This week I read with dismay that my childhood doctor in Phillips, Maine -- Gretl Hoch -- spent her final years being neglected, abused, and robbed by the owners of a German spa where she became effectively imprisoned.
Dr. Hoch -- perhaps the only foreign-born person living in our western Maine hamlet in the early 1970s -- was an intimidating figure among the under-10 set, with her no-nonsense approach to administering shots and a strong German accent that was inevitably (and unfairly) linked to stock characters from Hogan's Heroes. She practiced medicine in Phillips for more than 40 years, and had willed her ample estate to the Shriners' Hospitals for Children, SOS Children's Villages, and the Franklin County Animal Shelter in nearby Farmington. In 2004 she decided to return to her native Germany, to be closer to where her parents were buried.
Unfortunately she chose to check into a very, very bad hotel while her home was being renovated. At the Naturhotel Hessische Schweiz in Meinhard, owners John and Gudrun Stifel took advantage of the octogenarian doctor, who was suffering from Alzheimer's' disease. The Stifels cut off her access to her friends, family, and legal representatives, kept her in conditions that at one point had her hospitalized with dehydration and bedsores so serious they required surgery, and secured power of attorney over her $7.5 million estate, court documents show. When a relative was able to gain access to Hoch, she reported living in fear of Mr. Stifel who she said hurt her.
Dr. Hoch, 84, died in June 2008 while law suits on her behalf were still pending in Maine courts.
Last week, a Maine judge awarded her estate with nearly $7 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The judge found the Stifels had "cloistered Dr. Hoch at the Naturhotel when she was in an extremely fragile and vulnerable state...prevented her from having contact with her closest friends and family..[and] bullied, manipulated, and intimidated her to gain control of her money." A third person, Mary Wagner-Burkhart of Alexandria, Kentucky, was also found to have tried to improperly gain access to Hoch's estate.
Hoch's estate will now be going to charity, as she wished. The Stifels appear to still be in business. Maybe someone should check up on their guests.
[Update: 3/2/2011: The Stifels appealed the decision, but refused to turn over key documents to the court and yesterday were found in contempt. Their attorney says they are facing litigation in Germany as well. They are, as of this writing, still in business.]