A federal judge cut a break for a 76-year-old Ohio woman, giving her probation but no jail time after she admitted to stealing nearly 50 years’ worth of benefit checks from the Department of Veterans Affairs in the name of her long-dead mother.
Gladys Queen was entitled to the benefits as the widow of a World War II Army vet, but they should have ended with her death in 1973. Her daughter, Irene Ferrin, never reported the death and spent the ensuing decades forging her mother’s signature to keep the VA benefits flowing.
She raked in $461,780.35 through 2021, when agents showed up at her door and busted the scheme.
Karen Savir, the public defender who handled the case for Ferrin, blamed the scam on the lack of women’s options in the 1970s.
She said Ferrin was caring for three children from her own marriages and then took in her three younger siblings after her mother’s death. Ms. Savir also said Ferrin’s “abusive husband” from her second marriage ordered her to cash the checks.
And once hooked on the checks, she was unable to ditch the habit, Ms. Savir said. For one thing, she didn’t feel like she could admit to anyone that she’d been stealing, and besides she still needed the money.
“Her ongoing theft cannot and should not be excused, and indeed Irene makes no excuse for it,” Ms. Savir told the judge in a filing requesting leniency. “But it can be understood, if it is viewed through the lens of the cultural and personal realities of the time the theft started and the compounding effects of shame, fear, and poverty throughout the [ensuing] years.”
Timothy Landry, the special assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said the fact that the scam dated back that far was not an exoneration but an aggravation.
“In 1973, a gallon of gas was 39 cents, ‘The Godfather’ won an Oscar, fax machines were an emerging form of technology, and the defendant, Irene Ferrin, was beginning an ongoing theft from the military veterans of this country that would last nearly half a century,” he told the judge.
The case is one of the longest-running benefit frauds to be publicly exposed.
On at least seven occasions Ferrin lied to the VA to keep the benefits flowing.
In 1982, Ferrin filed a handwritten request to change direct deposit to checks and change her address. She forged her mother’s signature.
In 1984, after the VA requested a Social Security number be applied to the claim, Ferrin wrote a note in her own name saying her mother told her she had never worked and never been assigned a number. Ferrin also said she couldn’t get a birth certificate because the courthouse had burned down in the 1930s.
She would file other declarations in her mother’s name stating that she didn’t have a Social Security number and hadn’t remarried — which would have ended her widow’s benefits — and each time forged her mother’s name.
Her lawyer said she was “frozen in fear” and felt she had no way out.
“One of her abusive husbands — each of whom profited from the theft — had informed her long ago that she would go to jail if she told anyone. As the years went by, the shame deepened and the fear grew, and the need for money to survive never went away,” Ms. Savir said.
To drive home the point about the 1970s culture she pointed to an ad a bowling alley ran that said “HAVE SOME FUN. BEAT YOUR WIFE TONIGHT.”
“In 1973, married women had almost no legal protection from abuse inflicted by their husbands; marital rape, for example, was exempted from the rape laws in nearly every state, including Ohio, where Irene was living with her abusive husband. Domestic violence was barely recognized in legal, medical, or social spheres, and the cultural attitude in the early seventies was that spousal abuse was rare and, if it occurred, resulted from something the wife had done,” Ms. Savir said.
Mr. Landry said Ferrin’s need to take care of her siblings might have been an explanation — “though not an excuse” — for stealing in the early 1970s, but it can’t justify more than four decades of theft.
He said that by the time she forged the 1982 and 1984 letters in her mother’s name her siblings were adults.
He pointed out that Ferrin also lied to a bankruptcy court in proceedings in 2019, claiming she had no income even as she was stealing monthly benefits.
In 1973 the monthly check was $250. By 2021 it was $1,357.60.
Under sentencing guidelines, both sides agreed Ferrin could have been sentenced to as much as 2½ years in prison.
Mr. Landry asked for some leniency, saying between a year and 18 months was reasonable.
“The Court should seize this opportunity to send a very clear message: if you steal from American veterans — especially if you do it over the course of nearly half a century — you will go to prison,” Mr. Landry wrote.
U.S. District Judge Douglas R. Cole rebuffed the request and ordered five years’ probation with one year of home confinement with exceptions for work, classes, worship or medical appointments.
Ferrin was also directed to pay back the money she stole.