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."
Was Albinger Taken Advantage Of?
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.
"It's a story that just begs for a happy ending," Tridgell said. "She's really been an institution in that area for a long time, [and] I do think whole idea of rash foreclosures resonated with this case -- that someone, apparently through no fault of her own, could lose her land."
Jim Armstrong, 59, a friend of Albinger's, recently organized a cleanup of Albinger's property that drew about 100 volunteers. Smaller-scale cleanups have also taken place.
"We're just basically doing it because it's the thing to do," said Armstrong, who also set up a website, SaveAngesFarm.com, to build support for Albinger.
Friends and relatives describe Albinger as a frugal, determined woman who, after her husband died in the 1950s, worked hard to pay off the mortgage on their Monee farm and ran it for decades. When she wasn't tending to her livestock, Albinger cared for foster children -- as many as six at a time -- for whom her farm was a refuge from broken homes and orphanages.
"She had a big enough heart to take us in," said Ray Crosby, who lived on Albinger's farm for five years with two of his brothers and three sisters after the children's father abandoned the family.
Crosby remembers waking up early before school to chop ice out of farm animals' troughs and hearding cattle -- chores that helped him develop his work ethic, he said.
Much of the children's food came from the farm itself -- chickens raised and vegetables grown on the land. For other expenses, Crosby said, Albinger knew how to make money stretch.
Where Did the $700,000 Go?
Now 57, Crosby said he learned valuable lessons from Albinger that today help him budget for his family.
She "gave me a lot of fundamental guidance on how to save," he said.
Albinger continued to run the farm until the late 1990s, according to Bob Szorc, 68, a nephew.
"She was in her late 80s. She still did the farm work, including milking three to four cows a day, every day of the week, all year long," he said. "She was quite the lady."
But today the farm and Albinger's home lie in disrepair. The property has been cited for several code violations by the village of Monee -- a fact that some say makes Albinger's giant debt even more troubling.
"Work was supposed to be done on the house and the property, and none of the work got done," said Armstrong, the friend who'd organized the cleanups.
Police said Armstrong was the one who notified them of Albinger's situation.
"Seven-hundred thousand dollars was spent, and no one really knows where money went," Armstrong said.
Gruzdis said that some of the loan money did go to house repairs. The money, she said, was also spent on the farm itself -- on its animals and equipment -- on Albinger's medical expenses, on taxes and on living expenses for both Albinger and various people who lived with Albinger over the years.
Gruzdis said anywhere from two to 13 adults lived with her aunt in recent years.
"Most did not pay rent. Some did a little farm work -- nothing much. Others expected me to pay them, if they were asked to do anything, in addition to free room and board. Some had bad backgrounds, ex-convicts, addicts," she said. "It was a free place to stay, and that was what it attracted. I tried once to make it into a nice boarding house, but nice people did not want to live there."
In a letter to Monee Village officials, Gruzdis cited Albinger's companions' "deplorable behavior" as one of the reasons for the eviction. The two men, she said, are ex-convicts.
Living with them, Gruzdis wrote, "is not the ideal situation for her."
Gruzdis' one-time plan for the farm included a service plaza for businesses, a self-storage center and sustainable landscaping around it. The development site is south of Agnes' home and wouldn't have interfered with her aunt's life, Gruzdis said.
"It could have worked!" she said in an e-mail.
But the hoped-for development deals have yet to materialize, and Gruzdis said she mortgaged both her own and her parents' home -- eventually landing them in foreclosure too -- to try to pay the farm's mortgage debt. One of the problems, Gruzdis said, are the terms of the loans.
"The bank did a predatory loan," she said. "You cannot exist under that pressure forever."
Illinois banking authorities last month closed Peotone Bank and Trust Company, the bank that made the loans to Albinger and Phoenix Horizon. Peotone's assets were purchased by First Midwest Bank in Itasca, Ill.
First Midwest's CEO said in a statement last week that the bank put the foreclosure on hold so that bank officials could get "up to speed on the complex legal and family-related matters tied to this issue.
"I instructed our attorney to ask the judge involved to stay the foreclosure proceedings until we have an opportunity to meet with Ms. Albinger and her chosen advisers to be certain that her best interests are being protected," Midwest president and CEO Michael L. Scudder said. "If it is in her best interest and if it's in our control, we'll do everything in our power to make sure that Ms. Albinger can stay in her home."