Woman carried suitcases of cash out of check-cashing businesses, elder abuse lawsuit says

Two Fresno women and two local check-cashing companies are accused of profiting from a scheme to drain potentially millions of dollars from a man suffering with dementia.

The allegations are contained in a civil lawsuit by the Fresno County Public Guardian against California Check Cashing and Clovis Check Cashing.

The lawsuit, filed July 30, alleges the companies should have known that 74-year-old widower David Silnitzer was the victim of financial elder abuse by Christina M. Alvarado and Brenda L. Denning.

Alvarado and Denning are accused of convincing Silnitzer to write them checks totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Alvarado also managed to get legal permission to oversee his assets, estimated at more than $6 million, the lawsuit alleges.

At one point, Alvarado was withdrawing so much money from Silnitzer’s accounts she needed a rolling suitcase to take it home, according to the lawsuit.

The Fresno County Public Guardian became the conservator of Silnitzer’s estate this year after getting a report from the Fresno District Attorney’s Office of possible elder abuse. The county, through attorney Ryan Janisse, is going after the check-cashing companies for unfair business practices, financial elder abuse and negligence. The DA’s Office is investigating Alvarado and Denning, but has not filed criminal charges.

However, a Fresno County Superior Court judge in January issued a restraining order against Alvarado, the alleged leader, to try and protect Silnitzer from any further harm.

“Respondent shall not take any action to obtain money or sell/steal any property belonging to David Silnitzer,” the restraining order states.

Widowed in 2015, met Alvarado in 2016

Silnitzer’s troubles began after his wife Virginia passed away in 2015. An obituary for Virginia Silnitzer lists a daughter, Cynthia Johnson, from Sierra Vista, Arizona, but she could not be reached for comment.

About a year after Virginia’s death, Silnitzer began to rely on Alvarado, whose criminal history includes arrests for prostitution, possession of controlled substance and possession of drugs for sale, the lawsuit alleges.

“Notwithstanding her checkered past, Silnitzer came to repose great trust and confidence in Alvarado and relied on her as confidant, friend, caretaker, support person and even referred to her as his fiance at points in time,” the lawsuit states.

Alvarado moved in with Silnitzer in early 2016 and soon went on a spree of withdrawing money from his bank account, opening new accounts and cashing checks.

Silnitzer may not have been aware of what was happening to his money. The lawsuit alleges that Silnitzer was given a Mini-Mental State Exam to test his mental skill and he scored a 5 out of 30, indicating severe dementia.

From Aug. 1, 2016 to Sept. 12, 2016, more than $83,000 was withdrawn from Silnitzer’s account at Bank of America with many of the withdrawals coming from non-Bank of America ATMs, including many located in casinos.

New bank

As Bank of America officials raised red flags about the account activity, Alvarado moved on to a different bank. She opened an account at Chase Bank with a cashier’s check for $909,246.73. The check was from BBVA Compass Bank and was made payable to Silnitzer and Alvarado.

Over the next 11 days, $43,000 in checks were written from the Chase account to Alvarado and Denning. On March 1, 2017, a withdrawal of $812,507.74 was made from the Chase account. Alerted by the suspicious activity, officials at the three banks, Chase, Bank of America and BBVA, closed the accounts.

Without access to Silnitzer’s bank accounts, Alvarado turned to check-cashing companies to cash dividend checks.

From March 2017 through at least September 2017, Alvarado “caused Silnitzer to cash at least $1,522,377 in checks at Clovis Check,” according to the lawsuit. During that period, 102 checks were cashed. The first one was cashed on March 2, 2017 for $800,719.76.

The lawsuit alleges the check-cashing companies should have been aware that “Alvarado was unduly influencing Silnitzer and that she was engaging in financial elder abuse.”

In a court document, Clovis Check’s attorney Lance Armo said his client did nothing wrong and should not be held responsible for any alleged financial elder abuse. California Check officials could not be reached for comment.

More than $120,000 in check-cashing fees

For every transaction made at the check-cashing companies, the business would charge a fee. Clovis Check is alleged to have collected at least $60,105.27 in fees from checks cashed by Alvarado and California Check received more than $67,000 in fees.

By June 2018, Alvarado and Denning had created a durable power of attorney for financial management. Silnitzer signed it, designating Alvarado as his agent. The document was witnessed by Denning and Nicole Anselmo.

The withdrawal of Silnitzer’s cash continued unabated at California Check where approximately $2,232,466.08 in checks, dividends and stocks were cashed from Nov. 21 through July 25, 2018. Many of the transactions exceeded $25,000.

“Alvarado would roll in suitcases to carry the bricks of cash out of the business and Silnitzer would not participate in the transaction and instead would stand in a corner,” the lawsuit states.

The public guardian’s office wants the two check-cashing companies to repay the fees, along with paying for damages, cost of the lawsuit, attorney’s fees and punitive damages.

Tips to avoid financial abuse

Law enforcement officials who specialize in financial elder abuse say seniors make particularly attractive targets to thieves and scammers. Many live alone, are trusting, and can be dealing with a diminished mental capacity.

Fresno County Sheriff’s Detective Skip Swain has investigated hundreds of cases of elder abuse, physical and financial.

“It’s heartbreaking sometimes,” Swain said. “People have been scammed out of their entire life savings and by someone they thought they could trust.”

Swain advises people to follow a few simple rules. Do not respond to emails that say you won a lottery or a prize, hang up the phone if there is a pause on the other end of the line, and be skeptical when receiving a random message on social media.

Robert Rodriguez: (559) 441-6327, @fresnobeebob

A Valley native, Robert has worked at The Fresno Bee since 1994, covering various topics including education, business and agriculture. He currently covers courts.