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Family upset theft felonies reduced to misdemeanors

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County prosecutors agreed this week to reduce 39 felony charges levied against a Charleston man who stole more than $9,000 from his elderly neighbor, despite pleas from the victim's family that at least one of the felonies should stick.

After the charges were reduced Wednesday, Estill Forrest "Trip" Jones III, 30, pleaded guilty to 39 misdemeanor counts of petit larceny. Jones admitted that he stole $9,123 using Jean Graves' ATM card over about a two-week period.

Graves, 84, who has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years, was staying in a Beckley assisted-living facility at the time of the thefts last year.

"I've been beside myself with grief," Jones said at Wednesday's plea hearing, during which his lawyer handed a check for $9,123 to a prosecutor, who in turn passed it to Graves' family members. "I don't know what could have led me to do this."

Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman sentenced Jones to two years of probation. Each misdemeanor charge carried a maximum of a year in a county jail.

"I am not happy at all with the outcome of this process," Jenny Graves, Jean Graves' niece, said in an email to the Gazette-Mail after the hearing. "Nobody, not one single person, considered the 84-year-old, mentally incapacitated Alzheimer's patient.

"Their philosophy was that she was getting her money back, so we should be happy and just shut up and go away," continued Jenny Graves, a resident of Richmond, Va. "Where is the justice in that?"

Assistant Kanawha County prosecutor Dan Holstein, the office's chief of staff, told the Gazette-Mail that prosecutors originally had expected to keep the felony charges. They decided that the misdemeanors were more appropriate because Jones, the son of Charleston attorney Estill Forrest Jones Jr., did not have a criminal history and was willing and able to repay the money he stole.

Holstein also said the state was willing to reduce the charges because Jones is employed, fully admitted to his actions, seemed remorseful and offered an apology to Graves' family.

"Every time that you swipe a card, it is, technically, a felony," Holstein said. "It was an issue of do we want to make a felon out of someone who stole a couple of hundred dollars here, couple hundred dollars there -- is he someone we want to make a felon if he has gainful employment?

"Some cases, yeah, we can prove a technical felony, but the right thing to do here is give him a chance," Holstein said. He said it's not uncommon for prosecutors to plead similar felony cases down to misdemeanors.

Fred Giggenbach, the assistant prosecutor who represented the state at Wednesday's plea hearing, noted that Jean Graves is incapacitated with a debilitating mental disease, and would have to testify that she did not approve of the ATM withdrawals and did not voluntarily give her personal identification number to Jones in order for the state to prove the card fraud.

"Frankly, she is not competent to testify," Giggenbach said, adding that there is evidence to suggest Graves legitimately paid Jones to run small errands, including one instance where she paid him to cut dead leaves from a tree in her yard.

Jenny Graves said she believes Jones preyed on her aunt because of her Alzheimer's, gained her trust, and eventually convinced her to provide her ATM information to him.

In April, a grand jury indicted Jones on 39 felony counts of access device fraud and an additional count of misuse of an elderly person's assets by a caregiver -- a charge that was dropped as part of Wednesday's plea. The thefts occurred between Oct 25, and Nov. 11, during which time Jones made 39 transactions ranging from $20 to $400.

Court documents, including the criminal complaint, did not mention how Jones gained access to Graves' ATM card or mention the details of the relationship between the two.

John Carr, Jones' lawyer, said Jones admitted to making a terrible mistake when he took the money from Graves' account, but railed against accusations that Jones had targeted the woman.

"As her neighbor, Trip sincerely cared about Miss Jean, who had no family in Charleston to help her," Carr said. "It is unfortunate that a family member who lives in Richmond -- that is not here -- had chosen to mischaracterize Trip's efforts to help his neighbor."

Carr reiterated that the state's charges related only to the time Graves was admitted to the Beckley facility, and that Jones admitted full responsibility to using the card, and paid the money back.

Holstein said he was not worried that potential criminals could view this case as an example of how to steal a large amount of cash from someone, and get out of serving jail time as long as they didn't have a criminal history, apologized, and were willing to make full amends.

"I don't think that this is something that people will be reading and go 'Oh, well, I'm going to do this or that,'" he said. "I don't think it's one of those cases that's going to have the kind of ripple effect that you're talking about."

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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