Updated June 2, 2021 - 8:20 am
In the months before he died, Peter “Chris” Christoff began to decline.
The retired Marine had long been a feisty figure at local government meetings, where he sported a clenched fist and earned the nickname “Pissed off Christoff.”
But his mind started to fade in August when Veterans Affairs doctors diagnosed him with dementia and revoked his driving rights. Agitated by losing his freedom, Christoff cut off his longtime friends.
In November, he bequeathed his entire estate to his neighbor, Carolyn Richardson. He died less than three months later.
The decorated war veteran was “systematically isolated and exploited by” Richardson, according to the woman’s arrest report.
While she controlled his money, $30,000 and his car went missing.
Officers arrested Richardson on May 7 after a monthslong investigation by Adult Protective Services and the Metropolitan Police Department. She is charged with two counts of attempted theft, exploitation of an older or vulnerable person, neglect of an older or vulnerable person, isolation of an older or vulnerable person and theft.
Her attorney, Mont Tanner, said she denies all the allegations.
Christoff, who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, didn’t have a family. He had named his longtime friend, former Las Vegas Councilman Steve Miller, as his fiduciary and gave him power of attorney before Richardson.
Although the Las Vegas police report only identified the victim as a military veteran, documents Miller provided to the Review-Journal identify the victim as Christoff.
With Memorial Day approaching, Miller said he is committed to carrying out his friends’ dying wishes. Christoff wanted to be cremated and have an honor guard ceremony at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
But those plans are in limbo. Until the ongoing probate case is resolved, Christoff’s body will remain at La Paloma Funeral Services.
“This is so disrespectful for a man like him, a war hero,” Miller said. “Mr. Christoff would want people to know what happened to him so it wouldn’t happen to anyone else.”
A veteran’s final months
Christoff was discharged from the VA on Aug. 9, and his doctors recommended that he be placed in a 24-hour-care facility. Miller said he would find a facility for him.
The veteran stayed with Miller and his family for two days before he found his hidden car keys and angrily drove to his mobile home. He felt he was being held captive because he couldn’t drive, police said.
It was the last time Miller saw his friend of more than 30 years, despite attempts to reconnect with him.
Christoff was like family to the Millers. He was there when their daughter, Sarah Ann, was born. She called him grandfather. He spent every Thanksgiving at their home.
But last Thanksgiving, he was alone in his mobile home while Richardson traveled to Texas, according to the arrest report. He was dehydrated and malnourished.
On Dec. 17, Christoff checked himself into the hospital and later was transferred to a nursing home. On Jan. 29, he was placed in Nathan Adelson Hospice.
While he was at the hospital, he continually told doctors that he “didn’t do anything wrong,” according to the arrest report.
Christoff died Feb. 7 from senile degeneration of the brain.
When a detective interviewed Richardson, she said Christoff was of sound mind. But later, she told the detective that his dementia was worsening, according to her arrest report.
She told the detective that she started to care for Christoff because her husband had just died and Christoff lived two doors down.
“He just started coming over and we started talkin’,” Richardson said, according to the report. “I was in a bad way, and I guess he was too. And he kinda asked me if I would, you know, take care of him.”
Noted in the arrest report was that Christoff intended to leave tens of thousands of dollars to military and children’s charities.
A copy of the updated will shows that $130,000 meant for those charities was reduced to $19,000 and the rest of the estate was to go to Richardson.
Activism in the community
Christoff was a decorated war veteran and frequent character in the political theater of Las Vegas City Council and Clark County Commission meetings. He even filed lawsuits against the city to make himself heard.
He ran unsuccessfully against Michael McDonald, a former Las Vegas city councilman, to represent Ward 1. Though they battled it out in politics, McDonald said he connected with Christoff on veterans issues.
“We had some colorful times,” McDonald said. “It’s sad to lose someone like that for Nevada and for Las Vegas. He put a lot of energy into trying to make the city better.”
Christoff pushed officials to address dangerous and deadly bus shelters and to install cameras in cabs to deter armed robberies, and he fiercely supported the installation of the USO station at McCarran International Airport.
“He took on the whole town,” Miller recalled. “With so much goodwill, and always for the right reason and so much humor. He was so funny and so clever and so obnoxious.”
Whenever he was particularly heated, he would say, “The Marines have landed.”
“Whenever he told people that, I’d say, ‘Get out of his way,’” Miller said. “He was like a bull in a china shop.”
In 2010, the airport was the only major airline hub in the country with no designated rest area for military personnel, including those who have long layovers while en route to war zones.
At times, 200 service members would be sleeping on the floor in the airport, recalled Chuck Lombardo, an Air Force veteran who worked at the airport and teamed up with Christoff for the cause.
One time, Christoff ordered pizza and sodas for the hundreds of troops sleeping at the airport. He made billboards that drove up and down the Strip to call attention to the need for a USO station.
In a Review-Journal article from 2009, Christoff described himself as the “squeaky wheel” that kept bringing the issue before the commission.
“To really know him was to sit down with him,” Lombardo said. “I was gifted to be able to be a friend.”
Christoff also vehemently opposed the Crazy Horse Too gentlemen’s club and the violence that surrounded it.
City law prohibited a liquor license from being granted within 1,500 feet of a church. So after the Crazy Horse Too lost its liquor license, Christoff opened Little Church of Las Vegas, a 500-square-foot space in a rundown strip mall nearby. He became a deacon and installed a pulpit and a giant cross.
In a 2006 interview with the Review-Journal, Christoff denied opening the church to scuttle liquor license efforts.
“I didn’t find God. God found me,” Christoff said.
Brad Jerbic, who served as city attorney, disagreed and advised the council not to consider the church in making a decision on the Crazy Horse Too.
“He was never a person who was very shy. He was very vocal and very passionate,” Jerbic remembered recently. “I appreciated the fact that he brought that with him, even if we disagreed on some things.”
A Memorial Day tradition
Christoff grew up in Boston in a Greek family and had a sixth-grade education. He was a fantastic ballroom dancer and a confirmed bachelor. He worked in the restaurant and limousine business.
Miller said he met him while he was serving as a city councilman and Christoff had just moved to Las Vegas from Cupertino, California. The retired Marine staff sergeant approached him with a sharp-looking mustache and asked him to help put on the city’s first Veterans Day Parade.
Navy veteran Mike Christ, another longtime friend, said that was typical for Christoff.
“Chris was the epitome of an American patriot,” he said.
Every year on Memorial Day, Christoff would visit Nevada Veterans Memorial near the Sawyer Building. One aspect of the memorial always bothered him: It’s not etched with the names of the state’s fallen service members.
“I swear to God, he cried when he couldn’t get them to finish that wall,” Christ said.
In a 2018 interview with the Review-Journal, Christoff was emphatic about the names that had not been etched on the state memorial.
“When I pledge something, I do it. We need to fulfill our respects to our men and women,” he said. “Life is really rare and very precious.”