Cheryl Shega never was “right,” her family members say.
The oldest of three children, she “functioned at a much lower level” than her two siblings, her brother, Greg Shega, said in a court affidavit.
She held down an auto parts clerk job for only a few years in the 1970s and didn’t cook, clean, do laundry or wash dishes. Rather, she relied on her mother for all that, until her mom died unexpectedly in 2015. She continued to live with her father until he, too, passed away two years later.
Refusing her siblings’ help, Cheryl lived alone in her parents’ Hibbing, Minnesota home where somewhere along the line she came into contact online with a woman from Peyton she believed to be her long-lost cousin.
Over a period of years, that woman and her husband, Laura and Stephen Craig, gained Cheryl’s confidence and persuaded her to, without authority, name Laura as beneficiary of certificates of deposit held in a trust her parents had established years earlier for the benefit of their children, Cheryl’s brother and sister say in a lawsuit against the Craigs filed in Minnesota in July. The certificates of deposit (CDs) were valued at about $250,000.
Cheryl died on May 27, 2019, at age 67 at the hospital she was taken to after she was found unconscious in her squalid home, which was crammed with unwashed clothing and mountains of trash.
Her siblings, Greg of Arizona and Nancy Weiser of Utah, were surprised to learn their frugal parents, who appeared to own little, had squirreled away that much money. They were more surprised to find Cheryl had designated Laura as the sole beneficiary.
Within days of her death, her siblings’ attorney, David Crosby, notified the American Bank of the North to freeze the assets, because Cheryl was considered a “vulnerable adult” under Minnesota law due to “long standing medical, physical and emotional infirmities and dysfunctions,” Crosby said in a letter to the bank.
Ignoring that, the bank transferred the assets less than a month later to Laura.
Greg and Nancy doubt Laura has any relation to the family. They believe she somehow became acquainted online with their emotionally needy and unstable sister who searched relentlessly for the cousin who had disappeared more than 40 years ago after joining a spiritual sect.
The Indy has reported previously on cases of guardians and conservators taking advantage of incapacitated persons they are assigned to protect. Some pilfer millions of dollars from estates in a system that lacks scrutiny and accountability. Yet, prosecutions are rare.
Different from those cases, Cheryl didn’t have a legally appointed guardian or conservator but was persuaded by a relative stranger who gained her confidence to name her as an heir to a good portion of the family trust assets.
That still could be considered exploitation, says Rick Black, who set up the nonprofit Center for Estate Administration Reform (CEAR) after he spent $1.3 million in legal fees disputing a guardianship of his father-in-law but still lost to the “predator.”
“Financial and contractual decisions that are completely inconsistent with lifelong practices or written intentions often occur when in isolation,” he says via email.
But the Craigs’ attorney, Charles Shreffler of West St. Paul, Minnesota, says via email that Laura, 59, who he says truly is Cheryl’s long-lost cousin, “did nothing to influence Cheryl,” made no moves to hornswoggle her into naming her as a beneficiary, and didn’t know she’d been named a beneficiary until after Cheryl died.
Noting the beneficiary assignments occurred over a period of 14 months, Shreffler says, “That length of time demonstrates that Cheryl made these decisions deliberately, freely, intentionally.”
No one ever examined Cheryl Shega professionally to determine a diagnosis, but her sister-in-law, Amy Shega, says she lived as a dependent until her parents died, was difficult to deal with, especially if she didn’t get her way, and didn’t seem to feel emotional attachments.
“She never saw reality,” she says. “You could not relate to her. You could never disagree with her.”
After she died and the family went through the house, they discovered a book hidden in their mother’s room about how to live with a child that’s diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.
“They tried to hide that because they were embarrassed by it,” Amy says.
According to the lawsuit, people acquainted with Cheryl knew she suffered from mental illness. She was moody, childlike, hung doll clothes in her closet, spent her time sleeping and watching soap operas and had no social activities outside her home.
Cheryl physically attacked her mother and brother on different occasions, Amy says, but wasn’t placed in residential care, the siblings assumed, because their parents couldn’t afford it.
In fact, over the years Amy and her husband, Greg, paid to replace all the home’s appliances for his parents, renovated the bathrooms, replaced the roof, provided vehicle maintenance and built a new deck onto the house, believing the couple was without financial means to do so, according to court documents. Also, Greg’s sister, Nancy, pitched in to provide maintenance on the house and planted and maintained gardens.
After their mother, Charlene, died in 2015, the siblings worried about Cheryl and their dad, Ed, but signs pointed to a stable situation.
Greg and Nancy set up automatic pay for bills, drawn on a bank account linked to the trust, which they believed contained about $25,000, though Cheryl went to the bank and was told “there was a lot of money in a savings account,” she told her sister. Both siblings took turns visiting Cheryl and their dad every other month, Amy says.
