By Susan Redden
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Attempts to rein in Emma France’s spending and then to get the 95-year-old woman returned to Carthage from California were the focus of testimony Thursday in the third day of a trial in which Rita Hunter and Charlene Kelly, former officials of the Jasper County public administrator’s office, are being sued by France’s daughter for alleged malicious prosecution.
France was made a ward of the public administrator’s office in May 2007 after she lost a large amount of money in telephone and mail scams.
France’s daughter, Dolores Forste, was not notified of the hearing at which her mother was made a county ward, but she traveled to Carthage soon after because her mother had been hospitalized. When her mother reportedly became upset about the guardianship, Forste and her husband, Steve, took France home with them to California.
The Forstes did not return France when she did not want to come back to Jasper County. Dolores Forste was charged with kidnapping, interference with custody and financial exploitation of the elderly. She was arrested and spent several weeks in jail before being returned to Jasper County.
Those charges were deferred and then dropped after the probate court determined that court proceedings that made France a county ward did not follow state law.
Defense attorney Doug Harpool at the close of the plaintiff’s presentation on Thursday argued that the events surrounding Forste’s incarceration were not enough to warrant malicious prosecution as long as truthful statements were what led to action by police and prosecutors.
He asked Jasper County Circuit Judge David Dally for a directed verdict in favor of his client, which Dally overruled.
Lynn Myers, attorney for Dolores Forste, disagreed with Harpool’s argument, saying among other things that the statements that were made to police were not entirely truthful.
He cited testimony from Kelly, the former deputy public administrator, who said she talked to the Forstes on the road and told them they should return France after a few days. He said that differed from statements to police at the time. He said suggestions of financial interference or exploitation at the time also were unfounded.
Kelly said she did tell Forste, when she called after taking her mother, “to be sure she brings her back in a few days.”
Kelly also testified that she was in a meeting with the Forstes and Hunter, the former public administrator, when the couple were told that France could not be taken from the state, and that they could seek guardianship by getting a lawyer and going to court.
Harpool argued that belated permission made no difference because the couple took France without Hunter’s permission and later refused to return her. He also, in questioning Forste at the end of her testimony, contended that she made no attempts to go through proper channels to gain custody of her mother.
Forste said there was no intent not to return to Carthage when the trip started, but then her mother did not want to come back.
“She didn’t want to come, and we didn’t want to force her,” she said.
“You chose to disregard a court order because you disagreed with it,” Harpool said.
Forste, along with Debbie Anderson, a Carthage banker, and Barbara Lovecamp, who worked for Wal-Mart in Carthage, told of attempts to get France to stop spending money with scam artists.
Forste said she tried repeatedly, but the attempts always ended in fights, and she finally decided it was her mother’s money and she could spend it as she wished.
Anderson and Lovecamp both said France would get angry when they attempted to dissuade her as she wrote checks for thousands of dollars. Lovecamp said the store called police and finally refused to handle the transactions. Anderson said she reported France to the state’s senior citizen hot line after she seemed depressed and mentioned suicide. Anderson said France also had become angry when she would call Forste in California about her problems.
Shawn Williams, a Carthage police officer, and Joe Hensley, a Joplin attorney who was named special prosecutor in the case, both detailed their roles in bringing the charges. Both said the charges were appropriate based on the circumstances. Hensley said he consulted with John Podleski, attorney for the public administrator’s office, but that neither Hunter nor Kelly influenced the charges.
Williams said he talked to the Forstes and warned them that they could be charged if France was not returned to Jasper County. He said they refused and said France did not want to return.
“He (Steve Forste) said they thought they could do a better job taking care of her,” Williams said.
To questions from Myers, the men said they might have felt somewhat differently had they known that Kelly had told the Forstes that they could return France to Jasper County in a few days.
Harpool also said that in November 2007, more than five months after Carthage police were called, the couple ignored attempts to resolve the situation by returning France to Jasper County.
France was returned after a special prosecutor offered to defer charges until Dolores Forste challenged the guardianship.
The jury trial continues today in Jasper County Circuit Court in Joplin.