By Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE — A state appeals court has rejected a retired Lawrence police officer’s claim on the estate of an elderly woman he befriended and allegedly stole from.
William Hale, 77, a 33-year veteran of the Lawrence Police Department, said he was the rightful beneficiary of the will of Elizabeth Lacey, who died at age 89 on May 1, 2007.
Lacey, who had no living blood relatives at the time of her death, was known to her close friends as “Aunt Betty.” When she died, Lacey’s friends were shocked to learn of a will left everything to Hale and they challenged its validity.
In July 2011, Probate Court Judge Mary Ann Sahagian threw out the Hale will and recognized an earlier will leaving Lacey’s estate to James Wareing; Wareing’s mother, Joan McGuire; and his twin sisters, Denise Clegg and Diane Forester. Wareing, his mother and sisters had been Lacey’s friends for decades.
In a decision issued last Thursday, the state appeals board upheld Sahagian’s 2011 decision on the will.
The decision also states there is sufficient evidence that Hale used “undue influence” with the frail, elderly woman and “appears to have engaged in a broader scheme to misappropriate Lacey’s assets.”
Hale is accused of cashing $66,000 in checks in Lacey’s name both before and after her death. In a separate legal action filed by state police in Lawrence District Court, Hale is facing larceny, forgery and uttering charges for the alleged acts. During the probate trial, Hale repeatedly invoked his 5th Amendment privilege against self incrimination when questioned about Lacey’s checks.
The appeals court decision referenced the checks, noting that from Feb. 5, 2005, to Sept. 5, 2007, Hale endorsed and cashed about 20 of Lacey’s pension checks. From April 30, 2007, through Nov. 20, 2007, Hale forged Lacey’s signature on 19 checks issued from her Sovereign Bank account, according to the decision.
Lacey’s first will, leaving everything to the Wareing and McGuire families, was prepared by Lawrence attorney Robert Kelley on Sept. 26, 2000, according to court documents.
In November 2000, Lacey called Hale for help repairing a boiler in her Andover Street home. After that, Hale started bringing her lunch on a daily basis and taking her out to lunch weekly, according to court documents.
On May 8, 2001, Lacey’s second will was executed by Kelley.
Kelley, the former Essex County Register of Deeds, is also Hale’s attorney and “a long time friend and drinking companion.” The second will left everything to Hale and in the event of his death, Hale’s son, according to court papers.
In a statement issued by their attorney, the McQuire and Wareing families applauded the appeals court decision.
“The three judge panel strongly reaffirmed the Probate Court’s finding of wrongdoing and harshly criticized the conduct giving rise to the unlawful will. While the family’s quest for justice for Aunt Betty is not yet complete, the appeals court decision is a significant leap forward,” said attorney Bryan Kerman of Methuen.
Family members previously said Lacey would never have left her estate to Hale, a man she disliked because he badgered her for money. Hale is the son of a man Lacey dated in the 1950s.
In 2012, in a civil action against the retired police officer, Superior Court Judge Timothy Feeley placed a $70,000 attachment on Hale’s 7 Meadow St. home in Lawrence.
Lacey owned a home at 418 Andover St. valued at $175,000 at the time of her death. She also had $170,000 in savings and checking accounts.
After his arraignment this spring on the larceny and forgery charges, Hale was released on personal recognizance. He was ordered to stay away from the victims in the case.
His criminal arraignment on the charges was delayed several times due to Hale’s claims of ongoing illness and hospitalizations.
Uttering and forgery convictions carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail. The larceny charge carries a 5-year maximum jail sentence.
Hale could not be reached for comment for this story.
Hale’s relationship with Lacey and the dispute over her wills was first exposed in a July 24, 2011, Sunday Eagle-Tribune story.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.