Death and the Maid

He was rich, brilliant, and as solitary as a hermit. Then Walter Sartory opened his door to a cleaning lady and her son. First he lost his moorings. Then he lost his life.

This sordid, grisly tale of death and depravity begins, paradoxically enough, with a seemingly innocent act of human kindness. Last February, a day or two after a winter storm descended on the Ohio River Valley, unleashing a crippling amount of snow and ice, a 47-year-old housecleaner named Willa Blanc and her son, Louis Wilkinson, ventured out to shovel the driveway and sidewalk of a house in the kid-friendly, cookie-cutter subdivision of Liberty Crossing in Hebron, Kentucky. The tiny beige one-story house with dark green shutters belonged to a 73-year-old retiree named Walter Sartory—a man Blanc had met just once, shortly after he had relocated from Tennessee the previous March. The fact that Blanc didn’t really know Sartory wasn’t unusual. Hardly anyone did. Neighbors claim that the old man wouldn’t even bother to wave back when they saw him, always coming and going in his silver Toyota Prius.
It may have been the Prius that first caught Willa Blanc’s eye. She had a keen interest in cars; her main mode of transportation between cleaning jobs was a late-model cherry red ZR1 Corvette. One of her weekly housecleaning clients, a robust, gray-haired salesman of high voltage equipment named Dan Stadtmiller, remembers the afternoon when Blanc returned from her first visit with the mysterious old recluse three doors down the street. She related how she told Sartory that her sister was thinking about buying a Prius and she asked him for a ride. Stadtmiller recalls that Blanc was with Sartory for two hours. When she returned, she told him that computers were scattered throughout Sartory’s house. “That guy is strange,” he remembers her saying. “He’s in a cult or something.”

Still, there she and Louis were at the strange man’s house nearly a year later, clearing the heavy snow and ice from his driveway. Whether they knew it or not, he was out of town at the time, visiting a friend in New York. Sartory, who retired in 1992 from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, after 30 years as a well-respected nuclear physicist and mathematician, spent much of his time traveling to scientific conventions held by organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and, more often, the Center for Inquiry, a secular think tank that critically examines issues of religion, ethics, science, pseudoscience, and the paranormal. When Sartory returned to Hebron, where friends say he had moved for its proximity to a major airport, he probably wondered why his driveway was one of the only ones in the neighborhood that had been shoveled clean.

He didn’t have to wonder for long. A couple of days later, Blanc herself dropped in on Sartory to tell him that she and her son had done the neighborly deed. According to Blanc’s initial statements to detectives before she was arrested, Sartory let her inside his home and offered to pay her for her work. Sartory would later complain in an e-mail turned over to the police that Blanc refused to take the money and would not leave. It could not have been a comfortable situation. Sartory was a diagnosed schizophrenic, and while his prescribed daily regimen of antipsychotic medication lessened the frequency and severity of any acute psychotic episodes he might have experienced, it had little effect on the extreme social phobia that often accompanies the affliction. Which is one reason most of Sartory’s contact with other people took place online.

The encounter with Blanc was jarring enough that on the night of February 5, Sartory sent an e-mail to a friend that laid bare his suspicions: “I do not trust her. I might be merely paranoid, but I suspect she might be running some sort of a confidence racket. Or she might be casing my house to see if it is worth robbing. Or, both of the above. But she has not actually done anything illegal that I know of. This evening I even had a locksmith change all the locks on the outside of this house, on the possibility that she picked up a key from the mess on my computer table and made a wax image of it, to copy it.”

One week later, Sartory traveled to Chicago to attend a five-day AAAS conference. If evidence gathered by more than two dozen detectives from the Boone County Sheriff’s Department is to be believed, within two days of his return, Sartory found himself being led down a flight of stairs into Willa Blanc’s basement, the last place he would ever visit alive.

