(Originally Posted on 9-26-10)
Point: Harmful lack of communication between government agencies:
Ninety-four-year-old Vera Cordes laid helplessly in her nursing home bed watching a stocky woman dressed in white, a nurse maybe, going through her purse on the nightstand.
The room was dark and a sleeping pill had left Vera too drugged to protest, but she knew what she saw at the time. This was in April 1994 and she had just arrived at the Manor Oaks nursing home in northeast Fort Lauderdale after a lengthy hospital stay for a broken hip.
The next morning Vera checked her purse, didn’t notice anything missing and chalked it up to the medication and her imagination.
Months later, Vera finally returned home to discover that several of her bank checks had been stolen at some point – and cashed for a total of more than $700 by someone named “Gwenda Lemon.” Another $5,000 also had been charged on one of Vera’s credit cards to pay for things she knew nothing about.
She reported the incident to the nursing home management and they, in turn, did their own investigation to find that Gwenda Lemon was a former employee who had quit in May. The managers filed a police report with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. But it was never assigned to a detective for a follow-up investigation.
In October 1994, a 72-year-old man who was paralyzed from the waist down checked into the Vencor Hospital in downtown Fort Lauderdale. His name was Roy Wilson and he was scheduled for a lengthy hospital stay. While being admitted, he handed his wallet, checkbook and other valuables to the admissions secretary to be put in a safe. She was a pleasant, stocky woman, a new employee.
Roy returned home in late November and, like Vera, went through his bank statements. He found that, while he was in the hospital, a woman called Gwenda Lemon had been cashing his checks. He hadn’t realized that they were missing from his checkbook. He was devastated because she cashed 15 of them for more than $17,000.
But he had no idea that Lemon was also the secretary who took his property at the hospital. Had he known, he would have alerted them. Instead, Roy reported the crime to police in Pompano Beach, the city where he resided. A patrolman took the report and filed it as a routine check fraud incident and then, of course, the paperwork soon was lost among a dozen other cases sitting on an overworked detective’s desk. Crimes against persons, things like rape and robbery and homicide, understandably receive priority over check fraud.
Over the next several months, Roy lived each day confined to a wheelchair in his home, a difficult but routine existence for an elderly man. But the routine ended in March when a stranger knocked on his door. Roy opened it up to see a stocky woman dressed in a white nurse’s uniform – a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing.
The woman said that she was a social worker sent by Vencor Hospital to make sure that his recovery was going well. Roy felt uneasy because her visit was unexpected, so he asked for identification. She gave him her driver’s license and the infirm old man recognized her name immediately.
“You’re Gwenda Lemon? You stole my checks! You ripped me off!” He didn’t have a chance to say anymore.
Lemon snatched her driver’s license out of his hand, spun him around in the wheelchair and pushed him through the doorway into his kitchen. Then she pulled out a can of mace and sprayed his face while spinning the wheelchair around and around.
The mace brought him instant pain and Roy screamed out as it burned his eyes, nose and skin. His chest tightened up in a reflexive action as he gasped for air in complete panic and disorientation.
He begged her to stop, but she wasn’t through yet. She reached down, firmly grabbed the bottom of the wheelchair and flipped Roy over, head first, onto the kitchen floor, with his wheelchair landing on top of him. Then Lemon maced him again.
He laid whimpering as she ripped the phone out of the wall and walked out of the kitchen, leaving Roy alone on the floor.
He later said that he had waited motionless, fearing another attack, wondering if she would kill him in the end. He could hear her going through paperwork in his office, but he didn’t care. Roy listened intently as she walked back towards the kitchen and braced himself for another attack, but it never came. Lemon had found what she wanted and left.
Despite the mauling and his disabilities, Roy managed to crawl to another phone in the house and call police. They arrived in moments and rushed him to the hospital. He would be okay physically, but never the same mentally – always afraid in his own home.
A home invasion robbery report was made and a Pompano Beach detective got on the case immediately. Because Lemon had taken back her driver’s license, Roy would have to pick her out of a photo line-up. Then the detective could get an arrest warrant and hunt her down.
