'Mary Ellen's Mansion': Friendly Care -- or Con?

Widow signed away mansion after stroke; family accuses 2 young friends of con.

ByABC News
November 2, 2009, 10:23 AM

Nov. 3, 2009 — -- It's a problem as old as old age, and one that touches almost all of us: How do you take care of your parent or grandparent and keep them safe?

For Frances Ann Giron, the question hit home with striking force. Her faraway mother, Mary Ellen Bendtsen, was in declining health. Giron wanted Bendtsen to move out of her cavernous old home in Dallas, but she resisted. What troubled Giron most was that some of Bendtsen's friends were encouraging her to keep her house.

Giron suspected that her mother's Dallas friends might not have the elderly -- and increasingly vulnerable -- matriarch's best interests at heart. Suddenly Giron's problem went beyond caring for her mother. She says she realized that she needed to protect her -- but she wasn't sure how.

The story of Mary Ellen Bendtsen began seven decades ago, when she was the toast of Dallas society. A musician and model who made the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, Bendtsen is also said to have posed for the giant statues in Dallas's historic Fair Park.

Watch the full story Friday on "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET

"The way a lot of people describe her is larger than life," Lee Hancock, a Dallas Morning News reporter, told ABC News.

At the heart of Bendtsen's glamour was the extravagant mansion her family owned at 4949 Swiss Ave. The house had a mahogany stairway, a pair of baby grand pianos, chandeliers and fireplaces everywhere, and a mirror the size of Texas. For Bendtsen, it was center stage.

"She'd come walking down that staircase like a 1940s movie queen," remembered friend Bea Grayson.

But as the decades passed, the music began to fade. Bendtsen's husband died and her daughter grew up and moved away. The house fell into disrepair.

"The place was dusty and dirty, but she just kind of pretended like she didn't notice," said her friend Jeff Martin.

During calls and holiday visits, Giron began to see that her mother, like the house, was deteriorating. Bendtsen would forget to eat and to take her medication, Giron said. She says she wanted her mother to sell the run-down mansion and move in with her.

But Bendtsen wouldn't budge.

"It was as if someone was telling Mary Ellen, 'You're going to stop being this grand figure on the stage, and you'll be just like any other little old lady in Dallas,'" said Hancock.

Martin agreed. "She was going out feet-first," he said. "She was not going out of that house until the time came -- until her death."

Giron was equally convinced that the house -- which still had the original 1917 wiring -- was not safe. But as Giron pushed to get her mother out, some of Bendtsen's friends were helping her push back.

Among them were Mark McCay and Justin Burgess, two antiques dealers who had befriended Bendtsen years before. She called them "the boys." Kris Black, another longtime friend, said that the boys did a great deal for Bendtsen over the years, and that the widow was grateful.

"She loved them a lot," said Black. "She told me so many times."

Bendtsen's family, however, was suspicious. "We always thought there was an ulterior motive there," granddaughter Marita Mirzatuny told ABC.