Ann Cartee and her husband Robert were two of the only close personal friends that Sartory had in his later years; he’d stayed at their house in Sterling, Virginia, on numerous holidays and other occasions. It is believed that Sartory’s last close relative died a number of years back. “He had no family,” Ann Cartee told me. “Walter didn’t have contact with his sister. The last time they saw each other was when their parents died, and that may have been 20 or 30 years ago.” Ann, who first met Sartory on an online mental heath forum in the early ’90s, says that Walter and his sister were bitter about each other and never spoke. “She was a very sarcastic person and he wanted nothing to do with her,” she says. The only thing Cartee recalls Sartory mentioning about his childhood was that he was in the Boy Scouts and liked playing with rockets. According to her, Sartory’s father was a house painter and he never talked about his mother.

“He was one of those people who didn’t want a lot of interaction. He was, I hate to say, the perfect victim.”

Walter Sartory was born on May 17, 1935, in Pittsburgh, but aside from that detail, very few, if any, records of his life exist until his college years at Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned a PhD in chemical engineering before beginning his 30-year tenure at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in 1962. Adding to the mystery that surrounds the man is the fact that much of the work he performed at ORNL was—and still is—classified by the United States government. While most of ORNL is now dedicated to the study of neutron physics, materials biology, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, that was not the case at the height of the Cold War. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed ORNL and the entire town of Oak Ridge from scratch in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. The 37,000-acre complex is made up of multiple sites, all of which were part of the production of the U.S. nuclear arsenal; in fact, ORNL’s gaseous diffusion plant helped produce the enriched uranium-235 that was used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Sartory’s colleagues verified that he spent at least part of his later career at a site code named K-25 as part of a centrifuge physics group, working on biological centrifuges and centrifuge development.

John Keyes, a longtime colleague of Sartory’s at ORNL, invited him to join his team in the late 1970s. Well into his 80s now, Keyes still can’t discuss the precise nature of their work together (“Walter helped me solve a problem in the area of high speed operation of centrifuges, which is definitely classified, heh heh heh…”), but said that Sartory produced some of the highest quality work within his field. “He was more than just a mathematician,” Keyes said. “I know people called him a brilliant mathematician, which he was, but he also had a very strong practical side. He understood the nature of a problem very, very quickly, and could put his mind to work on it in short order. He solved several problems that were a mystery to some of the [scientists at ORNL].”

I spoke with a number of Sartory’s colleagues from the span of his career, and while all of them credited his breakthroughs and abilities (“Walter was the person you’d go to with the really tough questions,” was a common theme), Sartory’s major unclassified contributions to ORNL were two patents on which he is jointly credited. Both deal with a continuous-flow blood centrifuge used to separate white and red blood cells from plasma. John Eveleigh, one of the coinventors, believes that the device is still in use today at plasma centers around the world.

This is worth pointing out because, while Sartory was a very focused financial investor—detectives in the case found his Fidelity and Vanguard investment documents filed neatly, with handwritten notes in the margins checking the math—the patents may have played a large role in the wealth that he accrued over the years. At the time of his death, Sartory was worth at least $6 million. Detectives say that figure might not even represent the sum total of his patents, his federal pension, his financial savvy, and his long career. And yet, here he was in Hebron, at 73, with no friends and no family.

Coy Cox, a friendly, barrel-chested 46-year-old with a military haircut and a crushing handshake, is the lead detective on the Sartory case. When I interviewed him in mid-June in a conference room at the modern and antiseptic Boone County Sheriff’s Department, we talked about the timeline of events in the case. But Cox also spoke at length about how, even though Sartory was intellectually gifted, he was extremely vulnerable financially.

“He was one of those people who didn’t want a lot of interaction,” Cox said. “He had everything in his house that he needed, and only went out for two things: He went out to eat, and he went out to seminars that he attended. And he didn’t do that very easily. He was on medication that helped him balance things out. He was paranoid. [And] he didn’t have a son or a daughter who was always checking on him.

“He was, I hate to say,” Cox added, “the perfect victim.”

It’s unclear to Boone County detectives exactly how Walter Sartory allegedly ended up duct taped to a chair in the basement of Willa Blanc’s large brick house at 10632 U.S. 42 in Union, Kentucky, last winter. Blanc and her son have pled not guilty to the long list of charges against them, including murder, and the only statements Blanc has made regarding this case, up to this point, have been in the initial conversations she had with Boone County detectives before her arrest in March. In addition, Blanc and her lawyers declined interview requests for this story.

