Martha Stephens owned two South Hill homes crammed with antiques and lived easily off her $900,000 portfolio of stocks and bonds.
The 81-year-old had friends but no relatives in the area. She didn’t know Brian Norris, a young loan officer at Spokane’s West One Bank.
But a year after meeting Norris and his wife, Jamie, in September 1991, Stephens gave him legal authority to handle her affairs. She bought the couple a home - as a gift.
And she created the Martha Lee Stephens Trust, naming the Norrises as heirs to her estimated $1.5 million estate.
This benevolence from a woman known as a frugal pack rat alarmed Stephens’ friends and former neighbors along prestigious Overbluff Drive. Some suspect the elderly woman has been exploited.
Two state investigators reached similar conclusions in 1993.
Now, Stephens, 85, lies bedridden and often confused as the Norrises and others wage a complex guardianship battle to determine who should manage her affairs.
The two-year legal war in Spokane County Superior Court is further draining Stephens’ estate as about 10 attorneys have engaged in the feud. One attorney estimated the total tab at more than $100,000 - with no end in sight.
The Norrises insist Stephens’ generosity is genuine.
“She loves us. We love her,” said Brian Norris, 31, now manager of a West One branch in Yakima. “She has given us everything she owns, time and time again.”
The Norrises started the guardianship proceedings in March 1993 after the state began investigating complaints about their relationship with Stephens.
But the case seemingly has turned into a trial of the Norrises’ behavior. The foot-high court file contains more than 100 pages of affidavits insinuating the young couple is looting a senile woman.
One man accuses them of sharing Stephens’ riches with their relatives.
The conflict hit a flash point last December when sheriff’s deputies helped Stephens’ attorney grab her from the Norrises’ Valley home.
The Norrises were outraged by what they considered a cruel and unnecessary granny-napping.
They also are insulted that the new supervisor of Stephens’ care allows them to visit her only once a week for 45 minutes.
Jamie Norris cried during a recent interview. She admitted the young couple had made some bad decisions early on. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”
But she insisted she and her husband never have been after Stephens’ riches.
“We don’t want the will! You tear it up and let us see Marty any time we want to. Stop (bugging) us about the stupid money!”
“Never trusted anyone”
Stephens has trouble walking and suffers from what doctors call “irreversible chronic dementia.” She needs constant help to make medical and money decisions.
For two years, Stephens has been questioned by investigators, attorneys, social workers and friends trying to find out whether she knew what she was doing with her wealth.
Court records indicate she told many people Brian Norris is honest and dependable, that she believed he “could walk on water.” She also told a court investigator that if she had to have a guardian, she wanted the Norrises.
But at other times, she was less clear. In March 1993, she told a state Adult Protective Services investigator that Brian Norris had made a rubber stamp of her signature and had used it on the trust document making him her heir.
She also said she didn’t think she had given her estate to the Norrises, and she denied signing a quitclaim deed to give a house to the couple.
Efforts to interview Stephens were unsuccessful. Her health aide said through an attorney that she didn’t want to risk upsetting the woman because questions could agitate her for days.
Stephens was born in 1909. She has lived in Spokane since she was about 7. Her father, M.W. Taylor, was a successful dentist.
She married, divorced and never had children. She has few, if any, surviving relatives.
Friends describe a younger Stephens as a fixture on the estate-sale circuit, a fierce barterer with eclectic tastes ranging from used shoes and handbags to fine silver.
She dressed casually, rarely wearing her money, and was said to be a genius with numbers, able to quote her daily stock values to the penny.
Stephens hoarded antiques, stacking them in her Overbluff home, easily the most modest and ill-kempt home on the upscale South Hill street.
“The house was filled about halfway to the ceiling with things Marty had bought,” recalled Shirley Brock, who described herself as Stephens’ friend of 18 years, in a recent court affidavit. “Both of her cars were filled with antiques and miscellaneous items Marty had purchased.”
