Dr. Michael Lowe said he tried repeatedly to talk a patient out of leaving him everything in her estate, but she refused to reconsider.
During more than three hours on the witness stand Wednesday, Lowe spoke in depth about his relationship with the late Alicia Christopherson, saying although they were close, he did not isolate her so that he would be the sole benefactor of her nearly $600,000 estate.
Lowe faces one count of theft from a vulnerable adult and, if convicted, could spend three to 12.5 years in prison. A jury began deliberations Thursday afternoon after hearing from more than two dozen witnesses during seven days of testimony.
The defense argues that Christopherson signed her estate over to Lowe of her own free will.
Lowe insisted that Christopherson made him the benefactor of her estate in 2003, a year before her death, without his knowledge. When he found out, he tried to talk her out of that decision, but she repeatedly reaffirmed her amended will, including just months before her death.
Much of the prosecution’s case focuses on Christopherson’s state of mind on that final signing and Lowe’s close relationship with her leading up to it.
Lowe first met Christopherson in January of 2002 when she was looking for a new doctor. During the next two years before her death on Halloween night in 2004, Lowe would become one of the closest and most trusted people in her life, visiting her on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, prosecutors said.
Although she had severe back pain and Alzheimer’s type dementia, Christopherson was always very determined and independent, Lowe said.
Although he wanted to run more tests to see what was really ailing her, Christopherson reportedly refused to get lab work done, have scans taken and absolutely refused to let anyone cut her open.
“She was very independent, very decisive. She did what she wanted and didn’t do what she didn’t want,” Lowe said.
However, Gila County Attorney Lacy Cooper showed evidence that before Christopherson met Lowe, she had seen many doctors, had spinal surgery and undergone numerous tests. After she met Lowe, those visits to other doctors all but stopped.
A Puerto Rican beauty queen in her 20s, Christopherson was used to receiving lots of attention, multiple witnesses testified. She became a widow and estranged from her family, so Lowe and his family, including then-wife Heather Driscoll and daughter Elliot, became like a second family, prosecutors said.
Over time, Lowe’s visits to Christopherson became more frequent, as she called every few days with a new ailment. Usually, there was nothing wrong with her medically, so the two would talk about her time in Las Vegas and her marriage to a surgeon, Lowe testified.
“She liked to talk about the old days, when she was younger and in Vegas and, I’ll be honest, it was fun to hear about it,” he said. “She had been the wife of a surgeon. She knew about the life of a doctor and we kind of had something in common and so that is kind of how friendships get started.”
Several witnesses testified Christopherson had told them she was in love with Lowe. Lowe said he never got that impression.
In closing arguments, Cooper said Lowe drank brandy with Christopherson and charmed her into falling in love with him.
“She did love him, but initially as a son and then he started to spend more and more time with her and she fell in love with him and wanted to be with him and he didn’t try to correct that impression that she had in her mind,” Cooper said.
By mid 2004, Christopherson’s weight started to decrease and when it got too low, Lowe admitted her into home-based hospice.
Ten days before her death, Christopherson needed even more help, and Lowe decided to hire Nicole, his 16-year-old babysitter, to look after her in the afternoons. Nicole needed a way to get to Christopherson’s home, so she agreed to buy her a used Land Rover for $14,000, Lowe said.
The Lowes used money Christopherson had initially put into a bank account for their daughter, Elliot, to buy the car. Lowe said he was unhappy when Christopherson set up this account for his daughter because of the “appearance of impropriety” so he took the money out and used it to buy the vehicle.
But Cooper said if Lowe was so worried about the appearance of impropriety, he should have taken himself out of Christopherson’s will and trust.
As early as August 2003, Lowe knew he was in her will and named as the sole beneficiary, Cooper said.
Lowe had signed a policy with hospice in 2002 saying he would not accept gifts from hospice patients. Lowe said the policy did not apply to him because when he signed it he was an independent contractor and not an employee. However, he signed it, along with a number of other documents without giving it much thought. When he discovered Christopherson had put him in her will, he told her to reconsider and told her to talk to a psychologist.
“I told her that there were other options and she should look at other options. I believe I told her to talk to a lawyer,” Lowe said. “I told her about the hospice foundation, that there were other places for her to donate her estate.”
Prosecutors say Lowe made sure he was never taken out of the will and did everything he could to keep others away so they were not made benefactors. Cooper argued Lowe could have stop serving as Christopherson’s doctor or even told someone to intervene.
Instead, “he continues to socialize with her more and his level of care increases,” Cooper said. “So instead of removing himself from this position of trust and confidence back when he could, he instead gets even tighter around her. Dr. Lowe knew better than anyone that Alicia’s mind was weakened and that she could be easily persuaded, especially by him.”
The case largely hinges on Christopherson’s mental state when she made these changes to her will.
In June 2004, Lowe arranged for Christopherson to meet with local attorney Dennis Omoto to discuss her will and trust after he had learned he was in it. Driscoll drove Christopherson to that meeting.
Although Lowe said he could not recall the conversation with Driscoll, Omoto wrote in his notes that Driscoll spoke with Lowe on the phone while in the law office.
After talking with Lowe, Driscoll told Omoto that Lowe had said he was worried Christopherson could not care for herself and was vulnerable, Cooper said. Lowe said he could not recall telling Driscoll to say that, but he trusted Omoto’s notes.
Omoto also noted that there was talk of a will leaving everything to another woman. Lowe said he did not know about another will.
“Did you sequester Alicia so that she couldn’t change her will or trust?” asked Elizabeth Flynn, Lowe’s attorney.
“I believe I did the exact opposite,” Lowe said. “I arranged for her to go to a lawyer without me present. Granted, Heather had taken her there so that she could make whatever changes she wanted to make. I arranged for other people to come in and see her. I spoke with her, I cajoled her and did everything I could think of to make sure she was doing what she wanted to do.”
After visiting with Omoto, Christopherson refused to change anything in her will, Lowe said. To reaffirm the last amendment that made Lowe the benefactor, he arranged for her to sign her will and trust again on Aug. 5, 2004.
However, that last signature is barely legible and there are extra characters written after her name, Cooper said.
A month later, Christopherson died and Lowe began cashing in her annuities the day after her death. Lowe said he did this because he had to pay back two annuity checks Christopherson had received. Because she had died on the last day of October, the bank needed both annuity checks back.
“I had to pay back her Social Security and annuity check for that month,” he said. “However, a week before we had just spent a bunch of money on the truck, the Land Rover, to prepare for her to be with us quite a bit longer and there was no money in her account and there was not going to be any more coming because she had died.”
Strangely, Lowe never called any of Christopherson’s caregivers or friends to let them know she had died, Cooper said.
Today, Christopherson’s ashes sit on Driscoll’s mantle. Driscoll will stand trial March 20 for theft from Christopherson.