By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The onetime godmother of Arizona's private fiduciary industry will be going to prison for stealing money from clients over a period of several years.
Nancy Etta Elliston pleaded guilty in Maricopa County Superior Court on March 7 to "illegal control of an enterprise," a felony that carries a term of at least two years and up to almost nine years behind bars.
Judge Louis Araneta allowed the 50-year-old Glendale resident to remain free on her own recognizance until she is sentenced in June. Elliston's firm, Fiduciary Services Incorporated, has been out of business for months.
In return for Elliston's guilty plea, county prosecutors agreed to drop 10 other felony counts, including racketeering and theft charges. "My client admitted in court that she stole money from conservatorships that didn't belong to her," says Elliston's attorney, Craig Mehrens.
A New Times investigation last year ("Nancy Drew," January 20, 2000, and "Checks & Imbalances," June 15, 2000) described how Elliston had pillaged the estates of vulnerable adults and, in a few cases, youngsters that Probate Court judges and commissioners had entrusted to her. A grand jury indictment against Elliston named 10 alleged victims, seven of whom have died.
Though the indictment didn't spell out a precise dollar amount believed to have been stolen, the victims lost more than $400,000. However, all but a few of the estates have been replenished by bonding companies, which insured the victims against theft and other wrongdoing, says Alisa Gray, an attorney who has been representing the county public fiduciary in the matter.
Private fiduciaries get paid by their clients' estates to serve as guardians and/or conservators for incapacitated adults and children who have no family or friends to care for them. In the early 1990s, Elliston spearheaded the drive for state government regulation of the private fiduciary industry, after revelations about abuses became known. But Elliston herself was taking money from her clients.
In one case, Elliston stole more than $40,000 from a Phoenix man who suffers from Down syndrome, nearly depleting his estate. (His estate is one of those that has been replenished.) In another case, she took more than $27,000 in late 1998 and early 1999 from the estate of an Ahwatukee man, then used that money to catch up with her own delinquent house payments. In yet another case, Elliston stole about $12,000 from a onetime friend with whom she'd served in the Phoenix chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star.