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!"
Dariush, April 10: "Well, she'll be staying here through tomorrow. She cant go out with the cough she's got. You are welcome to bring Phillip with you to our house and visit with mom here. You'll be much more comfortable given the disarray the house is in."
Jaleh, April 11: "Not coming out today, some changes unexpectedly for Phillip... With his therapists/therapies, need to rescheduled appts.. Will see mom this weekend!"
And she did. But not in any way the family had agreed upon.
On April 13, 2013, a Saturday, Jaleh called her mother's Seven Hills home. Jaleh's son, James Rhoads, picked up the phone. He had been living with his grandparents while he attended classes at Tri-C. Jaleh asked to speak with her mother, and soon drove over to the house.
"I was not alarmed or worried that anything unusual was going on," Rhoads said in an affidavit one year later. "My mom had told me that she's taking my grandma out for a couple of hours and was bringing her back at some point later that day. In other words, it was supposed to be a temporary visit between my grandma and my mom."
That was not the case.
Reaction among Jaleh's brothers was mixed. Dariush simply wanted information: "Trying to figure out where mom is at. I thought she'd be home by today," he texted Jaleh on April 15. It had been two days. Over the next few weeks, his messages became more pointed, evolving from general worry to specific worries about proper prescription drug protocol, urging Jaleh to get Fourough to her various medical appointments, and alerting his sister that bill payments would be automatically deducted from Fourough's accounts and to make sure that they money was there.
Kourosh was angry from the beginning. Something had seemed off in the first place, back at that meeting in Jamsheed's basement. For Jaleh to have suddenly expressed an interest in her mother's health after everything that had happened? He grew suspicious as the days passed with no word from their mother, and he stoked his brothers' curiosity.
"I mean, Dariush is the power of attorney," Jamsheed recalls saying. Still, a history of money troubles was hard to ignore and suspicions that Jaleh had alternative motives were hard to put to rest. The brothers began conferring over years of money trouble from Jaleh; they say she had routinely hit them up for cash as they grew into adulthood.
Just one year prior, according to family members, Jaleh called Kouroush and said that her $200,000 home in Amherst was going into foreclosure. The Presuttos were trying to refinance a loan, according to Lorain County court documents. Jaleh and her husband briefly considered moving into another Seven Hills house owned by her dad, Mehdi Saghafi, one in which Jaleh had lived in the 1990s when she had run into a similar breed of financial trouble.
Phillip Presutto offered an estimate for work on the basement: something around $25,000 for a full-on overhaul. Mehdi balked. Phillip offered the buy the home. Mehdi said he was not selling.
The Presuttos did not move to Seven Hills; they continued the legal back-and-forth with Lorain County, eventually securing the loan they needed, but Jaleh's brothers suspected the money troubles were never that far from their sister. And as they began turning past events around in conversation, they learned that Jaleh had not only taken her mother but had taken her to meet with an attorney.
John Urban had previously arranged Fourough's estate documents and power of attorney, naming Dariush as her agent. During this meeting, however, according to Urban, Fourough stated that she wanted her husband to be the agent of her living will and to hold healthcare power of attorney; but nothing was formalized during that meeting and no paperwork was filled out.
"They started to talk about changes they wanted to make to the power of attorney, which changes caused me some concern," he later said in a signed affidavit. "Because I was concerned, under the circumstances, I asked Jaleh to get a medical evaluation to demonstrate that Fourough was capable of understanding the documents and giving direction as to what she wanted."
Jaleh never got back to him on that — medical evaluations later confirmed that Fourough was not capable of understanding nor giving direction in such matters — instead seeking out another attorney who might look past any such concerns.
She found that in Mark Shearer, an estate planning attorney who changed the POA orders to name Jaleh Presutto as the agent the very day he met her. It wasn't until more than a week later that he asked Fourough a series of questions on tape — i.e. Who is the president? What month is it? — to confirm her mental clarity. According to Shearer, Fourough appeared "of sound mind and under no duress." Lisa Hahn, a divorce attorney who had represented Jaleh in past civil cases, notarized the order on April 23 and later paid the $300 flat fee for the estate planning codicil and trust amendment.
Jaleh now had control over Fourough's decisions and continued to avoid Dariush's text inquiries. The next move: a divorce against Mehdi Saghafi that, once approved, would open the floodgates to a massive estate. Estimates among attorneys involved in the case range from a few million to $10 million. Proceedings began on May 6, initiated by Lisa Hahn on behalf of Fourough, alleging "gross neglect of duty" and "extreme cruelty" against her husband.
In the meantime, as family members would eventually learn and according to court records, Jaleh was changing how Fourough acted. The efficiency of her behavioral coaching was startling, Jamsheed says.
"During those visits, at least one time each visit, I could hear my mother, Jaleh Presutto, coaching my grandmother," James Rhoads, Jaleh's son from a previous marriage, said. "What I mean by coaching is saying the same thing to her over and over again and making her repeat back. The following is what I heard: 1) 'They do not want to take care of you.' 2) 'They do not care about you.' 3) 'They do not love you.' 4) 'The reason they are fighting back is to protect the wealth of the family.' Also... 5) 'They would put you in a Nursing Home if they could and leave you there to die. The only reason they don't go to that extent is because they don't want to spend the money to take care of you.'"