But it’s plain that something happened. Detective Cox theorizes that shortly after Sartory returned from Chicago, Willa Blanc paid him a final visit, this time taking Sartory to the house on U.S. 42 that she shared with her son Louis Wilkinson and her husband Paul Blanc. While Cox would not reveal the means or method he suspects Blanc employed to kidnap Sartory, he doesn’t believe Blanc tried to trick the man. “From what we have at this point in time from the evidence,” he says, “I don’t think he willfully got into the car and went to her house for a purpose. I think he went there, right from the beginning, against his will.”

When he arrived at Blanc’s home, Sartory, who was an atheist, might have noticed the religious paraphernalia detectives say was scattered throughout the place. (A plaque to the right of the front door offers a passage from Joshua 24:15—“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”) But he wouldn’t have had much time to consider it because, according to detectives, he was led immediately into the basement, where Blanc’s son lived. At the bottom of the stairs was a finished room with a pool table and a TV. In another area off to the left was a card table with four chairs, a bar, and a bathroom.

According to the statement that Louis Wilkinson later gave detectives, when he got downstairs, he saw the old man sitting in a chair, bound by tape around the hands, feet, and mouth. Wilkinson stated that he walked over to Sartory and pulled a bit of the tape down from his mouth. He said that he asked the man if he was OK and that Sartory said he was. He also said that he asked him if he wanted to get out of there and Sartory said no. Wilkinson told the authorities that his mother then walked up the steps, shut the door, and locked him and Sartory in the basement together.

Police don’t know precisely what Willa Blanc was doing upstairs after initially leaving her son with Sartory in the basement. But her husband Paul Blanc told detectives that he saw his wife mixing some Country Time lemonade on the kitchen counter next to the sink, and that nearby there was a small plastic baggie holding a white powdery substance; he also told Cox that he later found a similar baggie beneath some paperwork on his wife’s desk. At the preliminary hearing, Cox testified that Sartory’s antipsychotic medication, a daily requirement for people afflicted with schizophrenia, was left at his house. When I mentioned this detail to Dr. Henry Nasrallah, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, he said that withholding such medication from a schizophrenic would be like “withholding insulin from a diabetic.”

“Diabetic patients would develop coma and die,” Nasrallah told me over the phone. “But schizophrenics, they don’t die physically. They suffer a severe psychotic relapse. And now we know that psychotic episodes are actually associated with tissue loss and brain atrophy. Every time they get psychotic they get more atrophy. It causes him to re-experience the horrendous torment and anguish of a psychotic episode. Schizophrenic patients suffer a lot without medication.”

Detectives say that at some point, Sartory asked Wilkinson about a ransom and about the “terrorists” he’d allegedly been told were responsible for his captivity. He asked Wilkinson when he’d be let go since he’d done everything the terrorists had told him to do. Wilkinson also told police that over the course of the three or four days that Sartory was kept in the basement, on three separate occasions he became unresponsive to the point where Wilkinson had to administer CPR. Aside from those episodes, Wilkinson told detectives that Sartory was conscious most of the time. However, he added that he believed there were drugs being mixed in the drinks his mother was giving Sartory, and said Sartory would become sick to his stomach and have extreme difficulty breathing, and that Wilkinson cleaned up the man’s fecal matter and vomit. When crime scene investigators later examined the basement, they found blood on a pillowcase that “appeared like aspiration, like a spray,” Detective Cox said during the preliminary hearing. Yet Wilkinson never called 911.

When I met Louis Wilkinson at the Boone County jail, he didn’t look anything like the pock-marked man with the shaved head in his mug shot. He was thinner, smaller. His hair had grown out and was brushed back, and he looked healthier, if a little wide-eyed, and younger than his 28 years. I asked him if it was true that he administered CPR to Sartory three times, and he said yes. When I asked him if he had any idea how Sartory got to the basement, he was emphatic. “No,” he said. “That’s why I look at the charges against me, and I’m like, ‘I didn’t go pick up that man. I didn’t take that man.’” He also said that he stayed down in the basement when his mother told him to because he felt “more than compelled.”

