March 25 2015 11:20 AM

Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood fights back against elder abuse

PaulGreenwood
Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood is one of the country’s top experts on elder abuse.
Photo by Carly Nairn

Ruth Wine was a 91-year-old woman with dementia, living in an Encinitas nursing home. She became friendly with a limousine driver named Donald Wade. But he worked his way into her life because Wade figured Wine to be a perfect mark.

Wade convinced the elderly woman to sign over a certificate of deposit. He took her to a bank, and without acknowledging Wine, the bank teller gave Wade a cashier's check for $93,000. It was under the name of Wade's accomplice, Ricardo Buhain, who Wade had said was Wine's lawyer.

Wade and Buhain wound up spending the money within a month. They were arrested in Tijuana, after Wade shot Buhain in a dispute over the stolen loot. Wade was convicted of elder abuse and got five years in prison.

San Diego Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood tells this story to church groups, at community meetings and at out-of-state speaking engagements. He effuses about the case with the same enthusiasm he had when he started working on elder-abuse issues in San Diego 19 years ago. In his first year on the job, he prosecuted 19 felony cases. In recent years that number soared to between 350 and 400 cases countywide.

Greenwood has a youthful face and a full head of hair with just a touch of grey. He speaks with an emotive-yet-gentlemanly British accent, talking with a reporter with a leg causally propped up on a large briefcase on wheels. Now 63, Greenwood has become one of the foremost experts on elder abuse in the U.S.

In California, elder abuse occurs when a crime is committed against someone older than 65 who's been targeted because of their age. Most cases deal with theft, but elder abuse can also include emotional abuse and physical assault.

Many cases Greenwood handles include instances of deception, such as one where two men posed as FBI agents with badges and stole jewelry from an elderly woman. Some investigations have macabre details, like when a son murdered his mother, wrapped her in cellophane and kept her around in order to cash in her social security checks.

After Greenwood prosecuted the Wine case, though, what stuck with him wasn't the defendant's flippancy or greed. It was that the bank teller didn't do anything. No one questioned why Wine was handing over all her savings, or what Wade was doing there. The bank's failure to notify anyone prompted Greenwood to go to Sacramento and fight for a stronger system against elder abuse, one that included bank tellers becoming mandated reporters for questionable activity. Partly because of his efforts, the Financial Elder Abuse Reporting Act became law in 2007.

Greenwood doesn't want to be one of only a few elder-abuse experts, so he trains other attorneys on a national basis. The elder-abuse crime rate is growing, he says, and is expected to continue to grow over the next decade, as the population skews older.

Greenwood spent his youth in Sussex County in Southern England. He graduated college with a law degree from University of Leeds in Yorkshire, finished a gig coaching at a summer soccer camp, and came to San Diego in 1973. At a Baptist church service in University City, he sat down next to his future wife, Sue. By coincidence, he was going back to England the same day Sue was leaving the U.S. to study at a Bible college in London. He showed her around London. But their time together in person was short. He was due to begin a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Kenya. Using airmail and tape recordings, they stayed in touch and were married five years later.

When the couple moved back to San Diego, Greenwood started working for a civil litigation firm, which paid him to study for the bar exam. But he was ultimately unhappy.

"I've only always had a passion for criminal law," he says. With that sentiment in mind, he went into an interview for a prosecutor position at the San Diego County District Attorney's Office.

"I don't think they'd ever hired a, quote, resident alien before," Greenwood says.

In a cinematic flourish during the interview, he leaned over and banged on a desk, exclaiming, "I need to get back in court!" 

He got the job. Three years later, he was asked to head up the elder-abuse unit, a new area of criminal law at the time.

"I was like a sponge," he says. "I was absorbing. It lit a fire under me, which has never gone out. I realized I stumbled into an area that was what I was meant to do for the rest of my career."

Recently he gave a presentation at St. Catherine Labourné Catholic Church on tips to avoid elder abuse.

"[He was] very helpful, very engaging to the community," says parish member Laura Nothdurft.

Greenwood's respect for the elderly begins with his parents. His dad, Ronald, was a B-25 bomber pilot during World War II. His mother survived the Blitz in London. Ronald Greenwood died in January due to advanced Alzheimer's disease.

"I could see how my father could have easily fallen prey to a predator," he says.

Greenwood speaks with his 91-year-old mother, Monica, on FaceTime every morning. He says the ritual of seeing her gives him reassurance.

"I get lots of calls from family members, particularly from an adult son or adult daughter complaining about their bad siblings, who they have discovered has been abusing or neglecting or stealing from their elderly mother," he says. "I let them tell me and then I ask them, When was the last time you visited your mother?' And there is a pause."

He believes more adult children should be involved in their elderly parent's lives. But sometimes children are the problem. It's unfortunate, Greenwood says, as to the number of matricides he prosecutes.

A case he closed on March 6 was the murder of an elderly mother committed by her daughter. Ghazal Jessica Mansury was a meth addict. She strangled her mother with a bicycle inner tube. She dumped her mother's body on the side of a road. It was discovered 10 days later. Mansury was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison for first-degree murder.

Greenwood believes the death was entirely preventable.

"She didn't want her dirty laundry aired in public," Greenwood says about Mansury's drug use.

Greenwood says part of the difficulty of prosecuting elder abuse is a victim's unwillingness or inability to speak up. Many elderly people are too embarrassed or too afraid to contact law enforcement or Adult Protective Services—the county agency of social workers dedicated to cases that include elder abuse.

"We have a slogan here that says silence isn't golden,'" he says.

The unit started in late 1995, after social workers complained that law enforcement wasn't doing anything about crimes with elderly victims. Some in law enforcement, and in the DA's office, believed that older victims were unreliable witnesses.

Denise Nelesen, communications manager for San Diego County's Aging and Independence Services, has known Greenwood for 15 years and has been witness to his dedication.

"He sees the toll [elder abuse] takes and seems to very much care about the people in the cases he prosecutes," she says.

"The problem, I feel, that most prosecutors have in this country, and globally, is that we feel people owe us things," Greenwood says. "[They think] people should come to us with the cases. Well, with elder abuse, it's the opposite. We have to spend a good amount of time getting out into the community."

Prosecuting elder abuse, he says, is what he was destined to do.

Carly can be reached at carlyn@sdcitybeat.com. Follow her on Twitter at @cnairnsf

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