‘Courageous’ 92-year-old escaped from people she says controlled her life with forged mandate

Veronika Piela keeps a lot of photos in her room at a seniors’ residence in ’s Rosemont.

They hang between religious paintings and lean on desks by jewellery boxes. There’s some of her family from Ukraine, and some of her deceased Polish husband, who she met after being liberated from a German labour camp during the Second World War. There’s one of the hotel in Louiseville, near Trois-Rivières, where they worked after moving to in the late 1940s — he as a cook, she as a maid.

But one stands out from the others: a recent photo of her sitting in a chair, a blond Montreal police officer standing behind her, smiling.

“She saved my life,” Piela, 92, says in broken English.

It was two years ago, in early February, that Piela sat shivering in the back of a police car, hysterical and asking for an officer who could speak Polish or Russian.

Police had just responded to a call from someone who had found her at the corner of Lacombe and Lavoie Sts. in Côte-des-Neiges, without a coat, standing in the snow with her walker.

She had run away from a residence a few blocks away, and kept repeating that she was going to kill herself if she was forced to go back there.

She told police she had been living there in a basement bedroom, without access to a phone or allowed to have visitors. The people who had brought her there, she says, had told the manager there was a court order imposing the restrictions — that she had Alzheimer’s and dementia. That she couldn’t be trusted.

One day, when she noticed the workers all occupied in the kitchen, Piela made a run for it. She took nothing but her walker, and trudged out into the cold.

Now, in the police car, she needed someone to listen to, and believe, her story — that people had taken control of her life, she says, and that roughly half a million dollars had been taken from her bank accounts.


In the summer of 2013, Piela was paying Anita Obodzinski, 51, to help out around her apartment — help clean up, do the groceries, feed the cats. Piela had no relatives nearby or children of her own, and her knees had gotten bad.

She knew Obodzinski’s mother from church bazaars, she says, where she would buy clothes from her.

Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette Anita Obodzinski prepared a mandate that gave her control of Veronika Piela’s personal protection and belongings if Piela were ever to become incapacitated. She later claimed she was Piela’s niece.

When Piela noticed that money missing from her purse one day, she says she confronted Obodzinski. She told her she wouldn’t be needing her help anymore, and thought that was the end of it.

But six months later, Obodzinski and her husband, Arthur Trzciakowski, showed up at Piela’s apartment and allegedly forced their way in, according to police reports later filed in a civil suit.

They wanted her to sign some documents, Piela says, but she refused. Police reports allege they squeezed her arms and “forcefully brought her into a room.”

Piela said in an interview that she was thrown on her bed, fell down, was sat on and roughed up. Her arms were cut in the struggle, she says.

“I said ‘Please, take everything. Please, leave me alone. Leave me alive. I need that.’” Piela recently told the Montreal Gazette.

After they left, Piela says she called her pastor and notary, two of the only people she knows in Montreal. She was put in touch with a lawyer, Igor Dogaru, who sent a formal notice asking Obodzinski to no longer contact her.

What Piela says she didn’t know is that in the meantime, Obodzinski had prepared a mandate that would put her in control of Piela’s personal protection and belongings if Piela were ever to become incapacitated. She later claimed she was doing so as Piela’s niece — her late father and Piela’s late husband were brothers, she’d later write in an affidavit.

Dave Sidaway / Montreal GazetteDave Sidaway / Montreal GazetteArthur Trzciakowski, husband of Anita Obodzinski, faces 10 charges in the case.

Obodzinski had hired a social worker to prepare a psychosocial report, and a doctor had produced a medical report — two documents needed for incapacity mandates in Quebec.

The reports say Piela suffered from irreversible Alzheimer’s and dementia, rendering her incapable of taking care of herself. They said she was living in squalor with cats, and had poor personal hygiene. That alcohol abuse made her a risk to herself.