The following day, the detective showed Roy the photos of Lemon and five other women who looked similar to her. But there was a problem because the other women were too similar in appearance. Roy picked the wrong photograph.
Afterwards, he complained that three of the women could have been the same person, but it was too late. Lemon’s photo could not be presented to him legitimately again in another line-up.
Lemon had not eased up at all since her vicious attack against Roy. She had stolen another seven checks from him that day. Within a week, she had used them to make payments toward her car loan, electric and other bills.
A Pompano Beach detective soon called and asked Lemon in for an interview. She agreed, but also stopped by a furniture rental store on the way to the police station. She still felt brazen enough to use one of Roy’s checks to make a rental payment.
The detective had hoped to squeeze a confession out of this very bad Lemon. He would need it. The prosecutor had already refused to file charges after Roy’s bad identification.
Sadly, Lemon gave the investigator nothing to hang her with.
Despite the detective’s efforts to convince her that she would only be admitting the obvious, she looked him in the eye and insisted that she didn’t do it. Someone had been impersonating her, Lemon claimed.
She walked out of the police station a free woman that day. The detective soon shifted his attention to other cases involving those rapes and robberies and homicides. Lemon just moved on to new victims.
Four months passed and, in the first week of August 1995, Hurricane Erin bore down on the southeast coast of Florida. The National Hurricane Center issued warnings, which resulted in a mandatory evacuation for the coastal areas of Fort Lauderdale.
A coastal resident named Mary who was in her 70s, checked herself into Vencor Hospital to avoid going to a local hurricane shelter. She never left.
During the elderly woman’s hospital stay, Lemon stole and cashed several of Mary’s checks for a total of $1,300. Mary became ill unexpectedly, though, and died before police could interview her. Although the death suspiciously coincided with her exploitation by Lemon, hospital medical records cited death by natural causes.
A week later, a 69-year-old woman suffering cancer checked into the same hospital. She would later testify that, when admitted for treatment, she had given her checkbook, food stamps, credit card and cash to the secretary in admissions for “safekeeping.” They had disappeared, of course. Lemon had stolen a total of $800 from this frail cancer patient.
Police reports were made for both victims, but the incidents were assigned as fraud investigations to two other detectives who handled such cases. I didn’t know about either one at the time.
Throughout this entire period, neither me nor any other cop knew that Lemon was listed as a suspect in multiple elderly exploitation cases in different local police jurisdictions and even within the same agency. She could be described as a “serial exploiter”- someone who exploits a number of elderly victims over time using the same method.
Lemon was a bold, shameless predator with an “in-your-face” approach that effectively victimized many helpless seniors. Unfortunately, a lack of communication between agencies enabled her to continue to prey on the elderly throughout Broward County.
Finally, however, Manor Oaks nursing home contacted me after managers there heard that Lemon was working at Vencor Hospital. They assumed that she already had been arrested for targeting Vera Cordis a full year earlier and wondered how she could still be working in the health care field.
As a result, I ran Lemon’s name in the FLPD computer and was shocked to find that she had several complaints against her from the nursing home and hospital. The hospital also advised me that a Pompano Beach detective had been asking about her months earlier. After contacting that detective, I was “off to the races,” so to speak.
I focused on obtaining positive identifications and statements from all the victims and, in two weeks time, I had an arrest warrant for Lemon on numerous counts of exploitation and check fraud. But I was disappointed that she wasn’t being charged with the home invasion of Roy Wilson. Roy couldn’t identify her and she naturally denied committing the crime.
Lemon had quit her job at Vencor Hospital by this time and so, while hunting her down, I tried to figure out a way to get her to admit the home invasion. This had to be done without scaring her into refusing to speak with me at all.
I came up with an idea and finally located her. She was, of all things, a patient in another hospital. Lemon was having a baby. The delivery went fine, but she had a slight fever afterwards and the doctor decided to keep her in the hospital for observation for a couple days.
