File photo by Steve Shay
A 54-year old West Seattle woman charged with first degree theft for allegedly stealing $50,000 in cash and jewelry from an elderly Holocaust survivor, Hermine Berner, pictured above during a West Seattle interview one year ago January. Charges against the caregiver were dropped on Oct. 18.

UPDATE: Charges dropped against West Seattle caregiver accused of stealing $50K from Holocaust survivor

Update for Oct. 24

Mary Celeste Park, 54, is no longer facing first degree theft charges after she was accused in August of stealing $50,000 from a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor and West Seattle resident.

According to court documents filed on the 18th, King County prosecutors dropped charges against Park, who was hired as a caretaker for Hermine Berner, because "the ends of justice do not warrant further proceedings in this matter ...," although further investigation into the case is a possibility.

Park was arrested on Aug. 16 after the Berner's daughter, Judy Townsend, told police she believed the caretaker had stolen $50,000 in cash her mother had stashed in a her pantry.

Townsend also alleged Park withheld medications from her mother, although charges were not filed based on those accusations.

When police served a warrant on Park's home they did not find the $50,000. She told police she had found $900 stashed in the pantry, and Berner had given her $100 of it as a "finder's fee."

Park’s defense attorney told the Seattle Times “Mary Park wouldn’t take a postage stamp. She was heartbroken when she was charged with these offenses. The alleged victim has dementia, so I don’t know if there was ever money there. I don’t know if the state can even prove that.”

In an interview with the Herald, Townsend said her mother “is sharp as a tack” and believes she should be retested for dementia in her native Hungarian language – the one she prefers in writing and speaking. Townsend said the doctor’s determination of dementia meant prosecutors did not want her to take the stand in a trial.

While disappointed with the dropped theft charge, she said “We see it as a continuation where they are gathering more evidence. I told my mom we would find the money, I told her we would, and we know that justice will prevail.”

Townsend said she is now turning her energy towards lobbying for better elderly protection in Seattle.

“My whole message, my reaction to this is we must protect our elderly population because they are vulnerable and they are looking for companionship,” she said. “They are looking for people to trust and we have to do something to help them.”

Townsend is urging people to fill out the Seattle City Council’s budget survey (they have a Dec. 1 deadline to approve a balanced budget) and recommend additional funding for the Seattle Police Department’s Elderly Abuse Unit and Adult Protective Services.

She said she also hopes those departments will do more workshops on elder abuse, fraud and theft in the community – both for the elderly and their children charged with their care.

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Original story on Sept. 5
West Seattle caregiver charged with stealing $50K from Holocaust survivor in her care; pleads not guilty

A 54-year old West Seattle woman charged with first degree theft for allegedly stealing $50,000 in cash and jewelry from an elderly Holocaust survivor pleaded not guilty to the offense at the end of August.

Mary Celeste Park was charged by King County Prosecutor’s on Aug. 17 after a Seattle Police investigation found probable cause of the theft while she was acting as a caretaker for 91-year-old Hermine Berner and her husband Emmanuel Berner, 97.

The West Seattle Herald interviewed Hermine about her memories of her life in the Auschwitz concentration camp Jan., 2011, which you can read here.

Hermine’s daughter, Judy Townsend, told police she hired Park in February to assist her elderly parents with day-to-day tasks and, at first, she seemed to be doing a good job. By July the situation had deteriorated and after a string of suspicious instances, she contacted police.

A victim with a harrowing past
Townsend told detectives her mother’s story as an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor during the Holocaust. According to her recount, Hermine’s family was “well to do” before World War II broke out and German forces, at the command of Hitler’s Final Solution plan, rounded up Jews, Russians and prisoners of war and sent them to death camps. It is believed between five and six million Jews lost their lives between 1939 and 1945.

Hermine’s family was part of that tragic number, her daughter said, and she and her sister (who was already in America at the time) were the only survivors.

The family buried gold at their farm before the war and, after it ended, Hermine returned home and retrieved it. “Because of her mother’s fear from what she and her family endured in WWII … Hermine kept a large amount of cash in her home, even against (Townsend’s) advice that it is not safe to keep so much cash in the house,” detectives wrote in charging documents.

All told, Townsend said her mother had $50,000 in cash stashed in a Pyrex baking dish in the kitchen pantry.

The new caretaker arrives
Townsend told police she hired Park in February, at the recommendation of a friend, to provide her parents with a hot lunch once a day. From there, the relationship grew quickly as Townsend and Hermine brought Park in closely and “that they really considered her like family,” according to court documents.

As the relationship developed, however, strange occurrences began.

Hermine called her daughter a few times to say her important cardiac medications had gone missing (pills her daughter always made sure were available and in the same place). Soon thereafter, caretaker Park told Townsend Hermine “was declining mentally and physically,” and that it appeared Park should spend more time at the house to further assist in her care. Townsend agreed her mother seemed more fatigued than usual and hired Park on for additional hours.

In July, Townsend received a call from Park saying she needed help reasoning with Hermine because she was accusing the caretaker of stealing money. At the time, Townsend told police she believed her mother was talking about a few hundred dollars that had gone missing.

Park threatened to quit over the accusations and Townsend pleaded with her to stay on, stating her mother was likely confused about where the money ended up.

Cardiac pills continued to disappear over the next weeks and Hermine’s energy levels continued to drop. With every complaint of missing pills, Park told Townsend Hermine must have just been confused.

When Townsend and her husband left in late July for a trip, they entrusted Park to care for Hermine and take her to their house to water the plants on occasion (an activity she thoroughly enjoyed). When she called from the trip to see how things were going, Park said Hermine was “too anxious and confused” for the watering trip.

Revelations
Suddenly, while on a sailboat in the San Juan Islands, Townsend started thinking back to several instances where she had asked Park to do something Hermine enjoyed and excuses were made to cancel the activities, like visiting friends at Starbucks or taking walks. She decided it was time to cut Park’s employment back to two hours a day and texted her with the information.

The two texted back and forth, illustrating Park was frustrated with the drawback in hours. The next day, Park left Townsend a message saying she wouldn’t be able to make it over to Hermine and Emmanuel’s house for a few days. Shocked that she would leave them completely alone, Townsend recanted the new offer and texted, “Based on you message please do not go back to my parent’s house.”

She called her mother and told her not to let Park inside the house, but two days later Park arrived at the home before 6 a.m. (she never arrived before 9:30 a.m. in the past) with groceries, asking that she be let inside. Hermine let her in and, later, Townsend told Park if she went to the house again, she would call the police.

On August 3, while still on vacation, Townsend said she suddenly remembered the $50,000 cash in her mom’s pantry and called her immediately, asking if the argument over stolen money the month before was over the $200 or the $50,000. Hermine confirmed the $50,000 was missing.

The Townsend’s cancelled the rest of their trip immediately and went to Hermine’s home, searching it unsuccessfully, top and bottom, for the missing money. Two gold, opal and diamond necklaces were also missing.

It became apparent someone (allegedly Park) had replaced the contact paper lining the pantry shelves with wrapping paper, and the Pyrex dish has been shuffled. The stacks of $100 dollar bills were gone. Hermine told her daughter of one day in particular where Park allegedly forced her to take a bath and not leave under any circumstances, eventually leaving the house and Hermine alone in the bathtub. She called out to her husband, who is hard of hearing and of poor health, and he eventually heard the pleas and helped her out of the tub. Police believe this may have been the day the money went missing.

Police served a warrant on Park’s Alki-area house on August 16. She told police she did not steal the $50,000 and that she had only found $900 under the contact paper in the pantry. She claimed Hermine told her to take $100 as a finder’s fee.

Since Park was fired from her caretaker duties, Townsend told police Hermine’s physical and mental health has clearly improved.

“(She) believes that it is possible that (Park) was withholding Hermine’s cardiac pills from her intentionally,” detectives wrote the court.

Hermine has not reported any missing pills since Park’s dismissal.

Mary Celeste Park is not being held in jail and is due back in court on Sept. 13.

For more on this story, please check out the interview with Judy Towsend by Q13 FOX News, West Seattle Herald's news partner.

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