Gail Andrews, the Fort Myers woman who lived with her dead mother for more than a year, was arrested Thursday on charges she cashed nearly $74,000 of her mother’s Social Security checks.
Andrews, 62, was arraigned just hours after she was arrested early that morning at her neighbor’s home, where she’d been living on St. Andrews Circle in South Fort Myers.
A federal grand jury indicted her last week on charges of theft of public monies and Social Security fraud involving the death of Gladys Andrews. The indictment was unsealed Thursday morning.
Her hands and feet in shackles, Andrews said little to U.S. Magistrate Sheri Polster Chappell in Fort Myers, saying only “yes” and “I understand” when the magistrate advised her of her rights and ruled she was indigent. At times, her shackles jingled.
Assistant U.S. Public Defender Martin derOvanesian entered a not-guilty plea and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Michelland didn’t object to her being released.
“Psychiatric treatment, if necessary, might be in order in this case,” Michelland said. “... This is a case where the remains of her mother’s body was in a house infested with rats and roaches. ... It was indescribable.
“For the court not to order any type of evaluation at this point would be remiss,” he added.
DerOvanesian objected, arguing that she’d already been evaluated under the state’s Baker Act and involuntarily committed for 72 hours after her mother’s body was found in June.
“To force her to go through this again is completely unnecessary,” derOvanesian said, noting that Andrews hadn’t left town and was working on cleaning and rebuilding her home.
But Chappell ordered a mental health evaluation to determine if treatment was necessary, a condition of her release on a $25,000 unsecured bond. Andrews is responsible for paying that only if she doesn’t report to a probation officer while her case is pending. She and derOvanesian declined comment afterward.
If convicted on both counts, she faces up to 15 years in federal prison, 10 for theft and five on the fraud charge. She also faces forfeiture of any property traceable to the cashed checks.
Matthew Toll of Cape Coral, a civil attorney who helped Andrews fight demolition by the city, was angry about the indictment.
“I think it is ridiculous the government is going to go after someone like Gail Andrews, who obviously is mentally ill,” Toll said.
The indictment seeks a $52,308.70 judgment against Andrews.
William Daniels, a U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman, would say only that prosecutors were barred by the statute of limitations in seeking the full amount she’s accused of cashing, $73,715.70.
The indictment accuses Andrews of embezzling $52,308.70 of Social Security Administration Retirement Benefits payments and Survivor’s Benefits payments made to her mother by the Social Security Administration from March 2006 until about July 2010.
It also alleges that from January 2005 until about July 2010 she knew her mother was dead, but didn’t alert the Social Security Administration so she could fraudulently receive $73,715.70.
In June, Andrews said her mother fell 14 months earlier and died two days after that, at age 88. However, in December, she changed that account, saying she’d died “some time” after she fell.
She has denied benefiting much from her mother’s checks, pointing to her living conditions. She said some cash was lost during the search of her home, some was eaten by rats and other cash was ruined by water seeping into the home. She has declined to say how many checks she cashed or for how long.
Her arrest followed an investigation by the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General. The indictment is among a handful of cases involving relatives and others embezzling government checks after unreported deaths.
Between Oct.1, 2008 and June 18, 2010, the Social Security Administration completed 417 deceased payee investigations, resulting in 31 criminal convictions, according to Jonathan Lasher, the agency’s spokesman. Of the 31, Lasher said, 25 were sentenced and five avoided convictions through a pretrial diversion program.
Andrews’ case was exposed in June, when Lee County sheriff’s deputies found the badly decomposed body hidden in a bedroom underneath 2-foot-high piles of trash after a June 4 wellness check. That check was prompted by concerned neighbors, who hadn’t seen Gladys Andrews in years and complained about rats, cats, trash and odors coming from the rundown home.
Since June, various businesses have donated time and supplies to her effort to remain in the 2,416-square-foot house she’d shared with her mother and father, Andrew John Andrews, who died in 1999 at 83.
Andrews, a Lee County teacher for 20 years, has said things piled up in the home after she left her job to care for her ailing parents. She has said her mother fell making her bed, couldn’t get up and she couldn’t lift her. So she placed pillows and blankets on the floor, but she died two days later.
Fearing she’d be thrown out of the home she’d lived in for 36 years, she kept it a secret. She initially told deputies her mother was visiting relatives in Connecticut, but armed with a search warrant a week later, deputies found the skeleton bundled in blankets.