Jason Gilbert, Wilkinson’s defense lawyer and the directing attorney for the Boone County office of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, gave me limited access to his client and provided a thick stack of reports that he’d subpoenaed from the Hamilton County Job and Family Services (HCJFS). While they do not absolve Wilkinson of the crimes he is accused of, they will likely have an impact on his trial. The reports, which date back to November 1989, when Louis was 8 years old, detail a history of physical and psychological pain. The bulk of the 50-page document revolves around the following incident, dated August 23, 1994:

“[Louis] said his mother locked him in the closet at 9 a.m. and left for the day…. He said when his [mother] arrived home at 10 p.m. and found the door broken she chased him with a belt…. Louis told [redacted] that [his mother] has been putting him in the locked closet for punishment since March, but this is the first time he’d escaped. He said he was afraid when he saw that he’d broken the padlock and door. And he ran to a friend. Later he called from the friend’s house and [his mother] agreed not to whip him, but when he returned home around suppertime [his mother] served him a plate of food that had bugs crawling in the food. Louis said his mother deliberately put bugs in the food.”

The document later states that Willa Blanc denied ever putting bugs in her son’s food, but that she admitted that “placing Louis in the closet is her normal disciplining for Louis,” which she’d done “at least 10 times.” As a part of that particular investigation by HCJFS, Louis was evaluated at University Hospital and diagnosed with a “conduct disorder.” No charges were ever filed against Blanc or her former husband. Wilkinson was placed into foster care until a judicial entry from the Hamilton County Juvenile Court, dated October 30, 1995, terminated the orders of protective supervision and Blanc was again granted legal custody.

It’s been almost 15 years since Wilkinson and his mother were reunited after his stint in foster care, yet the dynamics of their relationship seem not to have changed. In the jail, Wilkinson confirmed for me what he’d already told detectives—that after his third and final administration of CPR, he believed that Sartory needed more medical attention than he could give. Based on what he went on to tell the police, that would appear to be a grave understatement. In the preliminary hearing, Detective Cox said that Wilkinson told him that he carried Sartory “like a baby” up the stairs and into the garage, where he attempted to place the man in the car so Wilkinson could get him medical attention. (Whether Sartory was alive at this point is unclear to authorities.) Cox then said that Blanc found Wilkinson in the garage “and she was on fire.” Wilkinson told detectives that they argued and that afterwards, he and his mother placed Sartory in a large trash can in the garage, where he remained for two days.

When I asked Wilkinson about the argument and about what his mother said when he attempted to place Sartory in the car, his only response was, “she advised against it.”

The reported argument between Wilkinson and his mother, however ineffectual and twisted it may have been, appears to be one of the few instances when Wilkinson tried to stand up to Willa Blanc. During our conversations, Wilkinson repeatedly spoke of the “logical” responses and arguments he would present against her methods of enforcing a “paranoid, West Indies, Willie Lynch type of slavery.” He also mentioned that, in prison, he feels “liberated that everything’s going to be out in the open,” and that he has a “strong feeling I’m going to be free and that I don’t have to worry about someone puppeteering me, and telling me I can’t have relationships, or I can’t go places, or I can’t learn how to drive until two years ago.”

But when I asked him about his mother’s own background, about how she ended up where she is, there was a distinct tone of sympathy in his voice.

Glenwila Crawford was born in Cincinnati on June 19, 1961. Her son says she grew up in a “very wealthy family” with two brothers and three sisters in a large house in Lincoln Heights. Wilkinson says that after one of her brothers drowned in the Little Miami River, and after her own mother died when Willa was 13, “she basically was left by herself. She had to go into survival mode.”

Wilkinson says his mother soon took a job at a restaurant on the river, and that by 15 she had her own apartment. “That was the way that she lived,” he said, “just by her own wits.” Wilkinson claims his birth wasn’t planned by his mother; that he “rained on her parade” when she had him at age 19. “But by that time,” he said, “she was already established as a housekeeper for the movers and shakers in the tri-state area. The wealthy, old money people.”