Stephens’ health started deteriorating about eight years ago, friends say.
Brock said Stephens refused to set up a direct-deposit system to handle her investment money, so Brock often drove her to the bank. “She never trusted anyone enough to let them help her with her finances.”
Brock said Stephens told her she wanted to leave her money to the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children, a couple of Montana farmers and a university, which Brock believed to be Washington State University.
Brock said Stephens had lost track of her money shortly before Stephens met Jamie Norris, who was caring for an elderly neighbor. Brock said a year’s worth of uncashed checks were tucked in a bag in Stephens’ messy home. A box of jewelry was nearby.
Brock said she called “various agencies” about Stephens but was told that unless Stephens accepted help, there was little they could do.
After dealing with her own health problems, Brock discovered Stephens was living with the Norrises, who cared for her for more than two years.
“This came as a big surprise because Marty had never really trusted anyone before. … It seemed even more strange to me that Marty had bought Brian and Jamie Norris a house. Marty was never free with her money. She spent it on herself and invested it, but she rarely, if ever, made any gifts.”
Where did everything go?
Maryanna Mayer, who lived next-door to Stephens’ Overbluff home, got conflicting answers from the Norrises about what was happening to Stephens’ home and possessions, her affidavit said.
“I did observe from my home that on at least 20 occasions, … there were pickup trucks at Mrs. Stephens’ house loading possessions from the house. I attempted to call Mrs. Stephens to find out what was happening and if she was aware of the events but was unable to speak with her.”
After complaints were filed with state Adult Protective Services in early 1993, the Norrises filed for guardianship.
Mayer and another Overbluff neighbor, Anni Ryan Meyer, countered by filing for guardianship, too. They offered to arrange care for Stephens for no pay.
Jamie Norris said she quickly became closer to Stephens than her now-suspicious friends were. “They knew her, but they didn’t love her. They didn’t take the time to clean her up and help her.”
A Superior Court judge assigned an investigator who concluded Mayer and Meyer would be “excellent” guardians but, for whatever reason, Stephens didn’t want them.
He said the Norrises appeared to provide good care but recommended against them because of concerns about their financial dealings, including Brian Norris’ spending $15,000 on a new truck - $8,000 of which had come from Stephens’ account.
In March 1993, a state Adult Protective Services worker came to this conclusion: The “APS investigation finds what appears to be the improper use of Martha Stephens’ resources for the profit and advantage of Brian and Jamie Norris.”
Despite those recommendations and conclusions more than two years ago, the court left Stephens in the Norrises’ care until last December - apparently because many people, including some nurses, vouched for the quality of the Norrises’ care.
Brian Norris called the exploitation claims “nothing more than a smoke screen” floated by attorneys. “There is no shadow of a doubt that we have been the ones wronged here. … I’ve seen many movies pale in comparison to what we’ve been through.”
Bea Nevin, owner of Aunt Bea’s Antiques, arrived at Stephens’ Overbluff home last summer to organize an estate sale. She indicated in an affidavit she believed the home had been stripped of anything of value.
“I was convinced that the entire house had been searched from top to bottom with the possible exception of the furnace room. … I found none of the things that I would normally expect to find when conducting an estate sale. For example, there was no jewelry of any value. … I found no sterling silver, no good dishes or stemware in the houses. This struck me as being odd because I learned from various people that Martha Stephens was a wealthy lady who had very good taste.”
Nevin also said many of Stephens’ friends asked about the whereabouts of her valuables.
Edgar Snyder III had one explanation. He said in his affidavit that he saw a van full of Stephens’ possessions at his father’s Kettle Falls, Wash., home. Snyder’s father was living with Jamie Norris’ mother.
Snyder also said he visited the Norrises and Stephens at least six times at their Spokane home in 1993. He said he was shown a box of Stephens’ valuables, including a coin collection allegedly assessed at $28,000. He said he later was shown Stephens’ gold bars and was told that Brian Norris had hidden $60,000 of Stephens’ money by dumping it into his mother-in-law’s bank account.
