January 12, 2008 in City

Thief preyed on elderly victims

Erica F. Curless Staff writer

Cancer has taken over Patricia Gratton’s body.

But her sense of security was stolen by a 24-year-old prescription drug addict posing as a security guard inside the North Idaho Cancer Center.

“Going to a cancer center is almost like going to church. It’s safe and you’re going to be OK,” Gratton, 71, told Idaho 1st District Judge Lansing Haynes Thursday.

Moments later, Haynes released Caleb Cox, the man convicted of stealing Gratton’s wallet, giving him five years probation.

In August the judge sentenced Cox, the son of the Kellogg city attorney, to 10 years in prison for that theft as well as attempting to steal another elderly woman’s purse at Kootenai Medical Center the same day and two other thefts.

Since then Cox has been at the Idaho Department of Corrections boot camp in Cottonwood. Cox completed rehabilitation classes, took extra self-help courses and volunteered for extra work duty, resulting in what Haynes characterized as a “near-perfect” report card. Haynes said that’s the reason he ordered probation, giving Cox a chance to stay sober and change criminal thinking so he can be a productive citizen and father to his 5-year-old daughter.

He also ordered Cox to pay Gratton $500 – much more than the money stolen from her purse while he posed as a security guard and offered to walk Gratton to X-ray. When Cox didn’t know where the x-ray department was located, Gratton got suspicious and walked away from the polite, nicely dressed young man. A day later when stopping to get gas, she realized her wallet, checkbook, credit cards and insurance cards were gone, along with photos of her 16 grandchildren.

Haynes said he didn’t know if the large retribution payment was within his jurisdiction but that “it just seems right.”

Deputy Kootenai County Prosecutor Jim Reierson argued for Haynes to sentence Cox to prison or at least a year in the county jail because Cox targeted the most defenseless – the elderly and sick.

Kootenai Medical Center spokeswoman Lisa Johnson said both the hospital and the cancer center are well-patrolled by security officers, who all are in uniforms and have photo identification badges.

Cox’s parents, who sat in the back of the courtroom, are pleased with probation and hope their son will stay clean. Charlie Cox, Kellogg’s city attorney for about 20 years, said his son became addicted to drugs while attending the University of Idaho. As a high school student he occasionally got in trouble for drinking but never stole, his father said. Those crimes began last spring when Caleb Cox needed money to pay for drugs.

Gratton said Friday she’s disappointed with the probation sentence and would have preferred Cox in prison. Still, she said she hopes he can change his life.

“Maybe it’s time he grew up,” said Gratton, who used to work in an addiction center. “One thing I learned is an addict is an addict is an addict.”

Cox said his addiction caused him to prey on Gratton and other elderly women. He told the judge he was selfish and never realized the pain he caused.

His face reddened as he listened to Gratton, via phone from her Moscow home, tell the judge how she waited two painful months for knee surgery, delayed because Cox stole her Medicare card. The creaking in her old house, where her father lived for 50 years, now scares her as she imagines the footsteps of intruders. She stopped singing with the Sweet Adelines in the evenings.

She lost only about $30 cash and a store credit receipt worth $40, but to the retiree living on less than $800 per month, it caused hardship.

“It was really hard for me not to break down there,” Cox told the judge after Gratton had hung up. “I feel terrible.”

Later during the hearing he said, “I wish I would have a chance to tell her I’m sorry. All I can do now is be a good person.”

Gratton, a retired nurse, said the worst part wasn’t losing her money or her cards but losing her confidence, especially in the sanctuary of a hospital.

“I had to wear a wig that day. It was hot. I had no eyebrows and no eyelashes and I walked funny,” she said. “It just made me feel like I was pretty useless if I couldn’t even protect myself in a cancer center.”

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