“Mrs. Piela is unable to express herself within reason as her memory, insight and judgment are all severely impaired,” private social worker Alissa Kerner wrote in her psychosocial report.

The mandate was presented in court by lawyer Charles Gelber, Kerner’s husband, who was acting on behalf of Obodzinski.

It bore the signatures of Piela, Obodzinski and two witnesses, though a judge in a civil suit would eventually side with an expert saying that Piela’s signature had been forged. But that was later.

In December 2013, a special clerk at the courthouse put the mandate into effect, putting Piela under Obodzinski’s care.

A mandate in case of incapacity is also known as a protection mandate. It is more powerful than even the power of attorney. The mandate gives someone control over a person’s protection and wellbeing on top of managing their finances and property.

Dave Sidaway / Montreal GazetteDave Sidaway / Montreal GazetteSocial worker Alissa Kerner with her lawyer. Kerner wrote a psychosocial report that was used to get an incapacity mandate for Veronika Piela.

On Jan. 28, 2014, Montreal police received a call from Kerner, the social worker. Their reports show that she said there was an urgent situation involving an elderly woman who needed to be taken from her apartment and placed in a seniors’ home, and insisted it be done quickly.

Police called Kerner into the station, where they say she told them a priest who had power of attorney over Piela had stolen $800,000 from her.

Kerner told them she had been hired by Piela’s niece, who had a mandate. She said Piela was confused and living in inhabitable conditions.

Police repeatedly asked to see the mandate, but according to their reports, Kerner would only show a copy of the judgment she had on her phone.

That’s them. Don’t let them in

The reports say Kerner insisted police remove Piela from her apartment. The police told her that if they saw that Piela needed help, they would send her to a hospital. But Kerner was adamant that Piela not go to a hospital, the reports say. Officers told her they didn’t have the power to move Piela, and that Kerner would need a court order to do it.

After Kerner left, police visited Piela. But they didn’t find her confused. She was feeding birds and squirrels outside. Her apartment smelled of cat urine, but seemed to be in order. So, they left her alone.

The next week, another knock at Piela’s door.

Obodzinski and Trzciakowski were back, this time with Kerner.

Police reports say Piela’s pastor was there with her, and answered the door, leaving the chain lock on.

Obodzinski had brought doughnuts and said she was coming to take care of Piela.

“That’s them. Don’t let them in,” Piela says she screamed. The pastor told them to leave, and they did.

A half-hour later, after the pastor had gone, the trio returned, allegedly breaking down the building’s door and then Piela’s, who says she called her pastor and told him to call police at that point. The police reports claim Trzciakowski scoured Piela’s room, looking under her mattress and bed while Obodzinski and Kerner sat in the kitchen with Piela. Kerner took photos of the apartment. Someone ripped the phone out of the wall so Piela wouldn’t call anyone, the reports say.

The three were arrested but released after they told police it was a misunderstanding and showed them the mandate. No charges were filed.


A week later, in early February 2014, Piela discovered she could no longer access her money.

On Jan. 13 of that year, $283,349 was removed from her account with Scotiabank. Ten days later, $190,213 was withdrawn from her Royal Bank of Canada account. The money was her life savings; a large part of it came from the sale of two duplexes in 2008 that she had owned with her husband, who died of a heart attack in the late 1980s.  The funds had all been put in a trust account of Gelber’s, the lawyer.

On Feb. 10, Gelber, acting on behalf of Obodzinski, went before a Superior Court judge in Montreal, asking to have Piela removed from her apartment and placed into a seniors’ residence in Côte-des-Neiges.

Court transcripts show that Gelber asked for permission to move forward even though Piela hadn’t been served the motion. He hadn’t wanted to disturb her, he said.

“She suffers from Alzheimer’s,” he repeated. “She’s in a pretty exceptional situation, given her age, her health.”

“It’s crazy,” he told the judge, “this situation.”