Brian Norris said Snyder’s affidavit is full of lies, driven by Snyder’s disdain for his father, a grudge which Snyder admits in his affidavit. “The whole document is a joke,” Norris said.
Jamie Norris said all of Stephens’ favorite possessions were collected for her. She said her jewelry box and other prized possessions always were accounted for and are still within Stephens’ reach - now at her home on 42nd Avenue.
“Thrilled to see us”
There appeared to be a cease-fire in the legal feud back in January 1994. The Norrises agreed to drop their guardianship efforts, and a new trust was created with Stephens as the sole beneficiary.
A new will was drawn, too. The Norrises assume they are Stephens’ heirs, but nobody except Stephens and her attorney has seen the will.
The new trust agreement let the Norrises continue to care for Stephens in their home. But that didn’t last too long. A nurse who visited the Norris home last December reported in an affidavit that Stephens was living like a “welfare woman” - neglected and rarely bathed.
That report, coupled with fears that the Norrises planned to take Stephens to Yakima, drove Stephens’ attorney to get court approval to seize the 85-year-old.
“It has been heart-wrenching to have Ms. Stephens dragged from our home by police officers … and to hear her screaming for me and her puppy,” wrote Jamie Norris in her account of the incident.
The action was called “mean-spirited” and unfair by the Norrises’ attorney, Thomas Robinson. A judge later agreed, ruling it inappropriate. However, the judge also decided to keep Stephens under new care in the home on 42nd Avenue, bought with money from her estate.
About a week after they had lost Stephens, the Norrises applied for guardianship again.
Robinson concedes his clients look like opportunists to cynical observers, but he maintains their intentions always have been to help Stephens. “Why would they ask the court to investigate them - twice - if they had anything to hide?”
Fighting the other side of this latest guardianship effort is Patricia Thur, Stephens’ trust-appointed care supervisor who has clashed with the Norrises.
The Norris family visited Stephens last Christmas Eve. Brian Norris later documented for the court how happy Stephens had been to see them.
“When we first came into Ms. Stephens’ bedroom with our children, Marty was immediately thrilled to see us,” Brian Norris wrote.
“I was excited to see that Ms. Stephens still enjoyed my children sitting on her bed and laying beside her,” he continued. “I was thrilled to see her put her arm around my 4-year-old and hold her next to her. … It nearly broke my heart when Ms. Stephens said that she felt nobody wanted her and told us that she missed us and that she missed being at our home.”
Stephens’ longtime friend Shirley Brock likely would find this image of Stephens hard to picture.
As Brock said in her affidavit, “She never was a family person and did not care for children.”
Now, yet another court-appointed investigator is examining the Stephens dispute to determine who should care for her.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE MARTHA STEPHENS CASE September 1991 - Martha Stephens meets Brian and Jamie Norris. September 1992 - Stephens gives Brian Norris her power of attorney. October 1992 - Stephens signs a new estate trust with the Norrises as heirs. December 1992 - Stephens starts paying the Norrises $2,000 a month to care for her in the home she gave them. March 1993 - Norrises apply for guardianship of Stephens. March 1993 - State Adult Protective Services concludes the Norrises are financially exploiting Stephens. March 1993 - Two of Stephens’ former neighbors apply for guardianship of Stephens. July 1993 - Court-appointed investigator recommends the Norrises not be guardians or have power of attorney. January 1994 - New trust created with new advisers. Norrises allowed to continue to care for Stephens. December 1994 - Stephens’ attorney and sheriff’s deputies take Stephens from the Norris home. December 1994 - Norrises apply for guardianship again. April 1995 - Stephens’ attorney files several new affidavits from people suspicious of the Norrises’ intentions. Now - Court-appointed investigator is studying the Stephens case and soon will offer his conclusions. Jim Lynch