Seventy-year-old Craig Ballew and his 63-year-old wife, Ivy Rasmussen, spent decades-long careers with the Clark County School District, building an affluent life for themselves in the Las Vegas valley.
But they grew greedy as their careers wound down and stole every penny they could from an elderly man who considered them friends, prosecutors said.
On Wednesday, District Judge Stefany Miley ordered each of them to serve eight to 20 years in prison on more than a dozen conspiracy, theft and elderly exploitation charges.
Prosecutors said Ballew, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for state Assembly in 2008, and Rasmussen bilked their longtime friend, Elliott Smith, out of more than $150,000 in about a year-and-a-half in a case that started to unfold about five years ago.
Ballew, a teacher who retired after 36 years, and Rasmussen, a guidance counselor who resigned from the school district in November, brought Smith into their home after his wife, Sandra, was hospitalized and under constant care for the rest of her dying days.
The couple used money from Smith, who suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, to make purchases small and large, from charges at Starbucks to checks made out for foreign cars, according to court records.
“They were old enough to commit these crimes,” prosecutor J.P. Raman told the judge Wednesday. “They’re old enough to pay the price.”
Defense lawyer Frank Cremen argued for probation, saying they were appreciated, loved and respected by family, neighbors and colleagues. Smith enjoyed living with the couple, he said.
Ballew now suffers from skin cancer and dementia, while Rasmussen has been diagnosed with breast cancer, Cremen added.
“My clients’ lives have been outstanding,” Cremen said. “They are blemish-free. … (Prosecutors) want you to treat these people as though they’re abhorrent. My clients lived good and virtuous lives. It is not right to put these people in prison.”
Smith’s relatives believe the couple took even more than what a jury convicted Ballew and Rasmussen of stealing. At least $100,000 in cash that Smith kept in a safe went missing, his family said, but the jury acquitted the couple of taking that money. In the last years of his life, Smith told family members he was worth about $600,000, with $300,000 set aside for his wife’s medical bills. Smith did not learn about the theft until a few months before he died, broke, at age 84 in 2010.
“Their conduct goes well beyond theft,” Raman said. “There are so many things here that were done to manipulate, destroy, isolate that deserve that extra punishment.”
In January 2010, when the Sweikerts went to collect Smith’s remaining possessions at the home of Ballew and Rasmussen, they spotted a picture on a bookshelf. It was a studio portrait of Smith’s grandchildren, daughter and late son — the family dearest to his heart. At his North Las Vegas home, Smith kept the photograph in an elaborate oak frame. In Ballew’s home, the frame had been replaced with a cheap plastic border emblazoned with the word “Friends.”
“It perverts his entire family history, his memories,” Raman said. “You can’t put a value on memories, but they attempted to steal that as well. They tried to make him forget about his family and believe they’re his real family. This is a terrible and outrageous course of conduct to do to an elderly man who’s sick with Alzheimer’s and dementia.”
Smith’s stepdaughter, Sue Sweikert, asked the judge for the maximum sentence.
“They were so arrogant they felt they were entitled to what they stole,” Sweikert said. “They acted maliciously and callously to exploit my parents. Nothing but greed and manipulation. They’re narcissistic predators who were only concerned with what they wanted — my parents’ wealth.”
She looked toward the defense table and Rasmussen turned her eyes on Sweikert.
“It’s my sincere hope that the Ballews think of my parents each and every day for the rest of their miserable lives,” Sweikert said. “I hope they understand the devastation they brought.”
Raman said relatives, friends and advocates for the protection of senior citizens sent Miley about 100 letters on behalf of the victims. Others also sent the judge letters on behalf of Ballew and Rasmussen, according to Cremen.
Both Ballew and Rasmussen spoke briefly before Miley handed down the sentence.
Ballew said he “thought the world of Elliott,” while Rasmussen told the judge, “we didn’t know it was a criminal act accepting his generosity.”
The judge scheduled a hearing on how much restitution Ballew and Rasmussen would have to pay for next month.
After an hour-long hearing, Ballew and Rasmussen were led off in handcuffs in a courtroom packed with friends and family of the defendants and victim.
“That was my mother’s wish,” Sweikert said.
Contact reporter David Ferrara at email@example.com or 702-380-1039. Find him on Twitter: @randompoker