Then, Ed Shega became ill, and a dispute arose surrounding his care. Cheryl insisted he not be placed in a skilled nursing facility because there was no money to pay for it, a claim that, Greg and Nancy later came to recognize, was out of character for a person who had never shown interest in financial matters.
“There was a social worker working with the family,” Amy tells the Indy by phone. “She was really afraid for Ed’s safety. Nancy and Greg started the process of getting Ed moved.” That meant a court battle, but they prepared for it. Five complaints had been filed by social workers regarding Cheryl’s negligence in caring for her dad.
Problem was, Amy says, “The courts didn’t move fast enough, and he died.”
After the family buried their father in May 2017, they visited Cheryl in the family home and found it in order.
“Everything was good,” Amy says. “The house was clean.”
Although Cheryl had proven incapable of cooking and cleaning, the siblings decided to allow her to live alone. “We would never, ever, ever have put Cheryl in a [care] home,” she says. “One, she was volatile. She would have been a danger to be around if she was confined. She was happy if she was able to live the rest of her life in her home. It would have been more cruel to force her into a facility.”
Despite periodic visits and lots of phone calls from her siblings — sometimes multiple calls a week — two years later, things fell apart.
On May 16, 2019, Nancy didn’t get an answer when she called Cheryl, so she phoned a member of the church Cheryl had once attended, who agreed to check on her.
The friend arrived about the same time as police, whom Nancy had called when Cheryl didn’t answer her phone.
They found Cheryl collapsed on the floor. She was conscious but said she couldn’t walk. An ambulance took her to a hospital where she lived for 12 days. The death certificate lists cause of death as severe malnutrition, catatonia and bowel obstruction.
They also found the house filthy, the windows draped with blankets, dead mice and rats throughout, cat feces, piles of trash that indicated she’d been living on cake mix, ice cream, Dr Pepper, Eggo waffles and Little Debbie snacks, stacks of dirty clothing on all the beds and bags of junk mail she’d saved. (She had a practice of leaving money for neighbors who dropped off food on her porch.)
“In two years’ time, some of the doors to the rooms, you couldn’t open them,” Amy says. “She still hadn’t learned to use the washing machine.” Amy reports Nancy and Greg during their visits had left sticky notes everywhere with their phone numbers and instructions on how to do certain tasks.
Amy says Greg and Nancy hadn’t visited Cheryl for about 18 months but were in touch with her weekly by phone. “They had no idea that she had gotten that bad,” Amy tells the Indy via email. “Nancy was in communication with members of the church and they too had no idea Cheryl had gotten that bad. Cheryl wouldn’t let anyone in the house so that prevented everyone from seeing the reality of it.”
Though contact between Cheryl and Laura had dropped off, Laura phoned Cheryl 24 times from May 8 to May 28 without reaching her. But Laura never contacted authorities for a welfare check, the lawsuit says.
When Cheryl was admitted to the hospital that day, caregivers described her as “totally disoriented” and having a “loss of touch with reality, expressing paranoid thoughts,” while “refusing to eat, spitting out oral medications and not communicating verbally.”
On May 20, Laura called the hospital and suggested Cheryl suffered from a simple sinus infection and was an active and independent person. She also advised the staff to keep Cheryl away from her siblings, because they were only interested in the money, the lawsuit says.
“She [Laura] explained that Cheryl has had a lifetime of animosity with her siblings, Nancy and Greg,” the medical record states. “She also explained that Cheryl has lived in fear of Nancy sticking her in a nursing home and cashing out the house and the trust to receive the financial benefits.”
Upon her death, Nancy and Greg went to the bank to find out how much money was available for her final arrangements and were astonished to learn the bank held assets valued at about $250,000.
The lawsuit notes that Ed and Charlene Shega established a trust in 2009 in which they placed all their assets, including their home. They named Cheryl the primary beneficiary and the other two children, Greg and Nancy, as successor beneficiaries, meaning they would inherit any assets remaining after Cheryl’s death.
The lawsuit claims Cheryl didn’t have authority to change beneficiaries. But even as Cheryl asserted there was no money for her father’s nursing care, she had assigned Laura Craig as beneficiary of four CDs.
The first CD was assigned to Laura in August 2016 before Cheryl’s father died. The other three were assigned in September and October 2017, after her father died. The lawsuit says that two weeks after one of the CDs had been signed over to Laura that September, Laura called Cheryl on Oct. 11, 2017. They spoke for 13 minutes, the lawsuit says. On that same date, Cheryl changed the beneficiary to Laura on another CD. Thirteen days later, Cheryl changed the beneficiary on the last CD.