I’m freezing, it’s cold. Hoping somebody would see me, save my life

The order was given, and two days later, police officers showed up to move her. She says that when she screamed in protest, they put a blanket over her head and taped her mouth shut.

“I thought I was going to die,” she said in an interview.

They took her to a home on Isabella Ave. The owner of the residence would later tell police he had been ordered by Gelber, Obodzinski and Kerner to not allow Piela to use the phone or have visitors.

Piela only learned where she was when she saw the address on a garbage bin, she says. She had no other way to tell.

After being there for three days, Piela waited for the right moment, grabbed her walker and headed out the door.

“I go down, down, down, down, down,” she explained. “I’m freezing, it’s cold. Hoping somebody would see me, save my life.”

She found a young woman in the street. The woman gave Piela the coat off her back and called police, telling them there was an elderly lady who appeared to be lost.

Piela told police she wanted to kill herself if she had to go back there, that she didn’t have her clothes, documents or purse there. That she wasn’t allowed access to a phone or visitors.

Police took Piela’s statement, but ultimately took her back to the residence, where they verified the court order. According to police reports, the officers noticed that the two people listed to call in case of emergency, Kerner and Obodzinski, were the same two who had been questioned after the recent incident at Piela’s apartment.

Dave Sidaway / Montreal GazetteDave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

Two days later, a police officer who speaks Polish — the one who would end up in the photo on Piela’s wall — learned from another officer that Piela had tried to run away from the residence, saying she was suicidal, reports say.

The Polish-speaking officer had been the one to initially meet with Kerner, and was familiar with the file. She decided police should check in on Piela.

When they did, Piela was extremely anxious, and told them about the duplexes she had sold after her husband died, about the money in her bank accounts. She told them Obodzinski wasn’t her niece.

They took her out of the residence and placed her in a crisis centre.

Within hours, calls started coming into the police station, their reports say.

“You had no right to take her away,” they say Gelber said in a message he left, mentioning the court order.

“She was in a safe environment. Why did you take her away from there?” Obodzinski asked in another message.

Kerner emailed two days later: “Can you kindly confirm you received this email and tell me where Ms. Piela is and how we can go about having her sent back to the home? There is a court order in place to have her there.”


Police grew suspicious enough to open an investigation.

Today, Obodzinski is facing 16 criminal charges, including fraud, theft, attempting to obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice in a judicial proceeding, forging a document (the mandate), two counts of breaking and entering, causing bodily harm and forcible confinement.

Dave Sidaway / Montreal GazetteDave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

Her husband, Trzciakowski, faces 10 of the same charges. Kerner, the social worker, has been charged with breaking and entering, theft, forcible confinement, and knowingly obtaining or possessing another person’s identity information to commit an indictable offence.

She’s been suspended from the Quebec order of social workers since September 2014 as she faces 11 charges in front of its disciplinary board since July of that year. Six of those charges deal with her involvement in Piela’s case.

One of the disciplinary charges was dropped, and Kerner pleaded guilty to all but one of the others, including twice producing a psychosocial report for a mandate in case of incapacity without having the information needed to properly judge the situation. The board hasn’t rendered a decision yet.

Last July, the Order’s syndic filed another seven disciplinary charges against Kerner for acts that allegedly took place in 2014 for two psychosocial reports she prepared for incapacity mandates for two clients.

Obodzinski, Trzciakowski and Kerner were at the Montreal courthouse for a hearing late last month in the criminal case. Their lawyers refused to comment on this story. The case returns to court later this month.

In the civil suit initiated two years ago, a Superior Court judge rendered a decision to nullify the mandate in case of incapacity last November, later amended in December, declaring Piela “able to take care of herself, administer her property and exercise her civil rights.”

The decision was based in part on new medical and psychosocial reports that were produced for the case, both saying Piela is sound of mind.

“From this worker’s first contact with Ms. Piela,” wrote social worker Nathalie Geoffrion, “It became apparent that she is fully lucid and completely oriented to place, person and time. She has excellent short- and long-term memory.”

She pointed out that Piela could easily recite specific amounts of money she had in different bank accounts. She remembered the documents that were in her apartment, could give detailed and consistent accounts of her life, and was aware of her personal needs: She knew she was missing her reading glasses and partial dentures.

The report pointed out that in finding a way to escape from the residence, she also showed an ability to problem-solve.

A doctor wrote that she can engage actively in conversations, that she is fully oriented to time and place. “She appears to have excellent memory,” doctor Catherine Ferrier wrote in her conclusion. “This patient is capable of making decisions and managing her assets. She does not require a mandatary.”

Judge Helene Langlois wrote in her December decision that the initial reports prepared on Piela are “unreliable and cannot lead to the conclusion that (Piela) is incapable.”

For the medical report, the judgment notes that Goldsmith, the doctor, testified she evaluated Piela at Kerner’s request at Piela’s apartment in presence of Obodzinski.

Over 30 minutes, she questioned her on her medical history and health issues, but couldn’t get many answers, the judgment says. The entire visit last about an hour, and the medical report was written the same day. Piela testified that she didn’t remember meeting with Goldsmith.

The judge also took into account inconsistencies surrounding the mandate itself. Piela has always denied signing it. It’s written in French, a language she doesn’t understand, and her initials were missing from the bottom of all eight pages, her lawyer argued.

Ultimately, the judge sided with an expert who said Piela’s signature had been forged. “Finally,” judge Langlois writes, “(Obodzinski’s) and the witnesses’ version about the circumstances around the signature of the mandate are not consistent on some aspects.”

According to Obodzinski, the mandate was signed in March 2013 at a Starbucks cafe, where she brought Piela and met with two witnesses.

Dave Sidaway / Montreal GazetteDave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

The first witness was an acquaintance of Obodzinski’s who worked at the coffee shop. According to Obodzinski’s version of that day, the second witness was a man she happened to overhear speaking Russian in the shop, so she asked him to sign as a witness.

Obodzinski testified that the decision to sign the mandate was made that same day, but the first witness said it had been planned a long time ahead.

The second witness confirmed that he was asked unexpectedly to witness the signature, but how he described other details — when he got there, the exchanges that happened before the signature — didn’t match up with Obodzinski’s version of events. All three contradicted each other on which language was used while the mandate was explained to Piela.

“The validity of the mandate has not been established,” the judgment reads.

In late December, Piela smiled as she pushed her walker through the halls of Quebec’s public curator’s offices.

A judge had ordered the curator to take charge of her file while the suit worked its way through the court system. It had been a long two years, but the personal documents that had been taken from her — her will, marriage papers, family photos, and more — were to be returned. A physical manifestation, of sorts, that she’s fully capable of taking care of herself.

She’s also gotten most of her money back: Nearly $300,000 that had been transferred to the public curator from the in-trust account has been returned. Cheques for another $100,000 were sent to her last week. Another roughly $46,000 is gone, spent, and Piela’s lawyer says he is still trying to get it back. Ordered by a judge to account for the money spent from the in-trust account, Gelber wrote that $20,000 went to Obodzinski for items and services for Piela. Kerner was paid about $5,000 for her social work. Gelber was paid roughly $12,000 in legal fees. The rest went to Piela’s rent and a company to clean her apartment.

Just before the New Year, Obodzinski’s lawyer, Jean El Masri, filed an appeal on the decision that nullified the mandate. Piela’s lawyer challenged it, calling it trivial, frivolous and vexatious.

March 7, Obodzinski and Piela were both present at the Court of Appeal to hear arguments. They sat far away from each other.

El Masri argued that Obodzinski has known Piela for longer than what was established in the judgment, and that the judge placed too much emphasis on the version of events given by the two witnesses who signed the mandate.

After a roughly 30-minute hearing, a three-judge panel rejected the appeal.