Jaleh brought Fourough to two doctors for medical assessments in May. Dr. Babak Tousi reported severe dementia, and referred Jaleh to Dr. Jody Pickle, who wrote: "At this time there are allegations on each side that the other side is seeking to control a large amount of money (reportedly millions) that has been amassed by Mrs. Bakhtiar and her husband. While Mrs. Bakhtiar was able to answer some questions regarding safety issues adequately, her memory and executive functions are impaired enough that she is likely to be vulnerable to exploitation."
Despite repeated claims from doctors and close family members that Fourough was in no way capable of comprehending the serious legal decisions at hand, the Lorain County Probate Court and the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court did not budge. The guardianship and divorce cases plowed ahead, full-steam.
The cascade crashed quickly onto the Saghafi family. Much of this would be pieced together in legal discovery over the next two years, but the POA changes and the divorce proceedings were clear as day. Dariush and Mehdi did the only thing they could think of to quash the family drama, filing applications to serve as Fourough's legal guardian in Lorain County Probate Court.
By the summer of 2013, a couple months after Jaleh brought Fourough to Amherst, the Lorain County Probate Court had appointed a guardian ad litem, a professional guardian in a case who serves only by court order and only for the duration of a legal action.
Diane Jancura, a local estate planning attorney, examined the state of affairs in the case of Fourough and Jaleh and the brothers and the husband. Her report, submitted to the court in June 2013, details a woman in need of personal and financial help — the sort of help that no one around her has seemed willing to provide.
Citing the persistent family discord, Jancura objected to either Fourough's husband Mehdi, her son Dariush or her daughter Jaleh serving as guardian. She further recommended that Fourough be moved into an assisted living facility somewhere between Amherst and Seven Hills, somewhere accessible to all family members, but, to be blunt here, the hell away from all of them.
The court did not listen.
The family home on Gale Drive in Seven Hills is a surprisingly modest ranch, but the money referenced in countless court documents is very real — and very quickly disappearing.
In 2013, not long after the POA changes and around the same time that Dariush and Mehdi got involved, Fourough's Century Federal Credit Union account was being drained at an alarming rate. Her court-approved expenditures totaled $1,395 each month, mirroring the earlier budget arranged by Dariush. But somehow the account was hemorrhaging cash ($4,001 spent in June, $5,144 in July, $14,000 in October, for example), eclipsing the approved amount between May and December of that year by nearly $30,000.
It would take a long time to learn all of that, though. Bank accounts associated with Fourough were kept under strict guard, accessible only to Jaleh by way of the power of attorney order.
Before any such discovery, Jaleh and Phillip Presutto's attorney was already angling to keep that information secret, writing that, "This Court should not be required to sit idly during hearing while [her brother] Kouroush Saghafi satisfies his personal curiosity by rummaging through Phillip and Jaleh's personal documents, none of which are germane to any issue before this Court."
It wasn't germane to the court, but it was sure as hell germane to the rest of the family. Their suspicions were coming true.
On Nov. 21, 2013, Fourough and Jaleh opened a joint bank account at Fifth Third Bank.
On Nov. 25, attorney Steven Sartschev, Fourough's longtime accountant, was appointed the guardian of estate by Judge James Walther.
On Nov. 26, a U.S. Treasury check for $6,555 addressed to Fourough Bakhtiar was deposited into the account (and $100 was taken out as cash).
On Nov. 27, $1,000 was withdrawn by Jaleh.
According to a notice of discovery filed in 2014, the joint account debit card was swiped at Trendy Wendy (a restaurant), Dunham's (a sporting goods store), Walmart, Finish Line, Toys R Us and Giant Eagle. The account was closed in March 2014.
Throughout, Sartschev, who was unavailable to speak with Scene for this story, ignored subpoenas for Fourough's communications and financial statements and the rest of the family remained in the dark.
Against all of those financial dealings, there was this unavoidable detail: Phillip Presutto pleaded guilty to theft and two counts of felonious insurance fraud in August 2014. He maintains a balance of more than $11,000 in unpaid costs with the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas.
A year into everything, an impromptu March 2014 meeting between the family members and Fourough at the Lorain County Justice Center became a point of crystallization in the case, around which tempers flared more brightly in contrast. As the financial morass deepened, the family was elated simply to have a chance to see Fourough again. It was an unexpected bit of normalcy.
Fourough's grandchildren gathered around as the judge brought Fourough into the courtroom during an otherwise contentious hearing. Her sons —Dariush, Kourosh and Jamsheed —joined. The children laughed. They cried, hugged, reminisced. It had been nearly a year since Fourough's disappearance. She seemed happy, family members say. The judge even ordered pizza for everybody.
"There was an explosion of emotions," Jamsheed tells Scene. "I had not seen my mom by herself without being surrounded by the Presuttos and the attorneys — and everybody not letting us get close to her — in close to a year. It was a wonderful meeting for everybody."
Walther promised that additional visitation dates would be submitted by Fourough's attorneys in three days. Then five months passed by.