Given her limitations and disinterest in financial matters, those actions were out of character for Cheryl, the lawsuit contends. American Bank employee Geri Chapman helped her make those beneficiary changes without contacting the other siblings, the lawsuit contends. Amy Shega says American Bank claimed it didn’t know the trust existed, though she says the bank had helped Charlene and Ed Shega set it up.
After Cheryl died, Greg and Nancy discovered she had been searching for lost relatives for years via the internet, including sending emails to people in Slovenia and Croatia. In 2012, she’d sent a message to Laura Craig, whom she believed was her cousin, Laura Johnson, who left Minnesota some 40 years before. In it, she asked, “Are you my cousin?”
Craig responded and quizzed Cheryl about their families, asking for photos and telling her to keep their communications secret.
In a Feb. 19, 2012, email to Laura, Cheryl wrote, “You don’t have to worry. I respect your privacy and will never tell anyone where you are or that I am in contact with you.”
On Aug. 13, 2012, Cheryl wrote to Laura, telling her that her father, Cheryl’s uncle, had died. She closed the message saying, “I am so thrilled to be a part of your life. Don’t worry, if anyone wants to find you, they will have to do their research just like I did.”
Laura responded on Sept. 9, 2012, thanking her for the family news, noting the two had spoken on the phone and asking her how old she was.
In another message, dated March 12, 2018, Laura wrote of her Christian faith and said, “You are so much a part of our family!”
The lawsuit casts doubt on whether Laura Craig truly is Laura Johnson, and there appears to be no evidence Laura and Cheryl met in person after making contact.
After Cheryl’s mom died in 2015, her online dialogue with Craig became more frequent, the lawsuit says.
It also came to light later, through caregivers, that when her father was failing, Cheryl spoke frequently to a relative from Colorado by phone.
“What we do not know however,” the lawsuit says, “is what Laura was telling Cheryl during their phone calls.”
Emails discovered after Cheryl’s death showed that, during the time she resisted placing her father in a nursing facility, she frequently communicated with Laura via emails.
Cheryl also threw a temper tantrum and threatened to kill herself when her brother asked his dad if he could see a copy of the trust.
“In hindsight,” the lawsuit says, “it has become evident that Laura, with the assistance of her alleged husband, Stephen, were the driving force behind Cheryl’s new focus on finances and attempts at conserving money.”
As previously noted, Greg and Nancy didn’t know their parents had accumulated significant funds. Besides the CDs, assets were held by other institutions. Those institutions obliged the family’s request, through an attorney, to not pay out any sums to Laura.
But despite two such notices, American Bank paid $247,188 from the CDs to Laura after she hired a lawyer who wrote to the bank asking for the money, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit seeks more than $1 million in damages alleging undue influence, exploitation of a vulnerable adult, unjust enrichment, tortious interference with the estate, deception/fraud, intentional misrepresentation, negligence and aiding and abetting the exploitation of a vulnerable adult.
“How could the bank do that [change beneficiaries] and not know she was mentally incompetent? That money was there for her [Cheryl] to use to live on, but the trust clearly states that she cannot change the beneficiaries,” Amy tells the Indy by phone.
Moreover, the trust designated all three children as having powers of attorney over their parents’ health care and assets, she says.
Laura and Stephen Craig have filed a motion to dismiss, contending the court lacks jurisdiction over them and “the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted against these defendants because ... the complaint fails to allege any facts or plead a cause of action under the Multiparty Accounts Act....”
Likewise, the bank is seeking dismissal, alleging bank officials didn’t know the assets were part of a trust. In its answer to the lawsuit, American Bank states, “Any actions taken by Defendants were based on legitimate business consideration and were done without the intent to injure or harm Plaintiff” and that Cheryl’s estate contributed to any damages sustained by the estate by its own actions or inactions. The bank and its employees declined to provide the Indy with a response.
The estate countered there’s ample evidence to prove the lawsuit’s claims, citing as an example the “13-minute phone call ... when Cheryl made Laura a beneficiary of one of the certificates of deposit.”
A decision on the motions to dismiss is due in January.
In a five-page response to Indy questions, the Craigs’ attorney, Shreffler, alleged the lawsuit is “filled with innuendos.
“What facts are there to support the claim that either Laura or Stephen influenced Cheryl?” he adds. “The Complaint alleges that Cheryl had been close to her family until she reconnected with Laura, and that the only possible explanation for Cheryl’s difficulties with her siblings is Laura’s undue influence through telephone calls. That theory is undermined by actual facts...”
Among those, the Craigs claim:
•Laura knew nothing about being named beneficiary on the CDs until contacted by the Shega trust’s attorney in June 2019. She did know she was made beneficiary on another investment, however, according to text messages between Cheryl and Laura.