In the HCJFS report from 1995, a therapist assigned to work with Louis Wilkinson, who was then just 13, described him as a challenging child who was dealing with issues of anxiety, acting out, depression, his “tendency to over-intellectualize,” and feelings of abandonment from his father. When I spoke to him about his father, whom I was unable to contact for this story, Wilkinson only shared that he attended Roger Bacon and then UC, was “brilliant,” and that he could “memorize seven or eight decks of cards,” an ability Wilkinson says his father used to gamble. He seemed to excuse his father’s gambling, while vilifying his mother’s. “He gambled because he liked the challenge of it,” Wilkinson said. “My mother gambled to fill in for something she didn’t have.”

A Forest Park Police report shows that when he was 19, Wilkinson was arrested after he accessed the office computer of one of his mother’s housecleaning clients and obtained unauthorized credit card numbers to purchase software, pornography, and other items totaling $651.98. The last paragraph of the witness statement, written by Louis, seems to encapsulate his complex relationship with his mother: “I knew the repercussions of my actions would be severe. The reason I think I did it was my mind was unstable and the computer was my link to the outside world I knew little about. What I’ve done was a waste of time, money, and intelligence. I have dissolved all trust from my mother and she will always look at me different.”

According to Detective Cox’s testimony from the preliminary hearing, the last time that Willa Blanc called upon her son for help was two days after they placed Walter Sartory’s body in a trash can in their garage. According to detectives, during the early morning hours on Sunday, February 22, Blanc told her husband that she was going to drive to Indianapolis to see a gambling friend named Dwayne Lively. By this time, the trash can with Sartory’s body had been loaded in the back of Paul Blanc’s Chevy TrailBlazer. Otherwise, she was alone as she set out that cold, dark night. She made it as far as Ripley County, Indiana, where, just past the 150-mile marker on I-74, she crashed the TrailBlazer into another vehicle that had apparently stopped in the road. The SUV was totaled. Blanc called her husband and had him wake Louis, and told them to meet her at the accident site. Around the time of that call, Ripley County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Bradley and a tow-truck operator named Bob Buckley arrived at the scene. The trash can was still in the back of her car.

Buckley says that when he arrived, Blanc’s TrailBlazer was up the interstate approximately an eighth of a mile away from the vehicle that she had hit. Detective Cox says that Willa Blanc told both Deputy Bradley and Bob Buckley that she was taking firewood and baby clothes to her sister in Indianapolis, and that she never raised any suspicions. “She was calm and cool,” Buckley told me. “She talked about the wood and taking it to her sister, who’s got cancer, and she said her sister had been buying wood out at Kroger and that was expensive.” He said that he tried to talk Blanc into taking her car to his garage in nearby Batesville, but that she insisted on taking it back to Tom Gill Chevrolet. Wilkinson and Paul Blanc arrived to pick her up, and Buckley towed the totaled TrailBlazer, trash can and all, back to Florence.

Buckley says that he unloaded the totaled vehicle in the back of Tom Gill and waited for approximately 10 minutes. “She was just as nice as she could be,” Buckley says. “I would have never suspected [anything]. She was not nervous at all. The only thing—when she got there, she was adamant that I hadn’t put it up against the fence because she had to get that wood out of the back. And I said, ‘No, you can get to it no problem.’”

Detectives say that Willa Blanc and Wilkinson then loaded the can containing Sartory’s body into a rented Dodge Caravan and headed back toward Indianapolis. (Paul Blanc, who has not been charged with any crime, did not accompany Willa and Louis to Indianapolis.) According to statements given to detectives by Amanda Lively—who is not Willa Blanc’s sister, and apparently knows Blanc only remotely through her father Dwayne Lively’s gambling relationship with Blanc—Willa and Louis arrived at the Lively house that Sunday, and explained that the large trash can in their minivan held the remains of a dog that Louis had hit with his car. Amanda Lively told detectives that Blanc was concerned because the dog belonged to the “old guy” she was taking care of, and she didn’t want him finding out that Louis had killed his dog.

