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Owners, managers of Lincoln Park nursing home accused in lawsuit of covering up theft of $700,000 from resident

The money represents the life savings of 98-year-old Grace Watanabe, a WWII Japanese internment camp survivor.

Grace Watanabe
Provided

When managers and owners of a Lincoln Park nursing home learned employees had stolen more than $700,000 from a 98-year-old resident who has Alzheimer’s disease, they didn’t fire them or go to authorities — they sought to cover it up, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.

The Cook County public guardian’s office filed a 335-page complaint seeking monetary damages for four entities that own Symphony Residences, several managers and the five employees accused of stealing Grace Watanabe’s life savings.

Public Guardian Charles Golbert’s lawsuit said a nursing home executive resorted to locking Watanabe in her office to keep county social workers from moving her to another nursing home.

Word of the standoff got back to Golbert, who dispatched Dawn Lawkowski-Keller, an attorney who works in his office’s financial recovery unit.

After a shouting match, Lawkowski-Keller boiled it down for Symphony Executive Director Erika Cruz: “You have 5 minutes or we’re calling the cops.”

Cruz released Watanabe.

Symphony Residences of Lincoln Park nursing home
Google Maps

An investigation by Golbert’s office later concluded that five nursing home employees used Watanabe as their personal piggy bank — draining her life savings through a series of ATM withdrawals, forged checks and other payments.

While not accused of taking part in the theft, the lawsuit alleges Cruz and other nursing home executives were aware of it and didn’t report it to law enforcement.

A representative of Symphony, reached Thursday via email, reiterated a statement previously sent to the Sun-Times: “Upon learning of the incident involving Ms. Watanabe, we immediately notified law enforcement authorities to investigate and seek restitution for Ms. Watanabe, and we are cooperating with those agencies.”

Two of the five employees accused in the civil suit of stealing from Watanabe have been charged criminally with financial exploitation of an elderly person.

Bank regulators noticed irregularities and brought the case to the attention of authorities.

A separate civil suit filed by Golbert’s office seeking information from Symphony is stalled while company executives appeal a September court order compelling them to testify. They are being fined $400 for every day they defy the order and remain silent.

“We can’t wait for them,” Golbert said. “My client is 98 years old, and they’re trying to run out the clock.”

Should Watanabe pass away before the conclusion of the civil suit against Symphony, the beneficiaries of her will — Misericordia and Mercy Home for Boys & Girls — could step in as complainants, Golbert said.

Watanabe was born in Santa Cruz, California, in 1921 and was held in the Poston internment camp from 1942 to 1946. After her release, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Members of Chicago’s Japanese community have been attending court hearings to support Watanabe.