A Lee County woman who cashed her dead mother's Social Security checks for 14 months after her death, living with her corpse in a trash-filled home, was sentenced Tuesday to three years of probation.
U.S. District Court Judge John Steele imposed two concurrent probationary terms after Gail Andrews, 63, apologized and hearing that doctors determined she'd suffered from anxiety and paranoia.
"I just want to re-emphasize I am very, very sorry," Andrews told the judge, crying again after learning she wasn't going to prison. "I dishonored my family's name. I wish all this had not happened, but it was just not preventable."
"All of these wonderful volunteers have lifted me up and sustained me," she said of 10 neighbors and supporters in court and others who helped clean and repair her south Fort Myers home. "I did not know such people existed in this world … and that has given me courage to move forward to become a productive member of the community."
As Andrews dabbed away tears, Steele ordered her to perform 100 hours of community service, continue mental health therapy and seek debt management counseling. He ordered her to pay $16,952 through $500 monthly installments for 14 Social Security checks and a federal stimulus check she forged and cashed after her 87-year-old mother's death on April 14, 2009.
In October, Andrews pleaded guilty to theft of government property and failing to disclose a death after Gladys Andrews was found in June 2010 in her family home on St. Andrews Circle following neighbors' complaints about a stench.
Her secret was revealed after neighbors called Lee County sheriff's deputies to say they hadn't seen the elderly woman in years. They'd complained about rats, cats, trash and foul odors coming from the rundown home. Deputies conducted a wellness check and found the decomposed body covered in blankets and pillows, hidden in a bedroom filled with 2-foot-high piles of trash.
Businesses and residents staved off the county's threat to raze the home, rallying to help repair the ranch house she'd shared with her mother and father, Andrew John Andrews, who died in 1999 at age 83. His widow received survivor's benefits, which Gail Andrews continued to deposit after her mother's death.
Gail Andrews left her teaching job to care for her ailing parents and feared she'd lose her home if anyone discovered her mother. She's been living with a neighbor while her home awaits renovations.
During the 1½-hour hearing, Andrews' court-appointed attorney, Mark Youngblood of Naples, said Andrews disputed a presentence report that said she hadn't cared for her mother, but she conceded she never applied for Medicare.
"The remains were not under layers of debris consisting of sherry bottles and aluminum cans. They were under blankets and pillows … Ms. Andrews placed under her mother in as respectful a manner as she could," Youngblood said, adding that Andrews also wanted that corrected in the report.
Steele appeared taken aback.
"Your mother's dead body in your (Florida room) strikes me as indicative of several problems," he told Andrews, allowing that change only because he and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Michelland agreed it didn't alter facts of her guilty plea. "Well, I can tell you the sentence isn't going to change whether she kept the body under layers of debris or layers of blankets."
Youngblood asked for probation, noting Andrews had no criminal record, was devoted to caring for her mother, but "frozen by fear," knowing what she was doing was wrong. She was remorseful, he said, adding that deputies found a birthday card to her mother that said: "Please try to forgive me when you think of what I did."
Andrews sobbed, admitting she suffered from impaired judgment.
"I loved my parents. I took such good care of them," she said, standing before the judge in a tan blazer and black pants.
Michelland left the decision of prison time up to the judge, but asked that Andrews be ordered to continue mental health treatment.
"I think everyone will agree this case involved a bizarre set of circumstances, keeping remains in her house," Michelland said. "The fact of the matter is she stole benefits from the Social Security Administration … taxpayer dollars."
Afterward, a tearful Andrews hugged supporters.
"I just hope somehow I can make an impact with my story," she said, adding that she wants to help others.
Kay Herring, who organized the groups of volunteers, hoped Home Depot and Lowe's would still agree to provide materials although volunteers stopped working on the home a year ago, uncertain if she'd lose it.
Anyone who wants to help can call Herring at 239-940-6773.