ROCKFORD – Although Tom Hillenburg’s family was hoping his perpetrator would receive a harsher sentence, they are grateful the case is closed.
Hillenburg was financially exploited by his former girlfriend, 50-year-old Anita White, who pleaded guilty to the offense Thursday.
Doug Hillenburg wasn’t alarmed in 2014 when his 74-year-old father began seeing White, a woman 30 years his junior. Tom, a widower with health problems, appeared happy and his new friend visibly smitten. White helped him manage his diabetes, high blood pressure and cirrhosis.
White eventually managed Tom’s money, too, and by all accounts, did so proficiently. That started to change in 2015 though, when Doug noticed his financially independent father was starting to take on debt.
It wasn’t much debt at first. Just a few transactions on his only credit card. Then he burned through $30,000 in emergency cash. That raised some caution, yet Doug and then-fiancée, Tracy, weren’t too concerned. They were glad to see there was more to Tom’s life than his regular seat at the local coffee shop. And Tom wasn’t shy about spending money on his new girlfriend. He was an adult and it was his cash to spend.
But then came an oddity. It was Tom’s monthly pension. The $4,000 deposit was being eaten up by automatic bank drafts and random ATM transactions. That’s when Doug and Tracy stepped in and offered to help. It was just some budgeting advice at first and Tom was receptive. But the lavish spending—clothes, jewelry and makeup—didn’t stop. So the couple still deemed it imperative to know if Tom was allowing White to spend his money with impunity or if there was something else afoot.
The couple eventually got their answer when Tracy, now Doug’s wife, took over Tom’s finances and discovered credit cards he didn’t know he had, thousands in unpaid utility bills, and a home loan application allegedly started by White and the Hillenburgs were able to block. There were new vehicles, title loans, more missing cash, and a confused, sick old man– often left alone without his medication.
A tipping point came when Anita and Tom–who had been diagnosed with dementia four days earlier–skipped a follow-up appointment about that diagnosis, drove to the Winnebago County Courthouse and got married. A judge later ruled the union invalid because of Tom’s deteriorating state of mind.
When Doug and Tracy finally straightened things out, paying what outstanding bills they could, they were met with a sobering reality: Tom’s end-of-life to move into a care facility was in serious jeopardy. There was virtually nothing left but debt. A financially independent pensioner just three years prior was now at the mercy of the Medicare system.
In 2017, Doug and Tracy called police and White was arrested, charged with financial exploitation of an elderly person and theft–both felonies.
As part of a negotiated plea, the theft charge was dismissed and White pleaded guilty to a single count of financial exploitation. She was sentenced to 36 months probation and 180 days in jail, 176 of which were stayed.
“Although this is not the outcome we had hoped for, we are thankful that justice was served in some capacity,” Tracy said. “Our family hopes that this judgement against Ms. White will deter her from ever thinking of taking advantage of anyone ever again.”
White was also ordered to complete 60 hours of community service, complete drug, alcohol and mental health treatment and pay $13,000 in restitution. The Hillenburgs plan to donate the the proceeds to an area nursing home.
“The money will go to Generations at Neighbors in Byron, Illinois,” Tracy said. “This is where Tom spent his last days. Our family wanted justice, not money, so we want the money to help others.”
White must pay restitution by Dec. 31, 2022. Tom Hillenburg died in 2018.
“The past 2 1/2 years have certainly been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us,” Tracy said. “We thank all the social media outlets, newspapers, and news stations for bringing our case to light. Financial exploitation of the elderly is not only a local problem, but a global one. Bringing this issue to the forefront, and others taking a stand against this crime is truly a blessing.”