Dwayne Lively later told detectives that Blanc gave him the same story about the dog, and that she offered him $1,000 to take the trash can and its contents out into the country, after dark, and burn it. He said that sometime during the night, he and Blanc and Wilkinson traveled to Morgan County, southwest of Indianapolis, where Lively had a cousin who owned a farm. Lively told detectives that on the way the threesome stopped and filled a can with gasoline. When they got to the farm, he said that they took the tightly bungeed trash can out into a field, placed tires on top of it, poured gasoline over the whole pile, and set it ablaze. According to Cox’s testimony in the preliminary hearing, Louis tended the fire through the night, turning the remains as they burned over a period of several hours. Cox noted that when Dwayne Lively thought he saw part of a spine and a large chunk of meat in the fire, he told Blanc and Wilkinson, “This better be a dog.”

For the last several years, Walter Sartory and the Cartees checked in with each other by phone almost every day, often for hours at a time. And so, when a week had passed since their last phone conversation—which they say took place around dinnertime on February 16, the day Sartory is believed to have returned from Chicago—the Cartees called the Boone County Sheriff’s Department. They told the police that Walter had been talking about a black woman who wore flashy clothes and drove a fast car. However, given Sartory’s frequent travel schedule and reclusive nature, the Boone County deputies weren’t initially surprised when they checked in on him and found him gone. It wasn’t until March 4, when a Boone County officer found Sartory’s garage door unlocked, and detectives found Sartory’s antipsychotic medication sitting in his kitchen, that suspicions were raised in earnest. Of course, by this time Sartory had been dead for almost two weeks.

Detective Cox initially interviewed Blanc in her driveway on March 9, as she was driving her husband to St. Luke Hospital where he was to have foot surgery. When Cox asked Blanc if she had seen Sartory, she said she and Walter were good friends, and that she had seen him two days earlier at the Hebron Corner Mart, just down the road from Sartory’s subdivision. She said that Walter was on the way to the Kroger across the street. She then told Cox that Sartory “goes on a lot of trips, and that he’ll be back, and he’ll be fine.”

On Tuesday, March 10, Cox found a piece of mail in Sartory’s mailbox addressed to him from Fidelity Investments. Cox faxed over a subpoena to Fidelity, who then informed him that on March 3, someone had been at their office in Rookwood Commons to take power of attorney over the investments and add a name to Walter Sartory’s accounts. The name was Willa Blanc. Up until then, Cox says he still believed Sartory would be found unharmed. But “once we issued the subpoenas and saw the amount in the account, I had a bad feeling,” he told me. “Not so much that he was going to be dead, [but] I started thinking that this was at least going to be criminal.” The POA was signed and dated February 18—a day that, according to police, would have placed Sartory in Blanc’s basement, bound to a chair.

Cox interviewed Willa Blanc for the second time at her house on March 11. She showed up at the door wearing a purple cotton scarf over her mouth, which she explained was necessary because she believed she had MRSA. According to Cox, she said that she had passed Walter Sartory in his car on the road that goes to his house. When Cox reminded her that just two days earlier she told him that she had seen Sartory at the corner mart in Hebron, she replied, “I did? Well, I passed him in the car but I know it was him.”

Detectives say that shortly after Walter Sartory’s body was burned, Blanc called Dwayne Lively and told him to have his cousin relocate the remains of the fire. It didn’t matter. After tracking down Lively in Indianapolis, detectives found the remains in a remote field in Morgan County on Friday, March 13. (As it turns out, the bone fragments were badly charred and weren’t positively identified as Sartory’s remains until early June.)

An arrest warrant was quickly drawn up, and sometime around 2:30 a.m. March 14, a car matching the description of Blanc’s red Corvette was spotted in the parking lot of a Red Roof Inn in Sharonville. After the police officer ran the plates, Blanc and Wilkinson were arrested and extradited back to Boone County, where they were placed in solitary confinement in the county jail. As of early July, Willa Blanc and Louis Wilkinson were charged with kidnapping, murder, knowing abuse or neglect of an adult, knowing exploitation of an adult, tampering with physical evidence, abuse of a corpse, and theft by deception. Blanc has also been charged with two counts of forgery.

Linda Tally Smith, the ambitious 39-year-old Kentucky Commonwealth’s attorney who will prosecute the case against Blanc and Wilkinson when it finally goes to trial months from now, says she has seen the number of elder exploitation cases explode in the past five years. Only 1 out of 25 financial exploitation cases are ever reported, according to the Washington, D.C.–based National Center on Elder Abuse, even though police and detectives today have a wider array of investigative tools that make these crimes harder to get away with. Slightly.

