Police in Monee, Ill., are investigating whether a 100-year-old farmer facing an eviction notice from her niece fell victim to financial abuse.
Last fall, Agnes Albinger received a foreclosure notice on the 70-acre farm that she's called home for more than half a century. Family and friends say they were shocked to learn that there was an outstanding debt of $700,000 on the farm, which in recent years had been acquired by Albinger's niece, Bridget Gruzdis, 47, through her development company, Phoenix Horizon.
After a public outcry in support of Albinger, known in the local community for her work as a foster mother to dozens of children, a bank agreed to put the foreclosure on hold. But this week, Gruzdis sent eviction notices to Albinger and two companions who live on the farm -- including one of Albinger's former foster children -- saying that Phoenix no longer has the money to maintain the property.
Monee Deputy Police Chief John Cipkar said his officers began investigating Albinger's finances last month, after a friend of Albinger's alerted them to her surprising situation. Cipkar has said his department has yet to interview Gruzdis.
If the eviction issue goes to court, Cipkar said he would ask for a judge to stay the eviction for the duration of the police investigation.
"I don't think a judge would want to move forward if he wasn't sure that was the appropriate thing to do," Cipkar said.
The Will County state attorney's office is assisting Monee police in their investigation.
"We'll take every step necessary to make certain that Mrs. Allbinger is able to remain in her property and in her home," Will County spokesman Charles Pelkie said.
The irony of Albinger's plight, some of her supporters say, is that Albinger owned the property free and clear of any debt for decades -- no mean feat for a woman who was widowed in the 1950s and ran the farm herself.
"She's worked all her life for that farm. She had paid everything off, she owed nothing on it. [Then] little by little, mortgages were taken out and now she has nothing," said Arlene Marcukaitis, 88, Albinger's sister-in-law
Albinger, who declined an interview request from ABCNews.com, told the Chicago Tribune last month that she never knew about the mortgage debt.
But Gruzdis said in e-mails to ABCNews.com that it was Albinger who took out the first loan against the property, for $100,000, in 2000. Phoenix Horizon later took on additional loans with Albinger's consent, Gruzdis said. Albinger, Gruzdis said, is a member of the company who signed off on loans to help fund her living expenses as well as Phoenix Horizon's "business objectives," which included developing parcels of Albinger's land.
"Agnes interacted fully with the bank and made her own decisions," Gruzdis said.
Gruzdis said Albinger now has dementia, but friends and other family members find that hard to believe.
"She reads everything available, every newspaper, every magazine," said Patricia Ritacco, 72, another niece. "The woman is sharper than I am."
Albinger has attracted much local sympathy. Guy Tridgell, a columnist for the The Southtown Star, a local newspaper, has made Albinger the focus of several columns, and the office of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has offered to work on Albinger's behalf. The Illinois state attorney general's office has also offered its support for the Monee police and Will County state attorney's office investigation.