Above: Patricia DiGiacomo and Randi Berkowitz
By Shelby Lin Erdman
(CNN) — A once fat cat is now almost broke, literally. Not the Wall Street-type, but the four-legged, furry variety.
A 7-year-old tabby called Puddy Cat is at the center of an extensive embezzlement case out of Suffolk County, Massachusetts.
Puddy Cat once stood to inherit part of a trust fund worth at least $450,000, until its owner fell victim to a couple of swindling neighbors, prosecutors said.
Puddy Cat belongs to a 74-year-old Brighton woman who is suffering from progressive dementia and living in a nursing home.
The woman created the “Puddy Cat Trust” in her will and specified that upon her death, the tabby was to be cared for through the trust and that all remaining assets would benefit animal welfare groups.
The Suffolk County district attorney said Thursday in a news release that several years ago, the two neighbors, who were roommates, befriended Puddy Cat’s owner and offered to take care of the beloved cat.
Those two neighbors, Randi Berkowitz, 63, and Patricia DiGiacomo, 58, pleaded not guilty in court Thursday to a 63-count indictment accusing them of raiding the victim’s financial accounts.
They are accused of using Puddy Cat to swindle the ailing victim out of her life savings and the tabby out of its inheritance.
District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said the pair used Puddy Cat, under the guise of caring for the feline, to gain access to the victim’s bank accounts and financial assets.
“This is one of the most startling cases of elder exploitation we’ve seen in years,” Conley said.
Berkowitz and DiGiacomo are charged with a laundry list of crimes, including embezzlement, larceny, intimidation and perjury.
Beginning in late 2012, Berkowitz persuaded the victim to give Berkowitz her power of attorney and name her the administrator of her will, granting Berkowitz authority to make financial and other decisions in the victim’s name, according to Assistant District Attorney Michele Granda.
“The defendant had unrestricted access to the victim’s finances and even got the victim to sign blank checks.”
Granda said that within 12 months of Berkowitz being given power of attorney, the neighbors had drained the victim’s bank account of $175,000.
They allegedly used the money to buy a $27,000 Mini Cooper car, an iPad, exercise equipment and specialty kitchen items, among other purchases.
Granda said authorities were able to recover some of the stolen money.
Prosecutors also accuse Berkowitz and DiGiacomo of gaining ownership of the woman’s condominium.
Berkowitz’s attorney, Susan Rayburn, told CNN her client is innocent of the charges. Rayburn said Berkowitz has felt “hunted and harassed” by authorities.
“What it feels like to me, in my experience, is more of a witch hunt than anything else. It’s been really vindictive,” Rayburn told CNN affiliate WBZ.
In response to an e-mail, DiGiacomo’s attorney, Srikanth Reddy, said Monday that his law firm had no comment on the case, other than to say “DiGiacomo maintains that she is innocent of the State’s allegations.”
After the not guilty pleas at the arraignment Thursday, the judge released the pair on their own recognizance on the condition that they stay away from the nursing home where the alleged victim is living and that they avoid the kennel where Puddy Cat lives.
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