Norman Baker is an American hero who has been detained
against his will for more than three years.
His "crime": owning too much property.
His sentence: a court-appointed guardianship on the brink of
costing him everything he spent his life building.
His rights in this case: virtually none, significantly less
in many ways than an actual law-breaking criminal.
His future if this continues: long-term de facto
imprisonment, followed by abject poverty, if he has anything left at all.
A retired firefighter who once helped save a child's life,
Norman Baker is not suspected of terrorism. He has never been charged with any
statutory infraction, and has never been in any kind of trouble with the law.
But he has been stripped of his right to vote and access to his own assets,
which appear to have been well in excess of $1 million as little as three years
Until he was placed in a nursing home against his will by
the court-appointed attorney he is trying to reject, Norman Baker owned and
managed two dozen rental properties, many of which he designed and built
himself. He also owned a 33-acre farm, with four horses, an array of tractors
and other heavy farm implements, a carefully preserved century-old barn, a
restored farmhouse from which he drew steady rental income, and a
3,000-square-foot brick home, which he also designed and built.
All Norman Baker's properties were free of any liens or
Before he was confined against his will to a nursing home, Norman
Baker also had some $250,000 in cash and liquid investments above and beyond
his real estate holdings. He rented his properties and lived a quiet, private
Today, without writing a check or using a credit card or
making a single bad investment, Norman Baker has less than $20,000 in cash.
Most of his rental properties are vacant. Some have been flooded. In one, a
broken pipe has resulted in a water bill in excess of $19,000. Nearly all his
properties, which were once entirely rented, are now vacant. Some have been
seriously vandalized. A rental property business, which yielded a steady cash
flow, is now bleeding cash every month.
Baker's farm implements -- including a tractor owned by his
brother -- were sold by his unwanted guardian without his permission. The
guardian also sold the slate off the roof of Norman�s carefully preserved
antique hay barn, which may now be ruined by rainwater. The roof of his
farmhouse has also been damaged and left unrepaired.
The comfortable brick ranch home Norman built by hand is
boarded up and rotting. Its plush carpeting has apparently been stripped out.
Its interior fixtures are gone or rotting. The concrete backyard swimming pool
whose construction Baker oversaw is cracked and in ruins. When we visited the
property, Baker could only peer into the windows of his wrecked home. It is
posted against "trespassers."
At one point in his involuntary guardianship, a medical
examiner hired at Norman's expense found him competent and recommended that he
no longer need a guardian. But the attorney running Baker's guardianship
refused to surrender control of Norman�s assets. He then brought back the same
medical examiner for yet another examination. This doctor then proclaimed he
"changed his mind" and that Norman needed a guardian after all.
Norman was then billed some $2,000 for both examinations.
Since then, a Harvard-trained medical examiner has
repeatedly tested Baker, who just turned 80. This doctor, whose most recent
examination has been videotaped, has consistently found Baker competent to
manage his own affairs and to hire his own professional help.
More than a year ago, a physician for the nursing home where
Norman has been confined recommended that he be given an immediate discharge to
the community. Baker walks three miles a day inside the home, and does his own
laundry. He is dependent on no medications.
Norman Baker's case is not an isolated one. Usually
guardianships are necessary where someone has no assets or no family and there
has been no estate plan appointing a fiduciary. However, throughout the United
States, tens of thousands of elderly citizens with significant assets have been
placed under court-appointed guardians.
Though regulations vary from state to state, the
attorney-guardians are required to report periodically to the county probate
court on the disposition of the assets. Commonly, the attorneys charge fees for
"managing" the property of their wards.
The law requires a guardian to act in the ward�s best
interests. But often that is a major issue between the guardian and his ward
that must be balanced by the Probate Judge, who is expected to act as the
By and large, legal guardians are expected to pay regular
visits to their wards. According to Baker, his court-appointed attorney has
visited him just twice in more than two years.
Norman Baker has continuously requested that he have input
in to the property management of his estate. But he has been ignored. Decisions
have been made about Norman�s bank account and his properties without his
knowledge or input, and over his continued objections and complaints.
Baker's court-appointed guardian was recently more than six months
late in providing the court with a report on the status of Norman�s assets.
Such reports are required by the Fairfield County Court every two years,
although the better practice is an annual account. Baker's cash assets have
been drained, and many of his properties have been brought to the brink of
ruin. But it is unclear whether or not all his bills have been properly paid.
Acting on his own, Baker has managed to contract with
independent counsel. Susan Wasserman and Lewis E. Williams of Columbus have
asked, on his behalf, that Fairfield County Probate Court Judge Stephen
Williams set Baker free of his guardianship. But Judge Williams has refused and
Norman Baker remains confined to a nursing home against his will.
Baker's troubles began in January 2005, when he suffered a
urinary tract infection. Reports for elder abuse are confidential and it is
unclear who made the recommendation that his affairs be turned over to a
Whatever the situation at that time, Baker has long since
recovered. But he still remains under a guardianship established at a hearing
in front of Judge Williams where Norman was not represented by legal counsel,
and was not in the presence of a blood relative.
This fall, after numerous attempts to terminate the
guardianship, Attorneys Wasserman and Williams moved in the Fairfield County
court that Baker's guardianship be vacated.
Ohio law stipulates that someone being subjected to a
guardianship has the right to have his closest relative from within the state
be present at the determination hearing. Norman Baker�s daughter was not
notified because she was out of state, and notification to her was therefore
not required by law. But it was mandatory under the law that Norman Baker's
brother Robert be noticed, as he lives in-state and is "next of kin."
Because guardianships are invasive proceedings, strict
requirements are meant to safeguard situations in which a probate court has
such unfettered power over a human being. Norman�s brother, Robert Baker, of
Celina, Ohio, has since stated under oath that he would have attended the
hearing had he known about it, and that he would have argued then -- as he does
now -- that his brother did not want or need a legal guardian then, and does
not want or need one now.
Robert Baker also charges that the attorney appointed by the
court to be his brother's guardian sold his own personal antique tractor --
inherited from his father -- from his brother Norman's farm, and has never
accounted for the proceeds.
Norman Baker's farm has also been stripped of many of its
accouterments without a full accounting. Its buildings have been left to rot.
The land itself may be worth a million dollars or more. Baker's guardian has
stated that he has gotten numerous calls from developers wanting to buy it.
Judge Williams has repeatedly refused to vacate the
guardianship. Nor has he set for hearing the objections filed by Baker to the
late and incomplete accounting as to what precisely the Guardian has
accomplished on his behalf.
By Ohio law, such an accounting was many months overdue
until Norman Baker demanded that the account be filed. In December 2007, at
Norman Baker's behest, Attorneys Wasserman and Williams filed a motion with the
Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Thomas Moyer, asking that Judge
Williams be removed from the case. Baker's chosen attorneys argued that Judge
Williams's handling of the case "gives the appearance" that there is
little hope of Norman Baker escaping his unwanted guardianship, and regaining
his freedom with due process of law as guaranteed under the Ohio and U.S.
Chief Justice Moyer has recently established a high-level
commission charged with looking into the guardianship system in Ohio.
Nationwide, hundreds of cases similar to Norman Baker's have been reported at
places such as the www.stopguardianabuse.org web site. The Los Angeles Times
ran a major expose several years ago which has resulted in reform in many
states. Extreme as Baker's case may seem, numerous state and local court
records are filled with cases of guardianship discord.
Moyers turned down the request that Judge Williams be
removed from the case. An appeal on Judge Williams�s denial of the motion to
vacate the guardianship has been filed in the Ohio Court of Appeals, Fifth
Thus far, Norman Baker has been in constant litigation for
three years against the guardian appointed over him by the court. Norman�s
guardianship was imposed in a hearing at which he was unrepresented by counsel, and had no relative at his side, even though his brother
lives in the state. He is no longer allowed to drive a car or vote. He has been
deprived of the management of his properties and of his cash accounts, which by
all indications have been seriously mismanaged. The home Norman built with his
own hands has been largely ruined through neglect. He has been unable to obtain
a full accounting of what has been done with his assets.
In essence, someone who has committed a murder or robbed a
bank has more rights than have been granted Norman Baker.
Though the furthest thing imaginable from a terrorist,
Norman Baker has no access to habeas corpus, or to a speedy trial.
Every night, Norman Baker goes to bed in his unwanted
nursing home, praying for his freedom. If anything, his case stands as a bizarre
warning against getting inconveniently ill, even briefly, while being in
possession of enough assets to attract a legal guardian to "protect"
you in your later years.
As a Franklin County firefighter, Norman Baker worked to
save lives. Now he must fight to save his own. "I never dreamed such a
thing could happen in this country," he told the Free Press. "I just
want to go home."
Letters of support for Norman Baker can be sent to Box
09683, Bexley, OH 43209 or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fitrakis is an attorney, and publisher of the Columbus Free Press. Harvey
Wasserman is author or co-author of a dozen books, and senior editor of The
Free Press. He is the spouse of attorney Susan Wasserman. Originally published