•There was tension between Cheryl and her siblings. Now, Shreffler says, “she [Nancy] wants you to believe that Cheryl was vulnerable and that they had a close relationship.... The essence of being a ‘vulnerable adult’ is not being able to take care of one’s activities of daily living. Nancy’s comments in the medical records reveal that she knew Cheryl had been taking care of herself.”
•In a handwritten 2016 Christmas letter, Cheryl sent Laura a copy of a stock statement, saying, “As you can see you are the beneficiary.... Keep this safe it tells you how to contact Allete [Inc.].” Shreffler considers this “more evidence Cheryl made these decisions on her own.” Laura is unaware of what became of that stock after Cheryl’s death.
•Asked if Laura truly is Cheryl’s cousin, Shreffler notes when Laura called Nancy when Cheryl was hospitalized, Nancy never said, “Who are you?” Rather, “She knew she was talking to her cousin Laura,” he says. Also, Laura filed an affidavit with the court in August 2020 stating she is, in fact, Cheryl’s cousin and possesses a birth certificate to prove it.
•Asked about the 13-minute phone call, Shreffler says Laura “doesn’t remember what she and Cheryl talked about.” But he adds the span of time — from August 2016 to October 2017 — during which Cheryl changed beneficiaries on the CDs “demonstrates that Cheryl made these decisions deliberately, freely, intentionally.”
•Cheryl told Laura there was a “lifetime of animosity” between her and her siblings and that Laura “did not try to isolate Cheryl from her siblings.”
Moreover, Shreffler notes, “There is no evidence that Cheryl lacked capacity” and that Cheryl couldn’t be considered “vulnerable.”
To underscore Laura’s innocence of any attempts to unduly influence Cheryl, Shreffler notes that while Cheryl told Laura about the stock investment, she didn’t tell her about the CDs.
“Whether it was right or fair that Cheryl picked her cousin over her siblings as her beneficiary is nobody’s business except Cheryl’s,” he wrote. “The evidence shows that Cheryl made those decisions freely, and provides some insight into why she made those decisions. The Craig’s [sic] have done nothing wrong.”
According to Nolo.com, an Internet legal website, it’s up to a complaining relative to prove that a will or other instrument was written under undue influence. To do that, they must show:
•Property is left to a person in a way that defies normal circumstances, such as close family members being left out in favor of others, without an obvious explanation.
•The benefactor was particularly dependent on, or trusted, the person who exerted influence. (This is sometimes called a “confidential relationship” between them.)
•Illness or frailty made the benefactor susceptible to undue influence.
•The influencer took advantage of the benefactor and benefited from the change.
In a North Dakota case, an elderly woman changed her will to name a friend as beneficiary to 35 percent of her estate, unlike her previous will. Witnesses testified in the 2011 case that the friend controlled the woman’s visitors and tried to ostracize family members from the woman, who suffered from dementia. In that case, the court ruled the friend had exerted undue influence and invalidated the will in question.
Rick Black, who founded CEAR says in an email that “trusted advisor” and “caregiver” frauds involving vulnerable adults are fairly common, especially when the person can be isolated from others.
“In our years of studying these crimes it is clear there are many predators among us who actively seek out vulnerable individuals of wealth in society,” Black tells the Indy in an email. “They groom their victims over months and years with the specific intent to ultimately defraud the very people they claim to love and serve.”
Amy Mason, an attorney representing the Shega siblings, tells the Indy by phone that Cheryl’s case is unusual, because it involves alleged undue influence across state lines. Normally, she says, the influencer and the vulnerable person see one another frequently. In Cheryl’s case, she never met with Laura during her seven years of contacts by emails, letters, texts and phone calls.
Cheryl was susceptible, Mason says, because, “Cheryl was very isolated. She didn’t have any friends.”
In a 1984 case, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that undue influence is normally shown through circumstantial evidence that supports a theory that opportunity existed, the influencer participated in the preparation of the will of the vulnerable person, development of a confidential relationship, disinheritance of those whom the decedent probably would have remembered in a will otherwise and exercise of influence or persuasion.
Such cases, Mason acknowledges, are “tough” to win.
“From an outsider looking in, you don’t see all that’s happening,” she says. “Someone needs to understand how someone like Cheryl would be influenced compared to the average individual. She was a loner and lived in a fantasy world.”
Mason likened the situation to dating site scams that persuade lonely elderly women to transfer thousands of dollars to a stranger, because they wrongly think they’re in a relationship.
“If not for Laura misguiding her, if not for Laura and her husband trying to convince her she was all alone and they were the only ones who loved her and cared for her, she [Cheryl] would not have made these changes,” Mason says. “I believe that Laura was very calculated and knew exactly what she was doing.”