News - April 7, 2010

Man killed by train was investigated for involvement in Atherton elder abuse case

by Andrea Gemmet

Jon Armstrong, the pedestrian who died after being hit by a train on Friday, April 2, in San Bruno was a 52-year-old Menlo Park resident who was being investigated by the Atherton Police Department on suspicion of abusing an elderly Atherton woman.

He was hit at about 6:30 a.m. in the pedestrian crossing area at the north end of the San Bruno Caltrain station, Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said.

An autopsy was being performed, and a ruling on whether his death was a suicide is still pending, said a spokeswoman for the San Mateo County coroner's office on Monday, April 5.

Mr. Armstrong's death brings a sudden climax to a messy saga that has been talked about in Atherton for months. The story, involving a wealthy Atherton widow in failing health, allegations of undue influence, withheld medical care and elder abuse, and a dramatic intervention by concerned friends, is being revealed through court documents in the civil conservatorship case.

In January, Mr. Armstrong was served with a temporary restraining order to keep him away from the 81-year-old alleged victim. A petition filed in San Mateo County Superior Court on Feb. 3 accuses Mr. Armstrong of financial and physical abuse. The victim is described in the documents as having a long history of alcoholism and bipolar disorder.

The petition to place the elderly woman's affairs under the supervision of a conservator alleges that Mr. Armstrong was "causing (the victim)'s health to deteriorate toward death so that he could inherit her estate under documents he influenced her to prepare."

Mr. Armstrong's attorney, Daniel Barton, did not return The Almanac's telephone request for comment by the Monday press deadline.

Walter Shjeflo, the attorney representing the victim's only child, said he's meeting with Mr. Armstrong's attorneys this week to assess the situation in light of Mr. Armstrong's death. "We're going to try to handle it in a fair and humane manner," he told The Almanac.

"It's a very sad situation. My condolences to Mr. Armstrong's family," said Atherton resident Jon Buckheit, who was appointed the elderly woman's temporary conservator by the court. "Whether this will have an impact on the future proceedings, it seems to me that Mr. Armstrong cannot, by nature of his death, continue to object. I will continue to cooperate and do what I can."

Sgt. Sherman Hall of the Atherton police department confirmed that he was in the midst of investigating a complaint of elder abuse involving fraud through theft and deceit, as well as abuse through deprivation of medical care. With Mr. Armstrong's death, the criminal case no longer has a suspect, he told The Almanac.

It's not the first time Atherton police were called to investigate the situation. In 2007, a complaint of elder abuse made by the victim's daughter was determined to be unfounded by the Atherton police.

Another complaint, this time by the victim's doctor, Thomas Tayeri, was made in June 2009. Dr. Tayeri told police that he believed Mr. Armstrong was responsible for the elderly woman's poor physical condition. "It appeared that Armstrong controlled (the victim), and was trying to speed up (the victim's) death," according to the report.

The investigation by the Atherton Police Department was reviewed by a prosecutor in the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office, according to Steve Wagstaffe, chief deputy district attorney. "The evidence did not warrant a prosecution" because under the law, a person would have to be ruled incompetent in order to be a victim of the kind of abuse Mr. Armstrong was suspected of, and the woman had been determined to be competent at the time, Mr. Wagstaffe said.

Mr. Armstrong first met the elderly widow while he was working for Wells Fargo Bank four years ago, according to court documents. He was assigned to handle her accounts, and the two developed a relationship that Mr. Armstrong, in court documents, said was platonic, but that troubled the victim's family and friends. Mr. Armstrong was fired by Wells Fargo in September 2007 for wrongful conduct, the documents state.

In 2007, Mr. Armstrong left his wife and moved into the elderly woman's home. In 2009, he moved out but maintained an office at her house. According to the petition, Mr. Armstrong allegedly began taking control of the woman's assets, estimated at $15 million, and positioning himself or his young daughter as the beneficiaries of her estate.

Chris Cotton, a neighbor who has known the victim for years, said he grew increasingly concerned about her health in January. After finding her bedridden and unable to eat solid foods, he began contacting the woman's daughter, who had been prevented from seeing her mother, he told The Almanac.

On Jan. 27, the victim told Mr. Cotton that she wanted to see her daughter, and Mr. Cotton set the wheels in motion for an intervention later that afternoon.

A handful of the woman's friends and neighbors, including Atherton Mayor Kathy McKeithen and Dr. David White, met Mr. Cotton outside of the woman's home. They found the woman in such poor condition that they called an ambulance. According to the petition, she agreed to go with paramedics, but then Mr. Armstrong arrived and allegedly attempted to prevent the victim from going to the hospital.

"In front of all present, Armstrong yelled, '(The victim's nickname), you don't want to go to the hospital!'" the petition states.

Witnesses said that Mr. Armstrong protested that the elderly woman had a "do not resuscitate" order that he had prepared for her.

"I explained to Mr. Armstrong that 'do not resuscitate' does not equal 'do not treat.' Mr. Armstrong strongly disagreed," Dr. White said in his court declaration.

The paramedics, with the woman's permission, took her to Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City. Mr. Armstrong was served with a restraining order and prevented from contacting her.

Mr. Cotton, who is a chiropractor, told The Almanac that after the first two days in the hospital, the woman's condition appeared to be significantly improved. Since returning home from the hospital in mid-February, she's been able to get out of bed and walk a couple of steps, he said.

The victim's daughter "has great respect and love for her mother, and doesn't want to see her harmed," said Mr. Shjeflo, the attorney. "Everyone feels they prevented a great tragedy."

News Editor Renee Batti and Bay City News Service contributed to this report.


Posted by Holly L., a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Feb 18, 2011 at 4:09 pm

The shocking revelations of elder abuse in Atherton, and complicity of the Atherton police department in refusing to take any action after multiple pleas for help by this elder's family, as well as doctors in the community, becomes even more shocking when you consider that the Deputy DA who refused to prosecute the individual (who jumped in front of a train shortly after the heroic dramatic intervention by Jon Buckheit and Kathy McKeithen that saved this woman's life) was MELISSA MCKOWAN.

Mckowan has been on the front pages of the papers this week because she is being sued by a family for lying to a judge to get out of trying their case. Also, in the Dr. William Ayres child molestation case, the San Mateo District Attorney's office has received numerous complaints from families of the victims that Mckowan has not been truthful about evidence; witnesses and her actions.

Although Wagstaffe told the Almanac that the investigation by the Atherton Police Department was reviewed by a prosecutor [Mckowan]in the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office, "The evidence did not warrant a prosecution" because under the law, a person would have to be ruled incompetent in order to be a victim of the kind of abuse Mr. Armstrong was suspected of, and the woman had been determined to be competent at the time, Mr. Wagstaffe said.

Given the FBI investigation into the DA's office and the lawsuit against Mckowan, can we really believe the DA's version of events in this case?
[Portion removed; don't accuse, through speculation, an individual of criminal behavior.]

>How can a police department and DA's office refuse to intervene in such a dramatic case of abuse that, when discovered and brought to justice, the alleged perpetrator takes his own life?

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields