BISMARCK, N.D. — A Montana woman accused of exploiting her elderly and mentally impaired uncle in North Dakota was sentenced to probation and about $30,000 in restitution, a punishment that a family member says is unjust and might lead to more legal wrangling.
The prosecutor and defense attorney both say the sentence for Sandra Potter, 69, of Worden, Montana, is an appropriate end to a case that’s lingered more than 2½ years.
Potter was arrested in October 2014, accused of keeping then-84-year-old Robert Gross in an East Fairview, North Dakota, home that had no running water and minimal food and was contaminated with dog feces, while operating as his legal caretaker.
Family members described Gross as having the mental capacity of a 12-year-old due to dementia. Police found him in Arizona with one of Potter’s brothers, and authorities initially accused the siblings of kidnapping, along with other charges related to Potter getting her uncle to sign over his assets, including mineral rights and property.
Authorities later dropped the charges, citing lack of evidence, but they continued investigating and in September 2015 recharged Potter with exploiting a vulnerable adult. A judge that month also restored Gross’ assets, worth an estimated $200,000.
Potter and prosecutors reached a deal under which she entered Alford pleas Tuesday, acknowledging there might be enough evidence to convict her. Judge Daniel El-Dweek sentenced her to a year in prison, with all of the time suspended except for 43 days she previously spent behind bars, and $30,329 in restitution.
Family members of Gross are upset with the lack of prison time and the amount of restitution, said Lynette Wicorek, who is Gross’ niece, Potter’s cousin, and the mother of one of Gross’ current guardians.
“I was hoping to be reimbursed for all the money that we had to spend on attorney fees — that’s over $100,000 at this point,” Wicorek said, adding that Gross sold his farm to help pay the bills and now lives in a nursing home.
The family is considering filing a lawsuit to try to recoup more money, she said, but “we’ve been in the court system for years already, fighting with (Potter). Frankly, we’re tired of it. It’s ruining our lives. It’s been hell for us living through this. For the crimes she committed, the big picture, this is basically a slap on the wrist.”
Prosecutor Todd Schwarz said the sentence was appropriate given that Gross’ assets have been returned to him.
Potter maintains that she had her uncle’s best interests at heart and didn’t try to take advantage of him.
“Miss Potter and her uncle Bob were very close. If Bob’s mental state hadn’t deteriorated so much in the past two years, he likely would have testified on her behalf,” defense attorney Tyrone Turner said.
Wicorek says Gross has deteriorated mentally and physically because of Potter’s actions.
“She preyed on him. She knew he was an easy target,” Wicorek said. “He’ll never recover from this.”
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