On Labor Day weekend in 2014, Walther permitted a visitation between Fourough and her grandchildren. Per demands set forth by guardian Zachary Simonoff, no adults or other attorneys were allowed. After much debate involving the concerns over leaving very young children alone in a restaurant with an elderly woman and an estate lawyer, the mother of two of the younger children was allowed to come.
The meeting was arranged at Aladdin's in Oberlin. It lasted for one hour, and, according to correspondence shared with Scene, the mood was tense.
Fourough's attorney, Stephen Wolf, entered the restaurant and sat at a table on the other side of the room, seemingly breaking the agreement that no other attorneys be present. Family members were caught off guard. Fourough refused to speak with the grandchildren. It was all very strange, very different from the family get-together over pizza.
"I had a short conversation with the older grandchildren," Simonoff wrote in the following days. "They were deeply hurt that the Ward would not speak to them. I told them that she expressed that she was angry that they had provided affidavits in the case against her wishes and that she could not trust them...I suggested that they concentrate on being grandchildren and let the parents fight this matter out.
"In order to carry out the court order, I have set up another visit for September 19, 2014 at 5 p.m.," Simonoff continued. "I believe that it will be a waste of time."
He never got to find out, though, as Judge James Walther barred visitation from then on.
March 2015. Jaleh Presutto is now sitting in a courtroom at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, the same building where she was indicted on criminal charges in January: kidnapping (a first-degree felony), abduction (a third-degree felony), two counts of theft (third- and fourth-degree felonies) and telecommunications fraud (a third-degree felony). Fourough Bakhtiar is named as the victim in the kidnapping, abduction and theft counts.
A trial date is set for June 22.
Jaleh, unreachable for comment for this story, provided a statement through her attorney:
"Jaleh S. Presutto is falsely accused of kidnapping, abduction and theft related charges in Cuyahoga County. Jaleh looks forward to demonstrating her complete innocence of all charges to a Cuyahoga County jury later this year. As you are aware, the charges against Ms. Presutto came about only after her father and brothers began repeatedly losing their respective legal positions, arguments, and cases in both Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court, Cuyahoga County Probate Court, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court and Lorain County Probate Court.
"When they were unable to convince the Lorain County Prosecutor's Office that a crime was committed, they turned their collective attention and malicious intentions to pursuing venue and frivolous criminal charges in Cuyahoga County."
Jaleh needs money, though, as the simple matter of legal fees continues to mount. The estate of Fourough Bakhtiar is seen as a well for her defense. Fourough's attorneys insist that this money meant for the defense of Jaleh Presutto will "protect this Court's guardianship [of Fourough]." Jaleh's defense is integral to the well-being of her mother, court motions claim.
Shortly after the indictment, Jaleh was removed as her mother's guardian and ordered not to have contact with her. Attorney Zachary Simonoff was installed as the guardian. As Jaleh's criminal case has progressed, requests for legal defense funds were made.
During the March hearing, Judge Michael Jackson permitted Jaleh to return to life at her home with her husband and her mother. A Channel 19 cameraman followed her and an attorney out of the courtroom, a sign of what life is like now. The case, granted a few minutes on Channel 5 back in March, is slipping out of the two counties' courthouses and into the public light.
Members of the Saghafi family lingered outside that day, meeting quietly with their own attorneys and quelling the concerns of Fourough's grandchildren. It's a difficult matter to comprehend, Jamsheed Saghafi says. He had been close with his sister growing up.
"For me, this is real tragic," Jamsheed says. "No matter what happens, I've lost my sister, I've lost my mom. It's real tragic to me that she sat down and chose this path."
At the heart of the matter remains the question, answered and yet unanswered, of whether Fourough can make decisions for herself. Judge James Walther believes she can. He upheld Fourough's divorce order against her husband just a few weeks after she disappeared from her Seven Hills home. Fourough's attorneys call it a "rescue." The Saghafi family calls it an "abduction."
"Although the Court has declared her to be incompetent as a matter of law, the Court finds her to be very bright, articulate and determined," Judge James Walther wrote in a Feb. 9, 2015, order to proceed with the divorce.
The next hearing in the divorce case is scheduled for June 15 in Judge Leslie Celebrezze's courtroom.
That's three court proceedings going on at one time over this 81-year-old woman's future, and the future of her bank accounts. Everyone claims to be speaking in the best interest of Fourough, but it can hardly be claimed that any of them are.
Buried deep in the boxes of legal documents might be the only person who is: In her report, Diane Jancura writes that Fourough "prefers to live alone, not with her husband, sons or daughter," hence her recommendation that Fourough move to an assisted living home.
"My interview of Mrs. Bakhtiar...show[s] that Mrs. Bakhtiar is incapable of managing her own personal and financial affairs. I also believe that she is quite susceptible to undue influence and duress from almost any member of her family and will change her mind frequently as a result.
"Allowing Mrs. Bakhtiar the freedom to live apart from her husband. sons, and daughter, will, hopefully, provide her entire family with concrete proof of her abilities, and more importantly, her inabilities."
It's been nearly two years since Jacura filed her report with the court, and no one has come up with a better idea since.