ISSAQUAH, Wash. - FOX 13 has uncovered what appears to be an uncommon and particularly cruel form of potential elder abuse in one of our communities.
A weeks-long investigation found mistreatment that wasn’t physical but instead appears to have been financially exploitative, with victims sharing accounts of emotional manipulation by the same man.
One of the victims is a beloved 80-year-old man from Issaquah, whom many in town know for the decades he served as the owner of Lewis Hardware.
"I didn’t realize what he was doing until it was too late," said Steve White, who is also known as Homer.
White’s stepsons, Kevin and Jim Carey, said White is known to be an incredibly kind person, very outgoing and someone who will help everybody.
The brothers said a man named Steven Dempsey came off as harmless in the beginning, but soon the family started noticing some red flags.
"Steve Dempsey just came in here and made out to be everybody’s best friend. He’s very good at being everybody’s friend, as a lot of people who do what he does, kind of gain your trust right away," said Jim. "He definitely knew what he was doing, and he was working angles to get in to live here, which is ultimately what he was able to do. There was a whole new bed made up and belongings, and so it was obvious that somebody was staying there, and my brother asked my stepdad, ‘He’s not living here is he?’ and my stepdad said, ‘No, he’s just sleeping here.’"
The family said Dempsey first offered to chop up a fallen tree in exchange for the firewood, and proceeded to do other odd jobs around the property.
Now, White's home has a ripped-up sidewalk, a large pile of wood and tree limbs in the back, a makeshift fence and a set of stairs leading up a tree.
Kevin called Issaquah Police, and officers said the family would have to evict Dempsey, since he had taken tenancy inside the home.
The family said Dempsey moved himself into White's home in mid-January and refused to leave until the family evicted him a month later.
"According to my stepdad, he said he only gave Dempsey the debit card twice to go get food, and we had to tell him, we went through the bank record and said ‘look at it, no, he was up at the casino, you know, Snoqualmie drawing out money multiple times in the same day,’" said Jim. "So we don’t know if he was just taking and gambling away, or he was just taking it out in increments and keeping the money."
"You’ve gotten in here and gotten a hold of my stepdad‘s finances to some degree, locked my brother and my phone from my stepdad‘s phone, trying to isolate us from him. So he could try and move in and take control of the property and the house and live off of my stepdad‘s money," said Kevin. "Once we got him removed, and we were able to get back in the house, we found my stepdad’s pills that he has to take were kind of hidden in the back counter underneath some stuff, so he hadn’t been taking them for probably the better part of a month," said Kevin.
White has been diagnosed with early stages of dementia, which we learned is common in elder abuse cases.
"I think the two most common factors we see in people who are victimized are dementia and social isolation," said Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Page Ulrey of the King County Prosecutor’s Office. "Often we see gambling addiction and spending addiction is sort of driving the exploitation."
Ulrey has dedicated the last two decades of her career as an elder abuse prosecutor in King County.
She said cases historically across the U.S. have been underreported and under prosecuted and that for every one case of elder abuse that occurs another 23 never come to light.
Studies have also found that any form of elder abuse increases the risk of premature death of the victim by 300%
"The betrayal they feel, it’s just incredibly devastating, and they also don’t have the ability to get that money back. They can’t start over again and get a new job and start saving. They’re retired, they have no additional sources of income, and they’ve lost everything to someone they thought they could trust," said Ulrey.
Carol Sullivan, 74, thought she could trust Dempsey as well.
"I wrote everything that he had done and how I was afraid of him, I really was," said Sullivan. "He acts like he’s going to do all this stuff for you, ‘oh, let me do that, let me do that,’ and then the next thing you know he’s taking from you."
Sullivan filed for a protection order against Dempsey in 2021. In the filing, she claims Dempsey threatened to kill a dog they were watching, stabbed a friend of theirs on the forehead and that he stole from them and brought stolen items to their places.
In fact, Sullivan said Dempsey brought rare, old coins to her home that had gone missing from White's house.
Sullivan evicted Dempsey at the end of 2021 and said it appears he targeted White next.
White’s family successfully filed a five-year vulnerable adult protection order against Dempsey, and FOX 13 News has talked to at least one other couple in Issaquah who said Dempsey stole from them as well.
Dempsey is not currently facing any criminal charges. FOX 13 has reached out to Issaquah Police, who say the case involving Dempsey's encounters with White is an open investigation.
"I would urge them to report it to the police," said Ulrey. "It’s a crime to financially exploit someone. It’s a crime to physically abuse someone, obviously, or abuse them in any way."
Common signs of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation can include:
- A new power of attorney
- A decrease in self-care, including missed doctor’s appointments
- A dramatic change in spending patterns
- A change in socializing, i.e. missing church all of a sudden or an activity they loved
- A new best friend they’re suddenly spending a lot of time with to the exclusion of long-time friends or family members
Ulrey said it’s important to maintain strong connections with the older people in your life.
She also recommends having more than one person or family member managing the finances of older loved ones.
"If anybody has any vulnerable parents at home, really keep an eye on them and ask them questions, because there’s other people out there like Dempsey who are trying to take advantage of people," said Jim.
"It’s the most common refrain I hear from the victims I work with, that they feel ashamed or they feel stupid, and it just breaks my heart to hear that," said Ulrey. "What I would say to them is, this is not your fault, this is their fault. You did nothing wrong."
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office launched a joint venture with Aging and Disability Services and Adult Protective Services to establish the King County Elder Abuse Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) in 2019.
The MDT strengthens ties between many agencies to respond to reports of elder abuse by bringing together professionals across disciplines to improve the system response to cases of elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation in King County.
Ulrey said if you suspect abuse, call 911 and report it to police. She also recommends getting in touch with Adult Protective Services, which investigates and helps with protective orders and guardianships.
She also recommends the agency Sound Generations which offers resources, and will do intakes and referrals for cases. Their phone number is 206-448-3110.
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