The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday announced that a former Orphans’ Court guardian had been arrested and charged with stealing money, family heirlooms, gold coins, and other valuables from three estates in her capacity as a court-appointed guardian for the elderly.
Gloria Frances Byars, 58, of Aldan, Delaware County, was charged with multiple felony counts of theft, including for allegedly stealing from a Fox Chase couple, Edmund and Margareta Berg, for whom Byars had been appointed guardian in December 2016.
The Bergs’ experience with Byars was the focus of a March 2018 Inquirer article that highlighted a lack of state requirements, including criminal background checks, for guardians who manage the affairs of people deemed incapacitated.
Byars, whose former Global Guardian Services was located in Lansdowne, is also charged over her handling of two other estates.
“Gloria Frances Byars’ actions are despicable, and what she did to these three elderly families as their court-appointed guardian is deplorable,” Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a statement Tuesday. “I would like to thank the good work of my office’s Economic Crimes Unit, the county detectives supporting them, and want to make it clear to everyone that their investigation into this defendant is far from over.”
Byars was arrested at her home Thursday and released on her own recognizance the next morning. No attorney was listed for her on her court dockets; she has a hearing in the Stout Center for Criminal Justice on Friday.
Byars could not be reached. A woman who answered the cellphone number she used last year hung up Tuesday when called by The Inquirer.
Guardians are appointed by judges to help arrange care for people who are deemed incapable of taking care of themselves or their finances. As a fiduciary, Byars was supposed to act in her clients’ best interests.
But questions about her financial management led judges in Philadelphia and Montgomery and Delaware Counties to remove her as guardian from about 100 cases since 2017.
In Philadelphia, the Bergs’ niece, Heidi Austin, and her father, Josef Wituschek, who is Margareta Berg’s brother, grew suspicious of Byars and hired attorney Daniel McElhatton after Byars moved the Bergs from their Fox Chase home, then sought court approval to sell the house.
McElhatton brought Byars’ past convictions on fraud, bad checks, and forgery to Orphans’ Court Judge John Herron’s attention. He asked the judge to remove Byars as the Bergs’ guardian and to deny her request to sell the Bergs’ house. The judge granted both requests.
On Tuesday, McElhatton said of Byars’ arrest: “I am gratified that the criminal-justice system has caught up with her, and that she is going to be held to account as she should.”
Herron last year referred the Bergs’ case and that of the estate of Estelle Segal to the District Attorney’s Offices in Philadelphia and Delaware County for review. The Montgomery County office is also investigating Byars.
In the city, the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging had recommended Byars for many of her guardianships.
Philadelphia prosecutors did not specifically identify Byars’ alleged victims, but The Inquirer had previously spoken to family members in each case.
In the Bergs’ case, the District Attorney’s Office found that items in their Fox Chase home disappeared after Byars moved the couple to a nursing home. Those items included a grandfather clock, a large collection of German steins, expensive jewelry, and heirlooms. Austin had previously told The Inquirer that the items were missing after Byars used her husband’s clean-out business to empty the Bergs’ house.
The District Attorney’s Office said its investigation also found multiple instances of Byars’ routing funds from the couple’s estate into accounts linked to Byars. This included $10,250 in checks, endorsed by Byars and made out to a woman named Asia Jones, who was supposedly a home-health-care worker. After being contacted, the District Attorney’s Office said, Jones said she was not employed as a home-health-care worker and did not sign the checks.
The alleged misspending also included $4,600 for a roof repair that was not needed or made and $11,000 that Byars paid to her husband’s business, DEPCO LLC, for cleaning out the Bergs’ home. (Byars has since reimbursed the Bergs the $11,000.)
With regard to Segal’s estate, the District Attorney’s Office said an investigation found that Byars failed to account for more than $104,000 in missing funds and losses to her estate. Segal, who lived in Northeast Philadelphia, died in February 2018 in a Bucks County nursing home.
Herron, in a September decree, had ordered Byars to reimburse Segal’s estate $52,161, including $35,405 in unaccounted-for expenditures. Last May, he had ordered Byars to pay $63,079 to the Bergs, including about $34,000 for improper expenditures. She has not paid those amounts to either of the estates.
Last summer, Byars and her husband, Leon DeShields, renewed their vows at a "fantasy wedding” that cost $39,000, the District Attorney’s Office said.
In the third case, the District Attorney’s Office said Byars billed the estate of a woman more than $30,000 payable to a company that doesn’t appear to exist. And the investigation found that 26 gold Krugerrand coins, valued at about $32,000, were missing from the woman’s safe deposit box and that Byars was the only one with access to the coins, the office said.
The woman’s niece, Lillian Viglianese, previously spoke to The Inquirer about the alleged thefts from her aunt Theresa Rzemieniewski. Her aunt, who lived in Port Richmond, died at a Philadelphia nursing home in January 2017 at age 79, the niece said.
After Byars’ past criminal convictions were brought to Orphans’ Court’s attention in 2017, guardians in Philadelphia were required to affirm that they were not convicted of any crime involving fraud, deceit, or financial misconduct. Also, state criminal history reports were required.
The requirements mirrored recommendations proposed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Orphans’ Court Procedural Rules Committee. Last year, the justices approved new statewide rules requiring criminal background checks, which take effect this June.