When managers and owners of Symphony Residences nursing home discovered employees had stolen more than $700,000 from a 98-year-old resident who has Alzheimer’s disease, they didn’t fire them or go to authorities — they sought to cover it up, according to a lawsuit. The Cook County public guardian’s office filed a 335-page complaint seeking monetary damages for four entities that own Symphony Residences, several managers and the five employees accused of stealing Grace Watanabe’s life savings. The lawsuit alleges Cruz and other nursing home executives discovered the theft and failed to report it to law enforcement.
Bank regulators noticed irregularities and brought the case to the attention of authorities.
The lawsuit accuses nursing home executives of locking Watanabe in an office to keep county social workers from moving her to another nursing home. Word of the standoff got back to authorities who dispatched Dawn Lawkowski-Keller, an attorney who works in the financial recovery unit. After a shouting match, Lawkowski-Keller boiled it down for Symphony Executive Director Erika Cruz: “You have 5 minutes or we’re calling the cops.” Cruz finally freed Watanabe.
An investigation later concluded that five nursing home employees used Watanabe as their personal piggy bank — draining her life savings through a series of ATM withdrawals, forged checks and other payments. Two of the five employees accused in the civil suit of stealing from Watanabe have been charged criminally with financial exploitation of an elderly person.
A separate civil suit filed seeking information from Symphony is stalled while company executives appeal a September court order compelling them to testify. They are being fined $400 for every day they defy the order and remain silent.
Watanabe was born in Santa Cruz, California, in 1921 and was held in the Poston internment camp from 1942 to 1946. After her release, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago.