Disabled Calif. Firefighter Says Caretaker Exploited Her Financially

Aug. 23--A former San Francisco firefighter who suffered brain damage and lost her vision in a blaze that killed another firefighter says she's the victim of an unscrupulous caretaker who exploited her condition to steal about $100,000.

Melanie Stapper of Guerneville said Kimberly Van Vorst, 45, a woman she hired to help her with her finances and household chores, instead stole money from her checking account and ran up a huge tab on her credit and ATM cards, wiping out her savings.

"She knew I couldn't see," Stapper said. "She was the only person who could tell me what was going on."

Stapper said she discovered the theft, which is alleged to have occurred in 2012, when Van Vorst stopped coming to work and she was forced to hire someone else to help her. The new caretaker spotted suspicious activity in her accounts, and Stapper reported it to police.

Earlier this month, prosecutors charged Van Vorst with felony embezzlement of more than $50,000 from a dependent adult, grand theft, check forgery and unauthorized use of Stapper's ATM card.

Van Vorst was released from custody after turning herself in and faces a possible prison sentence if convicted. Her next court appearance is Sept. 9.

Van Vorst's lawyer, Charles Applegate, declined to discuss details of the allegations beyond saying he would mount a vigorous defense.

Stapper had been working as a San Francisco firefighter when in March 1995 she suffered serious injuries that would leave her permanently disabled.

She was called to a house fire in the city's Diamond Heights neighborhood and became trapped in a burning garage. Lt. Louis Mambretti was killed in the blaze, and Stapper, who spent four months in a coma, suffered oxygen deprivation that left her brain damaged.

"We were basically entombed in a furnace," Stapper said. "I was on the edge of death."

She recovered, but cortical blindness left her unable to read or type on a computer, much less drive a car, she said.

"I can't even see my hand in front of my face," Stapper said. "My eyes work, but my brain scrambles everything."

About a dozen years ago, she moved north from San Francisco to Guerneville and hired caretakers to manage much of her life, including paying her bills and driving her places.

A few years ago, she met Van Vorst at the local grocery store, where she worked behind the deli counter, Stapper said. She loaned the woman money to move away from an abusive boyfriend and later hired her to be her assistant.

But she said Van Vorst became unreliable and stopped coming at one point.

Stapper hired a new caretaker who found Van Vorst had been forging checks and making charges on her debit cards, she said.

Further examination showed Van Vorst used some of the money to pay her own rent and buy airline tickets, Stapper said.

Among the money stolen was a $90,000 inheritance Stapper got from her late mother.

Before she died, her mother told Van Vorst how "lucky" her daughter was to have a friend like her, Stapper said.

"I let her become my friend," Stapper said. "It set me up to be vulnerable."

Copyright 2014 - The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

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