Train wreck funds taken, police say

AIKEN --- Police said Thursday that three Graniteville women have been arrested in a financial exploitation case involving a 78-year-old man who received a substantial settlement after the 2005 train crash in Graniteville.

According to an arrest warrant, Minnie Lee Jeff, 69, of Mount Arthur Drive, has been charged with two counts of exploitation of a vulnerable adult, accused of taking a large portion of the settlement. Ms. Jeff's sister Maudeine Mayer, 64, of Pine Street, and Ms. Mayer's daughter Angela Townsend, 37, of a different address on Mount Arthur Drive, also have been charged with obstruction of an investigation. They're accused of helping hide the elderly man from authorities when police tried to interview him.

According to police, the alleged victim -- Elijah Earl -- had inhalation injuries from spilled chlorine after the January 2005 train derailment, in which nine people died and hundreds were injured when a Norfolk Southern train crashed into a parked train in the middle of the night. Mr. Earl received a settlement from the railroad in 2007 for about $160,000, said Aiken County sheriff's Capt. Troy Elwell.

He said Ms. Jeff had power of attorney over Mr. Earl in January 2005 when the train crash occurred and thereafter. He said she is accused of spending more than $100,000 of the settlement before authorities learned of the case.

"From what I understand, she's a very cunning lady," he said.

Police began their investigation late last month after Ms. Jeff was arrested for contempt of court. Authorities said she failed to show how she was using Mr. Earl's settlement money.

Capt. Elwell said Mr. Earl had been living with Ms. Jeff recently but has since been removed by the Department of Social Services and placed in protective custody at an assisted living community called We Care.

It's not the first time DSS has picked up Mr. Earl, Capt. Elwell said. He said it's his understanding that in 2005 Mr. Earl voluntarily accompanied DSS to We Care after officials learned he was living in a shed with no power behind a rental home owned by Ms. Jeff.

Capt. Elwell said Mr. Earl lived there from January to October 2005. In August 2008, Capt. Elwell said, he went back to live with Ms. Jeff.

Capt. Elwell said that he wasn't aware of other actions DSS might have taken. A message left with Aiken County's DSS office on Thursday was not immediately returned.

Reach Preston Sparks at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.