Three years after her first stroke, Mary Jo English saw her world destroyed not because of her health but by her oldest son. The widower discovered her life savings were plundered by her son Mark English, who gambled it all away.
"My brother was supposed to take care of our mother, not destroy her and steal all of her assets for his gambling habit," says Daniel English. "This was supposed to be her last place to live."
And now six days after Christmas, Mary Jo is expected to lose her home to foreclosure.
Mary Jo purchased her home in the South Hill section of Spokane, Washington, after her husband died. "I bought this house because Mark liked it," Mary Jo says with a slur, a result of her first stroke. The 72-year old woman lost her speech after suffering a stroke in 2006, and with the help of a speech therapist was able to regain her ability to talk.
The following year Mary Jo had another stroke that caused her to lose her sense of taste. That's when Mary Jo, the mother of three adult children, gave her eldest son Mark power of attorney.
But, in 2009, Mary Jo discovered something was amiss after her granddaughter's husband stumbled upon a stash of old mail in Mark's truck. Only then did the family begin to piece together a complex scheme by her son.
For years Mary Jo failed to get any mail. The elderly woman never saw any of the birthday cards her grand-daughters sent to her home address, and the bills that were expected to arrive each month failed to make it to her mailbox. "The girls would ask about birthday cards and I told them, I don't get mail, not even junk mail," says Mary Jo.
But every month Mary Jo wrote a check for her mortgage payment and handed it to her son to mail. Or, so she thought.
Little did Mary Jo know that her son's room held a secret treasure trove of mail.
In his room, Mark kept a four-foot-tall box that was off-limits."He always insisted I stay out of his bedroom and his private stuff," Mary Jo says of son Mark. "He told me not to touch it, and the proof was all in that box," she says.
Mark had stashed away bills, letters and credit card applications to keep his mother from learning he was siphoning off money from her certificates of deposit, savings, and checking accounts to his personal bank account.
A truck driver, Mark was stopping along his routes to feed his gambling addiction, according to his family.
Gambling addiction affects around 4 percent of the population. There are an estimated two million people who are considered pathological gamblers and four to six million people problem gamblers, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.
Because there are no outward physical signs of a gambling addiction, it is oft-times hard to spot a problem gambler. "The substance they abuse is money and it's very hard to exist in this society without money," says Keith Whyte, an executive director at NCPG. "You can still gamble on credit."
"Recreational gamblers are not preoccupied with gambling," says Whyte. "Problem gamblers are -- they talk about it all the time."
To keep his mother from finding out about his addiction Mark worked to cut his mother off from family and the outside world. A post-office box was set up a mile from Mary Jo's home to receive important mail. When questions about the empty mailbox begin to increase, the landline at Mary Jo's home was removed.
"This is a 52-year-old man – if he was a 16 or 17 year old, I would know everything in his room," says Mary Jo. "I trusted him."
While Mary Jo remained confident her son was handling her affairs, Mark was hitting the casinos, making online transfers, and pawning his mother and deceased father's jewelry.
"Our dad worked in the car business for over 46 years, and also sold turquoise jewelry," says Daniel. "He sold that and he also pawned my mom's car."
After the family confronted Mark in late 2009, Mary Jo's youngest son Daniel begin to sort through years of mail stashed in a garage, in trucks, trash bags, and boxes.
"The more I dug, the more stuff came out," says Daniel. "He's left-handed and everyone in our family is right-handed, so I discovered he was practicing my father and my mom's handwriting."
"Addicts really see it as borrowing versus stealing," says Whyte. "Once they win, they'll pay it all back. The only way you have to admit you lost is when you stop gambling – it requires persistence. There's not enough money in the world to overdose a problem gambler."
On Dec. 6 Mark was convicted of first degree theft by the Spokane Superior Court.
In a letter to the judge Mary Jo wrote: "I find this the second hardest thing I have done in my life and the first was bringing myself to bring all the charges against my son Mark B. English. But, he left me no choice. I still do not understand how and why he got this way or in this situation. Mark left me with $10 in the bank."
The judge gave him the maximum of 90 days for a first-time offender, and he must pay restitution of $137,000. But, the family believes he has taken more.
Despite the ruling the family says there been little they can do to save Mary Jo's home. The family has been unable to raise the $20,000 needed to keep PNC Mortgage from foreclosing, and the bank has been unwilling to make payment arrangements.
"I see their point of view but I don't understand why they can tell you to hang on and then they call and tell you that you have two and a half weeks," says Mary Jo.
PNC was unwilling to comment on this story.
Three days before Mark heads to jail, Mary Jo and Daniel, who moved in with his mother to assist her throughout the ordeal amid two layoffs and a divorce in the last two years, will be on the street.
"I have a credit report that went from over 730 to zero," says Mary Jo. "It's hard to find someone that will even rent to me."
And, through it all Mark has not offered the family an apology. In court, Mark stated, "I have no remorse and my brother is a liar."
Meanwhile, the family is building another case after learning Mark has stolen their dead father's identity numerous times for credit. "It's bad enough he took from her but he stole my father's identity and stole from his grandkids."
"I was raised to help out the family when they needed it," says Daniel. "I don't know where he got sidetracked to steal from the family when he needed it."