Before I went into her room to interview Lemon, I spoke with the medical staff and verified that she was not under the influence of any medication that would affect her judgment. Then I walked in, introduced myself and advised her of the arrest warrant.
I assured her that she would not be taken into custody until she was out of the hospital and recovered. Lemon was calm and told me she had known that the police would be coming for her eventually. She was actually grateful for the delay in the arrest and agreeable to discussing the charges.
I decided that it was time to make my move. “Gwenda, you seem like a decent person to me, but the prosecutor doesn’t agree. He’s the one who decides to charge, or not charge, you for the home invasion robbery of Roy Wilson. That’s the charge that you really have to worry about.”
She watched me intently and remained silent. And now the lies…
“I already have proof that you were there that evening. I had the wheelchair processed for fingerprints and yours were lifted from the bottom of it. What bothers me, though, is that Mr. Wilson has several prior complaints against him by prostitutes. It appears that he invites them into his home and then tries to assault them.”
She smiled a little and started shaking her head up and down. Bingo! “Yes, I was there, but he attacked me. He would give me money to show him my titties, but then he wanted to touch them and I wouldn’t let him. He offered me more money and I said no, because I don’t go that far. I’m not that kind of person. Then he became angry and pulled out some mace and started spraying me all over!”
“A pervert, eh? So what did you do, spray him back?” No, I didn’t. I just held up the couch pillows to try to block it and ran out of the house. I never sprayed him, I swear it.”
The lies worked.
Roy had no prior police complaints involving prostitution or anything else and Lemon’s fingerprints were never lifted from his wheelchair. I just had needed her to admit being there and now she had. And not only that. Lemon actually had given me a statement insisting that she was there.
The prosecutor was delighted and filed additional charges of burglary of an occupied dwelling and battery on an elderly person, two serious felonies.
I arrested Lemon on February 7, 1996. It was a “no bond” arrest, which meant that she should have been held in jail right through her trial dates.
But my cases just don’t end that easily.
Lemon’s attorney was granted a bond hearing and the presiding judge was the same woman that I had written about in an earlier chapter, Judge Susan “Let’ em Go” Lebow.
The hearing proceeded as bond hearings normally do. The prosecutor argued that the defendant should stay in jail because she was a flight risk and a danger to the community. The defense argued that I had tricked Lemon into giving me a statement and that she was actually an upstanding, peaceful citizen with a new baby.
Judge Lebow listened to both sides and ruled that my tactic of tricking Lemon into incriminating herself did not violate any constitutional rights, but she also ruled in favor of granting bond. Lemon bonded out the same week of her arrest. She was a free woman again and this time managed to avoid assaulting others. At least, for several months.
On July 13, 1996, Lemon climbed into her car armed with a handgun and drove to a house in the tough northwest section of Fort Lauderdale. Her husband had been shot and wounded that morning during a dispute there. Lemon believed that the shooter was inside the home and she wanted revenge.
On arriving, she scrambled out of the car and fired several shots through the front picture window. Witnesses watched her throwing a tantrum and shouting obscenities on the front lawn before finally driving away. Two adults and several children were in the house at the time. Fortunately, they were not injured.
Lemon also didn’t show up for her scheduled court appearances and Judge Lebow finally issued a bench warrant for her arrest. This dangerous criminal was taken into custody in her home and that arrest at last stuck.
Lemon remained in jail until June 1997, when she plead guilty to a dozen felony charges. Judge Lebow had enough and sentenced her to eight years in prison. Justice was finally served.
A year earlier, Vera Cordes was quoted on Lemon in the papers as saying, “She had a good time, didn’t she? The fact that she was out there doing it to other people, that’s what bothered me.”
But Vera died before Lemon’s final arrest. In fact, half of Lemon’s elderly victims were deceased by the time that she was sentenced.
In reality, justice is not swift and exploitation victims don’t live forever.
~ by Joe Roubicek, copyright 2010 Coral Springs