Three former court-appointed guardians are charged with embezzling more than $1 million from 108 victims in six Pennsylvania counties, using a shell company and a church to launder the stolen money, Delaware County authorities said Monday.

One of the former guardians, Gloria Byars, 58, of Aldan, the focus of a March 2018 Inquirer investigation, had been separately charged in April 2019 by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office with stealing money, family heirlooms, gold coins, and other valuables from four elderly Philadelphians.

Also charged by Delaware County authorities were Byars’ sister Carolyn Collins, 70, and Collins’ husband, Keith, 59, in their roles as guardians and managing partners at Pinnacle Guardian Services in Ridley Park. The couple, who live in Ridley Park, are founders and pastors at the Church of the Overcomer in Trainer. From 2011 to 2015, Carolyn Collins was a legislative assistant to State Rep. Margo Davidson (D., Delaware).

Keith Collins
JULIE SHAW
Keith Collins

Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun M. Copeland announced the charges at a news conference Monday morning in Media, flanked by members of her office’s Criminal Investigation Division, including its chief, Joseph Ryan. Copeland said unauthorized funds taken from elderly clients of all three ex-guardians were funneled through the church and a shell company set up by Byars called ICU Records & Billing (ICURB).

“These defendants were clearly living the high life,” Copeland said, noting that unauthorized money taken from client accounts was used to lease new cars and to buy vacation timeshares and Louis Vuitton merchandise, among other things. In a photo displayed at the news conference, Byars stood next to a white 2016 Lexus SUV, one of her former cars. Byars also spent some of the unauthorized money on a trip to Spain, Copeland said.

All three turned themselves in on Monday. At hearings in Havertown, District Judge Elisa Lacianca set bail for Byars at $500,000 and for the Collinses at $100,000 each. The three were held in the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton on Monday evening.

Byars is charged with theft offenses in connection with 90 victims, and with conspiracy. Carolyn and Keith Collins each is charged with theft offenses in connection with 18 victims. The District Attorney’s Office said the 108 victims were in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware, Lancaster, and Berks Counties.

Byars, her attorney, Sharon Alexander, and Carolyn Collins declined to comment to reporters. The Collinses did not yet have attorneys.

Keith Collins, interviewed while he sat in a car outside the District Attorney’s Office before being driven to the bail hearing, said he had not ripped off the elderly. “The body of my life’s work will speak for itself,” he said, adding that he’s been a minister for 40 years. “I worked with the poorest people in this county. I don’t have a salary. I don’t get paid.… There’s nothing extravagant about me.”

Copeland said investigators in her office were alerted to the alleged embezzlement scheme in February 2017 after learning that Pinnacle was the court-appointed guardian for a 94-year-old “incapacitated” person whose nursing-home bills weren’t being paid.

At an Orphans’ Court hearing that month, a judge ordered Pinnacle removed from all guardianship cases and required Pinnacle to provide accountings of how it spent money in all 25 cases for which it had served as guardian, Copeland said.

A financial analyst in her office then found that of the 25 cases, financial records for 18 showed “numerous improper cash withdrawals and checks,” Copeland said.

During their investigation into Pinnacle, investigators learned of Byars’ company, Global Guardian Services in Lansdowne, and that in 2012 she had set up a bank account under ICURB’s name “and used this account as a shell company to move stolen money from ward accounts to other shell business accounts,” Copeland said. The ICURB account also was used by the Collinses “to funnel money that was stolen from wards,” people deemed by a court to be incapacitated.

“Instead of simply doing their job, they cruelly embezzled over $1 million from over 100 incapacitated individuals,” Copeland said.

More than $28,000 in improper payments were made from ICURB to benefit the church, Copeland said. Byars and the Collinses also used two other shell companies, ACC Medical and CWR Medical, Copeland said.

Before opening Global Guardian Services, Byars worked for a well-known Philadelphia-area guardian, Robert Stump, at his RES Consulting in Havertown, starting as an office manager in 2008, Copeland said. Stump fired Byars in October 2016, and after reviewing his office accounts, on Dec. 20, 2017, reported to the Delaware County DA’s Office an alleged fraud by Byars involving one of his clients, the district attorney said.

In Philadelphia, the District Attorney’s Office announced in April that Byars was charged with stealing from four elderly victims. Copeland said that those cases would be withdrawn in Philadelphia and handled by her office, adding to the 108 victims.

In most of her Philadelphia cases, Byars was appointed as guardian after a recommendation by the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging.

Byars’ Philadelphia theft charges were related to the estates of Edmund and Margareta Berg of Fox Chase and two other alleged Philadelphia victims.

The Bergs’ niece, Heidi Austin, discovered through a Google search that Byars previously had been charged in Virginia with defrauding people. Court records show that in 2005, Byars was charged in that state with defrauding several people by using their discarded credit-card convenience checks, fished from post office trash cans. She pleaded guilty in October 2005 and was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $29,503 in restitution.

After Byars’ past criminal convictions were brought to Philadelphia Orphans’ Court’s attention, guardians in the city were required to affirm that they were not convicted of any crime involving fraud, deceit, or financial misconduct. Also, state criminal history reports became 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 took effect this June.