Fourough Bakhtiar is wearing a magenta cardigan and a beige springtime hat in the Lorain County Justice Center in early April. Looking across the courtroom from behind big, thick-framed glasses, the 81-year-old wife, mother and grandmother is the center of her family's universe, though none of them, except her son-in-law Phillip Presutto, are here this morning. There's a good reason for that.
She is, however, joined by her attorney, Stephen Wolf, and her current legal guardian, Zachary Simonoff, who was appointed to manage Bakhtiar's affairs last year after much legal wrangling.
"I've probably had no other case that has been as contentious as this one and that has spurred as much litigation as this one," says Probate Court Judge James Walther.
He is not being hyperbolic. The fate of Bakhtiar's guardianship and sizable estate has been the gravitational center of a lengthy legal battle that's torn her family apart.
Since April 2013, for example, she has not lived with her husband, Mehdi Saghafi, in their Seven Hills home, and no one can agree whether that's a good thing for her or not. Saddled with signs of dementia, according to three physicians, and "vulnerable to exploitation," according to court records, even Fourough herself doesn't seem to be sure.
Five months ago, Judge Walther issued final orders to settle the legal war, the gist of which was this: Fourough, deemed incompetent by the court, was in need of a guardian. Her daughter, Jaleh Presutto, long estranged from the family, had brought her mother to live with her and her husband, Phillip Presutto, in Amherst and fought for the guardianship and initiated a divorce against Fourough's husband. The other family members, Fourough's husband and sons, fought back and claimed that Fourough was being corrupted, cajoled in her weak state to make decisions she wouldn't otherwise make, intentionally separated from her family.
But there's hardly an end in sight, and so up for debate this morning, as always in this probate case, is Fourough's money: Jaleh is seeking $20,000 from her mother's bank accounts to help her legal defense for allegedly abducting her mother. She was once Fourough's legal guardian; she's recently been indicted on five felony counts in Cuyahoga County for the elderly woman's kidnapping and abduction.
"She wanted to provide any assistance she could to her daughter in this matter," Fourough's guardian Zachary Simonoff tells the judge. "I think it would benefit the ward. She wants to reunite with her daughter." A no-contact order, since revoked, was in place, barring the two from seeing each other.
"Gifts," the legal term for free expenditures of cash from a ward's financial accounts, are usually reserved for Christmas or birthdays, Judge Walther says. "No one's ever asked me to pay for a legal defense. I'm not sure if I have to look behind the legal reasoning."
He shifts his attention to Fourough and asks her if she understands what is being asked, whether she grasps the enormity of this request. He's smiling as he speaks with her, rekindling fatherly tones with which he tends to conduct his courtroom.
"Yes, I want her to choose what she wants," Fourough says, referring to Jaleh. "She's been kind of isolated, and I want her to feel more family. I want her to do something for herself and her husband."
Walther pushes a bit. That's not what the money is for. Does she really understand the ramifications of the legal proceedings swirling around her? Does she understand that her daughter is facing criminal charges in Cuyahoga County? Fourough appears confused.
"I don't understand."
Walther refers again to the criminal case. Fourough speaks quietly.
"Could my son-in-law answer that? I don't really know."
Simonoff leans toward her and says that the judge needs to hear it from her.
"Yes, I'm sorry."
Walther tells her how she seemed more at ease behind closed doors in earlier conversations. She's clearly unsettled now, he points out. He tells her that he has "strong feelings" about the request before him and that he's going to have to "take a really hard look at this."
Fourough responds: "I would like that to be given to her," referring to the money.
Always the money.
Fourough Bakhtiar met Mehdi Saghafi while working as a nurse in Iran. The couple would marry soon after and immigrate to the U.S., settling in the suburbs of Cleveland in the late 1960s. Mehdi opened a private medical practice, upon which the family estate was built slowly and grandly. Their children — Dariush, Kourosh, Jamsheed, Khashayar and Jaleh — grew up in a lively family. Parties were a regular occurrance. Still are.
By the 2010s, their children themselves practicing nurses and doctors, Fourough and Mehdi had grown old and in need of assistance — physical and otherwise. Fourough's mental health in particular was slipping, and so the children did what children do when it comes to matters of aging parents.
In January 2013, the five siblings gathered in the basement of Jamsheed's home in Parma and agreed that something had to be done. Jaleh had called the meeting, which was strange to her brothers, since they had not seen her much over the past five years. But family pain tends to bridge even the angriest gaps.
Cuyahoga County court records show that Fourough Bakhtiar sided with Jaleh's ex-husbands in contentious divorce cases spanning the late 1990s and 2000s, paying court fees for motions filed to reallocate parental rights and responsibilities and shift them away from Jaleh. The rift that grew amid the two women in those years was immense, family members tell Scene. A letter written by Jaleh in September 2008 bears that out:
"Hello. I want to explain to you the way I feel and how horribly angry I am that my own mother would even think to do anything against me and set out to destroy my relationship with my children. I believe that she has mental issues and for that want nothing to do with her at this point in time."
In one August 2008 motion, one of Jaleh's ex-husbands writes that she "has become increasingly violent, often striking the children and/or threatening them with the same." At the time, one of her children was living with Fourough, and Fourough lent assistance to the ex-husband's cause.
Jaleh's letter continued: "So, this huge war against me by my own mother has left nothing but CONTEMPT for her!! I will never get over this."
Family members say that Jaleh became estranged from her mother and most of the rest of the family after that, which made the January 2013 meeting all the more surprising. But, again, her brothers recall thinking, when it comes to aging parents, old squabbles tend to fall away.
The siblings decided then that each would lend a portion of his or her week to care for their mother. Additional financial responsibilities were delegated by Dariush, who held Fourough's power of attorney. Jamsheed took care of weekly grocery duty. Everything seemed in order, the duties of shepherding Fourough's daily life fairly divided.
But in the weeks that followed the meeting, Jaleh drifted out of the agreed workload and returned to her world in Amherst. No one, according to family members, thought much of it at the time. People were busy. She hadn't been around much lately, anyway.
Meanwhile that spring, Fourough's health problems continued, and a couple of incidents further proved the need for care, lest the elderly woman cause herself harm. Seven Hills police reports show that officers responded frequently to concerns at Fourough's home.
On March 12: "Caller says there is a mute woman at her door. She does not know what she needs or how to help her. "
And on April 5: "Caller seemed very confused. Talked about a baby just being born in a car."
On April 7, Fourough left her home in Seven Hills and wandered down the street in the early morning. She was found by her husband in a neighbor's flower bed, clad in a nightgown and pounding on the windows to someone's house. After hearing of the incident, Jaleh returned to Seven Hills to pick up her mother and take her to her home back in Lorain County for a few days. In the meantime, Dariush and his dad secured the Seven Hills home with deadbolt locks, following suggestions they had picked up from information on caring for those with Alzheimer's.
Fourough returned home to Seven Hills on April 9, but the next night, she wandered out into the backyard; the sliding glass door didn't have a deadbolt. Dariush brought her to his Pepper Pike home until April 12 while the family made more logistical fixes at home and again huddled to further decide on Fourough's care.
Jaleh, who had been largely absent with the exception of caring for her mother for a few days, seemed intent on becoming part of the family's care again, as text messages between her and her brother Dariush show.
Jaleh, April 10: "I'm going to her house and Phillip is looking forward to it. I'll be there around 1230 p and stay for the day!"