By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
An immigrant from County Kerry in Ireland, Johnson came to America as a young woman and worked as a domestic servant for wealthy families. An ardent Catholic, she was a member of the Blue Army of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an organization of laypeople devoted to promoting Christian values. She never married, but she kept close to her few friends and saw her family when they visited from the other side. Her needs were few and she had a substantial sum, about $400,000 in savings, when she was admitted to the nursing home.
The original plan of Johnson's three nephews in Ireland and a niece who lives in Florida was to have their aunt relocated back to the old country, to live in a comfortable seniors' residence near her family. But while she was uncertain about many things, Johnson expressed herself clearly in her desire to stay in New York. "She considers herself a New Yorker now," said one of the attorneys who interviewed her.
The matter of her guardianship landed in the court of Judge Anne Targum, the same judge who handled the Robinson case. An attorney representing the family, Elaine Harrison, suggested that one of the nephews was willing to make regular visits from Ireland and could serve as guardian. But when Targum said she couldn't appoint someone who lived outside the country, the family offered no strong objections.
The one specific request attorney Harrison made of Schleinï¿½memorialized in a December 19, 1997, letter to the judgeï¿½was that he use Johnson's finances to pay for car service so that Johnson's oldest and sole surviving friend in America, a woman named Catherine O'Neill, could visit from her home on Webster Avenue in the north Bronx. Harrison even asked that such a provision be included in the judge's order. "It will be very beneficial for Ms. Johnson," she wrote, "if her friend is able to visit her regularly."
But as in the Robinson and Friedland cases, friends and family reported problems soon after Schlein's appointment. Catherine O'Neill, who grew up with Johnson in County Kerry, wrote Judge Targum in the fall of 1998 to state that "Stanley K. Schlein has not performed his duty." No one can reach him, she said, "and many of the things that Miss Johnson needs are being neglected, for example warm clothes." In addition, she said that she had never heard from Schlein about the cab fare. Winter was approaching, she said, and "being that I am 74 years old I fear walking the 18 blocks round trip to the nursing home from the closest bus stop in the ice and snow. Please do not deny Mary the only person in this world she recognizes, and that visits her on a weekly basis."
Catherine Vitanyi, Johnson's niece in Florida, also wrote to the judge that she had tried repeatedly but failed to get in contact with Schlein in order to arrange a meeting with nursing home staff when she visited her aunt. "As far as I know, none of the family has had any communication from him," she wrote. "The social worker at Kings Harbor also said that they have not met him nor has he met Miss Johnson."
Harrison, the family attorney, also wrote Judge Targum about the matter. Harrison said the staff from Kings Harbor had called her recently seeking permission to buy Johnson some winter clothes. "When I suggested that they contact Mr. Schlein, I was informed that the home was unable to reach him by phone because there is no answering machine. Thus, the only way to reach Mr. Schlein is by letter." She also reminded the judge about the order requiring that Catherine O'Neill's car fare be provided. "I doubt that this has been done," she stated.
Harrison's letter, which sits in the court file of the Matter of Mary E. Johnson, is accompanied by two unsigned, handwritten notes by court staff. Both suggest that Schlein was treated with deference in the judge's chambers. One reads: "On November 13, I spoke w/ Stanley. He stated that he gave her his pager and telephone . He will go to nursing home. I told him that I would call Ms. Harrison and tell her to 'cc' him if she is going to write letters about him." A second note appended to the letter, dated November 16, 1998, states: "I spoke w/ Elaine Harrison. I told her to page Mr. Schlein if she needed to speak w/ him and to write to him if she had anything to say to him."
According to rules governing court-appointed guardians, Schlein is obligated to visit his wards at least four times a year, and to file annual accounts of their finances. But records show that Schlein made no such filings for Johnson until 2002, five years after his appointment. He then submitted so-called "annual inventory and account" filings for years 1998 through 2001. For this, Schlein requested and received a total of $16,358 from Johnson's holdings.
There were no further filings until late 2005 and early this year when Schlein submitted more late reports covering the years 2002, 2003, and 2004. He sought and received permission, this time from Judge Bertram Katz, who took over the case after Targum stepped down, to receive $12,655 for the work. To assist him with the filings, he retained Hillary Sheiowitz, the daughter of Gerald Sheiowitz, who worked with Schlein on the Robinson and Friedland cases.