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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 14, 2010

Couple helping exploited widower pick up the pieces

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writer

It started with a simple gesture of kindness: pulling over to offer a ride to an elderly Japanese man straining to carry his Safeway shopping bags while trudging slowly along Moanalua Road last Dec. 22.

Hälawa Heights couple Mark Aoki and Leiomi Kealoha, both 46, had no idea when they gave 82-year-old widower Robert Hikichi a lift that they would soon uncover a callous pattern of financial exploitation by a female acquaintance who had obtained the man's durable power of attorney over all his affairs.

"It's heart-wrenching," said Kealoha, an office manager for Hose Service Hawai'i.

After learning Hikichi had no family in Hawai'i and lived alone, the couple took him out to lunch on Christmas Day and invited him over for New Year's dinner. As they continued to check on him and heard more about his situation, they became increasingly alarmed and decided to step in to save their new friend from complete financial ruin, Aoki said.

Turns out Hikichi's yearslong ordeal also started with an act of kindness, when he agreed to let a woman he met at a social club move into his roomy 'Aiea house because she told him she had nowhere to live. The Army veteran and federal retiree had lost his only son in 1988, followed by his wife in 1991.

Aoki said the two were never romantically involved, but the trusting homeowner loaned the woman and her daughter large sums of money and granted her durable power of attorney.

After going through Hikichi's financial records, Aoki and Kealoha also discovered the woman had nearly drained his life savings of $80,000, took money from his life insurance policy and left thousands of dollars in credit card bills. The couple have yet to total up the losses but estimate the amount could surpass $750,000.

Worst of all, Kealoha said, the woman used the durable power of attorney to obtain a reverse mortgage on Hikichi's home, apparently pocketing approximately $300,000 while piling up massive debt on the property.

"I felt sick to my stomach when I read that," Kealoha said.

Before he let the woman move into his home, Hikichi didn't own any credit cards and was debt-free except for a $44,000 mortgage, she said.

The elderly man does not suffer from dementia, as do many seniors who are financially exploited, but he did fall victim to his own naivete and sense of honor and trust, according to Kealoha.

"This age group grew up during the Depression, and everything was about saving money and living frugal, and this lady took advantage of him," she said.

"He didn't really understand; he's from another time. He is of the Japanese culture where your word is your honor. He doesn't know anything about scams; that's not how his world was."

Aoki and Kealoha discovered Hikichi also had become entangled in a separate scam by responding to a phone call, later traced to Jamaica, claiming he had won a $2.5 million prize. That scheme left him with a $12,000 wireless phone bill.

"We worked for a month to get him cleared of that," Aoki said.

James Pietsch, head of the University of Hawai'i Elder Law Program, said the man's situation is not unusual and should serve as a warning to seniors about too readily giving up control over their personal and financial matters.

"Today, people, and especially older persons, are too trusting — there are evil people out there," he said.

"Victims should not feel embarrassed to report abuse. Families, friends, attorneys and Adult Protective Services can prove to be most helpful in helping prevent or detect abuse."

Hikichi's former housemate, 74, recently fell ill and is under guardian care. She no longer is in contact with him, and her durable power of attorney was revoked, Kealoha said.

Last month, Aoki and Kealoha were contacted by state Adult Protective Services after bank officials reported, as required by law, their suspicions that Hikichi was a victim of financial exploitation. The agency continues to investigate.

In the meantime, Aoki and Kealoha tracked down the man's daughter-in-law and three grandsons in New Jersey. The daughter-in-law told them she had lost contact with her late husband's father about five years ago because the woman staying at his house wouldn't let her talk to him when she called.

Earlier this month, Aoki and Kealoha took Hikichi to the UH Elder Law Program on the Mänoa campus, which helped them draft a new limited power of attorney allowing the couple to help him sort out his financial troubles.

They have no idea whether they will be able to undo the reverse mortgage or recover any money from Hikichi's former housemate or her daughter so he will have something left to pass on to his grandsons.

Aoki, a merchant marine, said he never would have had the time to get involved to the extent he has if it weren't for a month-long furlough between Navy contracts at Pearl Harbor.

He and Kealoha continue to visit Hikichi and take him shopping at his favorite markets, Marukai Wholesale Mart and Don Quijote. Kealoha said the elderly man is "very thankful" that his situation has improved, and they've seen a noticeable change in his attitude and alertness.

When asked why the couple would go to so much trouble for a stranger, Aoki replied: "We're caring people. I put myself in his shoes. If I had no wife and no children, I would want someone to care for me that way. This man is all alone."