suspects that they or someone they know may have had assets stolen in such a way are asked to call the Division of Criminal Justice’s confidential toll-free tipline at 866-TIPS-4CJ.

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