Leading up to a patient’s death on Halloween night seven years ago, prosecutors say a local doctor weaved a web of deception that ultimately left him with the woman’s nearly $600,000 estate.
Dr. Michael Lowe preyed on hospice patient Alicia Christopherson’s vulnerability and spun a trap so tight that no one realized his plan to cash in on her death, said Gila County prosecuting attorney Lacy Cooper during open arguments Wednesday in Superior Court.
“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” she said, quoting Sir Walter Scott.
But defense attorney Elizabeth Flynn said Christopherson was no victim and signed Lowe into her will and trust under her own free will and did so without telling Lowe.
Flynn said thousands of pages of documents and dozens of witnesses would be presented during the trial that is expected to run through Nov. 15 and jurors would need to pay close attention to the details.
“All of the witnesses, all of the documents, all of the dates are relevant to the whole picture, this whole puzzle to put it back together,” she said. “I think that when you do that, you will find there was no crime committed in this case.”
Lowe faces one count of theft from a vulnerable adult and faces three to 12.5 years in prison if convicted.
The jury, made up of seven men and three women, took notes throughout the day of witness testimony Wednesday.
The prosecution’s case centers on Lowe’s two-year relationship with Christopherson and whether Lowe used his position to gain her trust and ultimately control her estate unlawfully.
The complicated case begins before Lowe met Christopherson.
Christopherson, who is originally from Puerto Rico, moved to the Rim Country in 2000. Described by friends as quirky and critical, she loved attention and having things done her way.
“She wanted immediate gratification,” said Kathleen Hughes, who was one of Christopherson’s caretakers. “She was very kind, but very alone.”
“She was a very secretive person,” said Mary Lou Myers, Christopherson’s friend and real estate agent, Wednesday in court.
Estranged from her stepson, Christopherson lived alone with her cat Tuffy.
Concerned about where her money and things would go, Christopherson first made arrangements for her estate as early as 1984.
From 1993, the time of her original will and trust, through 2004, Christopherson made half a dozen amendments.
From various friends and groups, Christopherson changed her will throughout the ’90s. Some time in late 2000, she named Hughes her benefactor, with Hughes instructed to give everything to RTA Hospice, which is now Hospice Compasses.
In 2002, Christopherson met Lowe during a doctor’s appointment.
At the time, Christopherson had health problems, but was still taking care of herself and maintaining her home.
Prosecuting attorney Cooper says early on in their relationship, Lowe started “grooming” Christopherson, building a friendship outside of the normal doctor-patient rapport.
“Instead of just seeing her for medical purposes, he started social visits. He would go to her house and drink brandy with her, he would bring his wife over and his daughter Ellie over as well,” Cooper said in opening remarks.
Between 2002 and 2003, Christopherson’s condition deteriorated.
She was admitted into palliative care, a pre-hospice program, and received regular home visits from staff, including Hughes.
At times, Christopherson offered Hughes money, but she always refused, not wanting to lose her job, Hughes testified.
Hughes said she told Christopherson to give her money to the non-profit division of hospice instead.
On July 3, 2003, Christopherson changed her will and trust again, naming Lowe the benefactor.
“Dr. Lowe had no idea that Alicia had done that,” Lowe’s attorney Flynn said. “Then on July 8 of 2003 she took the same sixth amendment she signed five days earlier and signed it again, again to Dr. Lowe, and Dr. Lowe has no idea at this point what is going on or that anything is going on, or that she had a will naming him.”
As Christopherson’s condition continued to decline, she gave Hughes medical power of attorney in December 2003.
Christopherson now had early signs of dementia and was taking medication for Alzheimer’s and pain. Lowe was still her primary care physician.
Medical power of attorney was transferred to Heather Lowe, Lowe’s then wife, in February 2004.
Eventually, Christopherson’s health got so bad, Lowe dismantled her car so she couldn’t drive. Christopherson was no longer eating well and the daily meals from Meals on Wheels piled up in her refrigerator.
Just as she was declining, Lowe told Hughes to take a break from her frequent visits, Cooper said.
Hughes testified she was grateful for the rest because Christopherson was becoming quite needy and high maintenance.
Keeping Christopherson isolated was part of his plan, Cooper said.
When Hughes saw Christopherson six months later, she was “astounded” by her condition.
She had lost 70 pounds, there were feces around her home and her clothes were soiled.
Hughes urged Lowe to admit Christopherson into hospice a dozen times, but he refused repeatedly, saying he was taking care of her, Hughes testified.
Eventually, Lowe had Meals on Wheels canceled and instead had his children’s 16-year-old babysitter heat meals up for Christopherson.
Flynn argued that Lowe was not cutting Christopherson off from the rest of the world.
“She ate what she wanted to eat and she didn’t eat what she didn’t want to eat,” she said. “She was still a very determined woman and demanded a lot of attention from people.”
One of the key questions is whether Christopherson was competent to change her will during the last six months of her life.
Supposedly, Christopherson had agreed to leave everything to her friend Jane Waszak and Waszak had written up a will to this effect. However, Christopherson never signed that will, because Lowe reportedly told Waszak that Christopherson was not competent to do so, Cooper said.
Waszak has since passed and the will naming her benefactor is lost.
In May 2004, Lowe found Christopherson’s will and discovered he was the benefactor, Flynn said.
He tried to talk Christopherson out of the change, but she refused, Flynn said.
“Dr. Lowe says to Alicia, ‘Wait a minute, you must have family or friends or somebody you want to leave your things to,’ ‘Nope, they got theirs, I don’t even know where they are, I disinherited them,’” Flynn said during the trial Wednesday.
Even after meeting with an attorney, Christopherson decided to leave everything to Lowe and his family.
On Aug. 5, 2004, after Lowe reportedly told Waszak she could not be the benefactor, he watched as Christopherson signed her will again, leaving him everything.
“On that date, Aug. 5, 2004, when all the documents are signed, Alicia is in bed, she’s in hospice, she is in pain, she has Alzheimer’s, she is on medication,” Cooper said. “She only knows who she is and where she is. She doesn’t really know anything more.”
Cooper argues Christopherson was vulnerable and Lowe knew this.
“He did this just for the money,” she said, and “he was paid handsomely.”
Flynn argues it was not until Sept. 27, 2004, that another doctor finally said Christopherson could no longer take care of herself or make decisions — a month after she signed her will and trust.
When Christopherson died Oct. 31, 2004, Lowe was the only person there. The next day, he had her cremated, per her wishes. Hours later, he had the ball rolling to cash out her annuities, Cooper said.
The trial continues Nov. 8 through Nov. 10 and Nov. 15 through Nov. 16, if necessary.