Shocking Story: Violence Against Seniors on the Rise

Joann H., 77, had rented an upstairs bedroom to a 43-year-old boarder because she needed the money and help around the house.

On June 6, 2007, the man came home drunk, beat Hornberger and tried to smother her with a pillow. He shot up the house, terrorizing her until dawn. Friends found Hornberger battered but alive.

“It was a nightmare,” said Hornberger, who is sharing her experience as a volunteer at local senior centers. “I had known him for about four years … I thought he could stay with me and maybe do some odds and ends around the house.”

Senior citizens increasingly are being victimized by desperate people looking for soft targets in Michigan’s hard economy.

Fraud and violence against the elderly are on the rise throughout Metro Detroit, according to law enforcement and advocates for senior citizens.

“It’s stunning, the level of violence we are beginning to see,” said Thomas Wenzel, principal Wayne County, MI prosecutor for elder abuse.

When seniors suffer physical, emotional and financial abuse, it’s usually at the hands of relative caregivers. But local officials say they have seen a recent rise in violence and financial fraud against the elderly by strangers and others who won their trust. At a time when FBI statistics for Metro Detroit show decreases in the major reported criminal categories, prosecution of violent crimes against the elderly rose 75 percent last year in Macomb County. Overall crimes involving senior victims spiked 42 percent in Oakland County. In Wayne County, prosecutors say the numbers haven’t risen, but the level of brutality involved in the crimes has.

A dangerous stereotype — that the elderly are weak, easily confused and distrusting of banks during hard times — is leading desperate people to believe they might be easy marks for scams, strong arm robbery and worse.

“I think people are getting desperate for money. It’s amazing and scary,” said Suzanne Faunce, chief prosecutor of crimes against the elderly in Macomb County.

Examples abound throughout Metro Detroit:

  • Police are circulating photos from surveillance cameras in Southgate and Lincoln Park, where an 86-year-old woman’s credit cards were used to buy furniture, clothing and a microwave. The victim was bruised when a purse-snatcher threw her to the asphalt in a Taylor grocery store parking lot on Jan. 11. Her attacker was a young woman.
  • Gregory Nathaniel Wayne, 32, is awaiting trial on charges of torture for binding, beating, kicking and choking a Detroit couple in their 80s on Nov. 7 while allegedly demanding to know where money might be hidden in their home. The man was duct-taped to a chair and tossed down the basement stairs. The woman was stomped into a coma.
  • A Livonia woman was sentenced Thursday to 23 to 40 years for killing her 82-year-old mother by shoving her down the basement steps last March. Mary Beth Connolly, 49, had been caring for her medically fragile mother, Betty Connolly. Authorities say the daughter had been siphoning funds from mom’s bank accounts. Betty Connolly died from a broken neck and head injuries.
  • William Blanchard, 80, survived being bound, beaten and robbed in his Harper Woods home last year, but he died from unrelated causes last October, a month before one of his two attackers was set for trial. The man eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced last month to eight to 20 years.
  • Shirley Cowan, 76, of River Rouge was strangled and her throat was slit last summer in her home by a handyman who had been the son of her best friend. Cowan withdrew $2,000 from her bank account the day before her death. Her killer spent days after the slaying on a drug binge in a motel room. The money never was recovered.Faunce said law enforcement officers in Warren now are warning seniors about predators posing as water department workers who force their way inside.”It has a lot to do with the economic times,” Faunce said. “It has to do with desperate people seeing the elderly as easy prey.”Dr. Joseph M. Beals, chairman of the Wayne County Medical Society Foundation, has begun a project to instruct doctors to be on the lookout for signs their elderly patients might be victims of abuse.

    “I think the majority of crimes that happen to the elderly are subtle. They are psychologically abused; their estates are plundered before their eyes by friends or family,” said Beals. “They are anxious and depressed and we should be on the lookout for these signs. A patient that has been seeing a primary care doctor for some time has a rapport with the doctor. They might be more likely to talk to you if you ask the right question.”

    Although awareness of the problem is on the rise, Beals said only 1 in 14 cases of elder abuse gets reported. After a lifetime of self-sufficiency, many hate to admit they now are vulnerable.

    “Unlike younger people, when the elderly are victims of crimes, they lose a lot of their independence,” said Assistant Oakland County Prosecutor Barb Morrison. Even loved ones insist the elderly should give up freedoms like driving and independent living in exchange for security, she said. “It rocks their basic foundation. They are now seen to everyone as vulnerable.”

    Hornberger is considering a move to a senior citizens apartment complex, where she hopes to feel safe again.

    Gerald Levesque is typical of seniors who downplay the role aging has in making them vulnerable when he says he’s not sure he was targeted by a carjacker because he is 79. The experience of having a gun shoved against his temple in an Eastpointe grocery store parking lot has steeled his resolve.

    “I’m not too worried about someone trying to take advantage of me because I’m a senior,” Levesque said. “Why should I be afraid? Besides if anyone comes in my house, they’re dead. I tell you that. I’ve got a 12-gauge.”

This article was written by:
Doug Guthrie and Charles E. Ramirez
and reprinted from
The Detroit News


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