Nancy Drew

Maricopa County sheriff's deputy Roy Cook stepped into Judge Donald Daughton's courtroom on the morning of January 11 and surveyed the scene.

Two middle-aged people sat at respective tables facing the judge. Cook was there because Daughton -- who presides over the Superior Court's Probate and Mental Health Department -- needed him to take someone into custody.

The deputy, a fixture at the Maricopa County courthouse, recognized one of the participants as Jack Cox. Cox, too, has been a familiar face around the courthouse for years, first as a criminal defendant and more recently as a litigant in a protracted war over a trust fund that his late mother created for Cox's two minor sons.

A few years ago, the fiery Cox served six days in jail on a contempt of court charge that stemmed from the battle. He also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge after he left a threatening phone message to the court commissioner who ruled against him in that case.

The woman sitting across from Cox had been one of his chief antagonists in the trust-fund case. Nancy Elliston was dressed conservatively, her blond hair pulled back in a tight bun. She kept her hands folded on the table, but couldn't stop them from shaking.

For more than two decades, the 49-year-old Glendale woman had been known as the undisputed godmother of Maricopa County's private fiduciary industry.

Private fiduciaries are professional guardians and/or conservators -- the legal equivalent of parents for the incapacitated. By law, they are supposed to protect the welfare of society's most vulnerable adults. The Probate Court judiciary are supposed to serve as watchdogs to ensure that the fiduciaries do just that.

Elliston's business, Fiduciary Services Incorporated (FSI), dominated the local market, mostly because of Elliston's sterling reputation as a compassionate and competent guardian/conservator.

Judge Daughton gestured to Deputy Cook to come forward.

"Hi, Jack," Cook said, smiling as he moved toward Cox, thinking he was about to take the onetime owner of the Great Alaskan Bush Company to jail again.

Cox returned the smile, then quickly pointed over to Elliston.

"Not me," he said cheerfully. "Her."

Cook looked at the judge quizzically. Daughton nodded.

Elliston started to sob.

Minutes earlier, Daughton had sentenced Elliston to 90 days in the county jail for paying herself $6,500 from the Cox trust fund. She had served for years as the trust's court-appointed conservator, but Daughton had ordered her not to collect any more money without his approval. Elliston also had failed to provide a long-demanded accounting of what she'd done to collect more than $70,000 in fees from that estate.

Daughton told Cook to wait until Elliston testified in another case, this one concerning her late husband's estate. She took the witness stand and, in a barely audible voice, answered several questions from Alisa Gray, a private attorney representing the county Public Fiduciary.

Elliston's brother-in-law, Prescott Valley contractor Charles Elliston, shook his head in the spectator's gallery as Nancy Elliston explained why she hadn't returned his calls for months.

"I was embarrassed and ashamed," she whispered.

"She's embarrassed and ashamed because she's in some big-time trouble," Charles Elliston said later.

The hearing ended, and Judge Daughton returned to his chambers. Cook and another deputy met Elliston as she left the stand and put her in handcuffs. Within seconds, however, she wobbled, then collapsed.

Elliston never lost consciousness, and -- still stretched out on the floor -- told the deputies that she was okay. Paramedics arrived within minutes anyway, checked her vital signs, asked her some questions, then left.

Cook found a wheelchair and pushed Elliston out of the Old Courthouse onto the bustling Washington Street sidewalk, the start of the two-block trip to the Madison Street Jail. She'd spend the next two evenings there before Judge Daughton ordered her conditional release during a January 13 hearing that Elliston attended in handcuffs, shackles, and clad in a black-and-white-striped jail suit.

She has until January 26 to repay the Cox estate $6,500, and to provide documentation to justify the $70,000-plus in fees she already collected with the approval of court commissioner Gary Donahoe. If she doesn't, Daughton told Elliston at the most recent hearing, she'll be going back to jail.

"Unfortunately, our business needs to be regulated because of the few bad apples out there who take advantage of people who can't help themselves."

-- Nancy Elliston, in a New Times interview, 1994

Nancy Elliston's fall from grace has shaken the Maricopa County Probate Court to its roots. Most of those interviewed for this story said Elliston was the last person they'd ever have suspected of any kind of wrongdoing.