“When you’re seeing a lot of online banking activity happening on an 80-something-year-old guy’s account and he’s never used a computer in his life, you know that he’s not the one doing it,” Smith says. “Ten years ago, 15 years ago, if someone said, ‘Oh, grandma went with me to the bank to cash that check,’ there wasn’t a whole lot we could do to refute it because most bank surveillance video was of such poor quality or didn’t exist because they would tape over them after 20 or 30 days…. Banks, doctors, nursing homes—I think they now have trained their own employees [so] that they are on the lookout for strange and unusual activity. It’s not that it wasn’t happening. It’s just that our perceptiveness of it and our ability to prove it were hampered in years past.”

The detectives and lawyers interviewed for this story all alluded to the fact that elder exploitation is easy to commit and hard to prove. By the time any given case goes to trial (if ever), the elderly victim often isn’t in the physical or mental condition to testify. And even if they can testify, prosecutors must be able to surmount the usual defense: They told me I could have it. They told me they wanted me to have it. In many instances, dementia or Alzheimer’s have set in, or the people accused of exploiting the elderly have actually given them attention that they desperately craved. The victim may have formed an attachment to the perpetrator, and may be reluctant to say, “She stole everything from me.”

Only after Blanc and Wilkinson were arrested did detectives begin to understand the full extent of financial exploitation involved in this case. Smith says that on February 24, a trust involving Sartory’s estate was executed by someone “possibly posing as Walter Sartory.” It stated that in the event of his death, Willa Blanc would inherit 60 percent of his total assets. Three days later, she made her first wire transfer from Sartory’s investment account in the amount of $10,000. Later that afternoon, Blanc showed up at Tom Gill Chevrolet, where salesman John Perrin told detectives that she was always “treated like a queen, because she bought a lot of nice cars.” Blanc had previously demanded to be first on the list at Tom Gill to receive the new ZR1 Corvette, their top-of-the-line model with a base sticker price over $100,000. When she discovered that Tom Gill himself had supposedly taken the first ZR1 on the lot, she went ballistic. “I just got a ten-thousand-dollar wire, and I’m about to get $7.5 million in cash!” she yelled at Perrin. If so, she was going about it in stages. The next wire transfer took place on March 3, 10 days after Sartory’s body was burned. This one was for $200,000.

The number of wire transfers, certified checks, and cash payments made by Blanc are too numerous to describe. They included payments made to Louis Wilkinson ($49,900), the Boone County Sheriff’s Department ($3,600 for back taxes), and CitiMortgage, the mortgage company that had been in foreclosure proceedings on the Blancs’ $232,000 home since October 2008.

By the time I visited the large, two-story red brick house on U.S. Route 42 in Union, the extensive landscaping that lined the front of the house—ornamental flowers and trees interwoven with old, sun-bleached plastic ferns and ivy—was so overgrown that vegetation completely covered the path to the front door. When Paul Blanc answered the door, he wouldn’t talk, except to tell me, “There is another side to this.” He was stout, bald, had bright blue eyes, and appeared pale. He wore a blue button-up shirt and jeans and mismatched socks, and looked like he hadn’t been outside in weeks. Of course, he has his own complicated backstory with Willa. Before they met about nine years ago, Paul, who is currently a senior network engineer at Cincinnati Bell Technology Solutions, lived in a pricey condo in the upscale Triple Crown subdivision in Union and had approximately $250,000 in liquid assets. According to records obtained from the Boone County Courthouse, by last October he and Willa were in default on their home loan and were being sued by CitiMortgage to the tune of $229,392.47.

“I’m a Christian,” Coy Cox told me. “I believe from looking at this case that you can only mock God so many times. I think that the mockery was to an extent that [God said], ‘I’m going to help you out a little bit here, cops.’ There were times where she made statements to people at the banking institutions about praying for investments, like, ‘Walt and I are getting ready to make this investment, and I’d like to pray about this.’ And Walt’s dead. Now, that gives you some insight, whether you believe in God or not.”

Editorial note: In January 2012, Willa Blanc was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In September of that year, Louis Wilkinson was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

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