“As some of you may know, we benefit from the service of researchers, and have the chance to study cases ahead of time, which we did here,” Judge Paul Vézina said.

Being a nonagenarian is a privilege. The popular wisdom says that those who respect the elderly pave their own road toward success. This brave and courageous woman fully deserves our respect and admiration

“The Court unanimously agrees that the appeal has no reasonable chance of succeeding,” the written judgment states, noting that it touches only on matters of evidence that have been ruled on.

El Masri refused to comment on the decision.

Piela let out a gasp of relief when her lawyer translated it for her outside the courtroom.

“Thank you, thank you,” she told him as she grabbed his hands. Her laughter echoed through the halls as she slowly made her way out of the courthouse.

“This brings to an end a two-year court battle, in which this 92-year-old woman (that survived the atrocities of World War II) had to be present in courtrooms on more than 20 occasions,” Piela’s lawyer, Igor Dogaru, told the Montreal Gazette.

“Being a nonagenarian is a privilege,” he said. “The popular wisdom says that those who respect the elderly pave their own road toward success. This brave and courageous woman fully deserves our respect and admiration.”

Phil Carpenter / Montreal GazettePhil Carpenter / Montreal GazetteVeronika Piela, 92, in December. She says people took control of her life with a forged mandate and had her placed into a residence with no access to a phone or visitors.

Piela said she trusts the judicial system will take its course in the criminal case. All she wants to know is why all this happened to her.

She feels safe in her new residence, though her trust in people is shaken and a toll has been taken on her health.

She’s been hospitalized twice since for high blood pressure and heart troubles. When doctors asked what was the cause of her stress, they didn’t initially believe what she told them; it sounded like a delusional story. They went so far as to have a psychiatrist evaluate her, who found nothing wrong.

Asked what she hopes for in the future, Piela thought about it, then spoke in Ukrainian to fully express herself. Her lawyer gave a rough translation: “Maybe one day the sun will shine for me.”


Elder abuse: “It’s wildly under-reported,” experts say

Up to one in 10 Canadian senior citizens experiences some form of elder abuse, according to Statistics Canada.

“What’s scary about that number,” said Wanda Morris, of CARP Canada, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of Canadian seniors, “is that we believe it’s also wildly under-reported.”

In most cases, the person being abused knows the abuser or is even a direct family member.

The same way someone might not report a case of spousal abuse to avoid their partner facing repercussions, a senior might not want to report his or her children, nieces or nephews. For those being taken care of at home, they might fear that reporting it could mean being moved into a residence, and would rather put up with the abuse.

“It’s a very complex issue,” Morris said, adding that financial abuse is the most reported form.

Often the most vulnerable seniors are those who don’t have strong social circles — seniors whose friends have all died or who are estranged from their families.

“Loneliness is the worst malady,” said Ann Soden, lawyer and founder of Montreal’s Elder Law Clinic.

Soden often works with clients who have been deemed incapable despite not actually being so. She says it can happen when a person is evaluated when they’re depressed or sick.

Many just need to be followed to see if they will improve, Soden said.

It’s not rare for people to be re-evaluated and deemed capable or at least much more capable than they were first given credit for.

Soden said many seniors fear being looked at in a negative light if they admit to feeling incapable in some way, but it should be the opposite.

“It’s a sign of wisdom and insight when a person says they need help at a certain point because they can’t handle it on their own anymore,” she said.

Incapacity mandates, sometimes called protection mandates, are documents that allow seniors to name the person who will be put in charge of their personal protection and administration of their property in case they one day become incapable. Choosing the right person is a critical decision, Soden said.

As of April 2015, there were more than 12,000 incapacity mandates in effect in Quebec, according to Quebec’s public curator spokesperson Pierre-Luc Lévesque. In the last year, 14 cases of possible financial abuse were investigated. Six proved unfounded; the others showed abuse or are still being investigated.

About Jesse Feith, Postmedia News