Whether Phoenix resident Gail Louise Olson manipulated an elderly man out of more than $110,000 or received the gifts legitimately as lavish tokens of their friendship will be decided during a trial that started Tuesday in Jackson County Circuit Court.
Olson is being tried on two felony counts of first-degree criminal mistreatment toward the late John A. Becker, 92, who over four years gave her substantial cash payments, signed over his car to her and took out a life insurance policy naming her as the beneficiary.
The trial continues today before Judge Lorenzo Mejia.
Olson, who lived a block away from Becker, befriended him in 2008, about a year after Becker lost his wife of 60 years to cancer. District Attorney Laura Cromwell on Tuesday painted a picture of a friendship that evolved with increasing numbers of financial gifts.
Olson's name was placed on Becker's Toyota Avalon, and Olson attempted to take ownership of Becker's property on Alyssa Circle, Cromwell said.
Olson claimed the role of caregiver but did little to improve Becker's physical health, Cromwell said.
She told jurors that Olson manipulated the once sharp Air Force pilot and retired orchardist and caused strain on once-strong familial relationships.
Defense attorney Garren Pedemonte depicted Olson as Becker's "best friend" who brought him out of a deep depression after the loss of his wife.
Becker "was going to die from that depression and he met Gail Olson and she saved his life," Pedemonte said.
Pedemonte insisted that Olson did not take any property or money from Becker that he did not willfully give. He also told jurors that Becker was a "millionaire" and that financial gifts given to Olson were a small fraction of Becker's fortune.
"Everything of his that she had, he gave her and wanted her to have and he was of sound mind when he did it," Pedemonte said.
"He knew what he was doing. He knew what he wanted her to have and he made those choices."
Becker's son John B. Becker, a retired longtime state Department of Environmental Quality official, broke down on the stand as he confirmed details of the family's relationship with his father before and after Olson stepped in.
He described his father as generous but very frugal and "sharp as a tack" in his later years. After the elderly man's friendship developed with Olson, his family noticed him becoming more secretive and suspicious of relatives and longtime friends and neighbors.
At the same time, his health deteriorated noticeably. His son said family members initially did not raise concerns because their father seemed to be interacting with friends more and seemed happier.
After meeting Olson, the elder Becker's social circle began to "narrow pretty drastically" and he became suspicious of family members' lack of trust for Olson, his son said.
He said his family members' concern was not over the money but over Olson's control and how it affected their relationship with their father in his final days of life.
"It was his money as far as I was concerned and he was helping a friend, that was fine. What my concern was the alienation of family," the son said.
"It was a case of OK, she's getting money, fine, but she's also tearing the family apart and why is she doing that?"
Phoenix police were led to Olson after John A. Becker's wallet went missing days before he fell ill on Valentine's Day 2012. He told relatives that Olson and her husband, Doug Olson, were holding it "for safekeeping," according to police.
A warrant was served on the Olsons' home in April. In addition to the wallet, police found six pounds of processed marijuana and five plants. Though the home was listed as a registered grow site under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, the pot found was over the legal limit, police said, and the Olsons were arrested on charges of possession, manufacture and delivery of marijuana. The Olsons were convicted of the delivery charge Feb. 8 but the other charges were dropped, according to court records.
Phoenix police Officer Janet Bailey said she uncovered evidence that Olson received payments totaling at least $110,000, valuable coins, a watch and other personal items; was named in a life insurance policy; and had ownership of the Avalon signed over to her.
Bailey said Becker also tried to convince his family that he should leave his home to Olson and include the woman in his will.
Becker died on Memorial Day 2012. His son said after the Olsons were arrested, he and other family members were able to "spend his last few months reconnecting and caring for him."
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at email@example.com