The man charged with stealing nearly $1 million from the retirement account of a 106-year-old Kettle Falls, Wash., woman found living in squalor last year wired much of the money to men he met online, even after a friend arranged a meeting with the FBI to try to convince him that he was being duped, according to the woman’s lawyer.
Seattle attorney Allan Ressler, who is representing the family of Frances Swan, said the woman’s 78-year-old former caretaker, John “Herb” Friedlund, would meet men on gaysugardaddy.com. He’d then wire large sums of cash from Swan’s retirement account to pay for health problems that his online acquaintances in Ghana, England, Texas, California and New York claimed to be battling, Ressler said.
Just last week, Friedlund – who has a pacemaker and has been on disability since the mid-1970s for a nerve ailment – was texting a man with instructions to contact the president of Ghana. “I will be careful daddy,” the man wrote back.
“He’s going to get convicted and he’s going to go to prison,” Ressler said. “We made an offer to settle (the civil lawsuit), too, and the response we got was that he’s not responsible; that he had permission to use all that money for his gay sugar daddies on porn sites; that (Swan) said it was OK to take all that money because he was taking care of her and not getting paid.”
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Ressler is expected to reach out-of-court settlements today with the investment brokerage firm Edward Jones for its disbursements of more than $900,000 from Swan’s retirement funds to Friedlund and the state for failing to act on a number of complaints about Swan’s living conditions. But the vast majority of money that Friedlund wired his acquaintances likely cannot be recovered.
“My feeling is that there were a bunch of people who had information that should have alerted them to the problems that were going on in that household,” Ressler said. “That system sort of broke down. And this lady is getting robbed and placed into a situation where I’m surprised she didn’t die in the squalor she was living in.”
Friedlund, in a rambling three-hour interview last week, acknowledged purchasing a $13,000 car and paying for a surgery for a young man in Texas – whom he also invited to live in Stevens County – but said it was done with the consent and sometimes the suggestion of Swan.
“They just picked out certain things,” Friedlund said of efforts to prosecute him. “I think I got them fooled a bit.”
The complicated case emerged last June when the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office arrived at Swan’s Kettle Falls home to take Friedlund into custody on animal neglect charges after neighbors reported starving horses on his property. Friedlund asked to go back into the home to retrieve his medications, and a detective asked about Frances Swan.
Detective James Caruso walked into the home, which was littered with rotting food, guns and dog feces, and found Swan in a back bedroom. Swan said: “Please feed me” and said Friedlund hadn’t fed her since the day before.
That discovery prompted officials to move Swan to a nursing home, where she remains. Stevens County prosecutors charged Friedlund with several counts of theft, and Ressler began the civil process of recovering Swan’s lost retirement funds.
Friedlund said prosecutors want him to agree to a plea bargain, which he has refused. In the interview, Friedlund painted himself as the victim.
He said he met Frances and the late Severt Swan in the mid-1950s. They had no children and quickly became very friendly with Friedlund. He said they eventually referred to him as their “son.” He bought 134 acres north of Kettle Falls from Severt Swan in 1965, he said.
Friedlund said he started looking after Frances Swan in the early 1990s but didn’t accept the job of caring for her full time until later. He contends that she had no family to speak of, and that she does not claim or “like” any nieces and nephews who have since come forward.
“This whole thing, there’s no way this whole story and affair can get out. It can’t be extracted in questions and answers in a trial. No one has asked me to explain the records,” Friedlund said. “If someone wanted to do something wrong, they wouldn’t keep meticulous records, and Frances and I did.”
Friedlund said Frances Swan authorized all of his payments. But he added: “She really didn’t know what she had where. She had chunks of money. I don’t know if I found it all or not.”
Ressler said records show that Friedlund bought tractors, snowmobiles, horse trailers and between 300 and 400 guns, which currently remain in the possession of Rich Jessen, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
After his arrest, Friedlund sold the original Swan ranch to Jessen for $33,610. A Swan family member said that property has been appraised at more than $200,000 and currently has several thousand dollars more worth of marketable timber on the 134 acres.
Jessen bailed Friedlund out of jail following his arrest last year and allowed him to live with him for a time in Jessen’s home south of Spokane. In a recent deposition, Jessen explained that he met Friedlund a few years ago after he reported some stolen guns.
Ressler, who has placed a lien on Jessen’s property, said Jessen also described how a few years ago he introduced Friedlund to FBI agents in an effort to stop him from giving large sums of money to acquaintances Friedlund met online.
A federal source, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said he remembers Jessen bringing Friedlund in for that meeting. Jessen identified Friedlund only as a “wealthy friend who was being victimized” said the source, who confirmed that Jessen remains employed as a special agent with the ATF.
Jessen is being represented by defense attorney Carl Oreskovich, who said he was unavailable for comment but wrote in an email that “Jessen has acted in good faith and appropriately at all times.”
Swan’s nephew said Oreskovich offered, on behalf of Jessen, to pay an additional $50,000 to settle the efforts to recover funds from the property sale to Jessen.
The nephew, who asked not to be identified, said the family discovered many of their letters and cards to Swan, unopened, in the squalid home after she was removed last year.
Friedlund “pretty much isolated her to do his purposes,” said the nephew, who lives in Western Washington. “We had minimal contact with her because of the distance. I never knew she had that much money. She never shared her finances with any of us.”
Visits in 2009 and 2010 did not reveal the conditions that law enforcement discovered Swan living in last year, he said. The family is seeking enough money through the current legal process to pay for Swan’s care at Buena Vista nursing home, where she is doing well and is approaching her 107th birthday in June.
“This has been a really frustrating experience,” the nephew said.