by Mike Donoghue, News Correspondent
The daughter of a Brattleboro woman who died in 1994 pleaded not guilty in federal court last Thursday, August 31 in Burlington to charges she continued to unlawfully collect more than $328,000 in Social Security benefits earmarked for her mother.
Ella Mae Woods, 75, developed a scheme to defraud the Social Security Administration for 28 years and to have her dead mother’s benefits wired to a joint account at the TD Bank in Brattleboro Vermont from the U.S. Treasury, the two-count indictment said.
Woods developed the scheme starting in January 1992 and it continued until March 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. By the time the fraud was uncovered, Woods was getting payments of $1,280 a month, the indictment said.
The second felony count lists 30 specific monthly payments ranging from $1,012 to $1,049 received between September 2017 and March 2020.
Her mother, Jeannette Styles, lived in Brattleboro until she died Jan. 2, 1994, the indictment said. At the time of her death, Styles was receiving $679 in monthly benefits from SSA, the 5-page indictment said. Those benefits should have ended when Styles died.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Waples filed a motion asking for Woods be detained pending trial because she was a risk to flee. He wrote there were no known conditions that would assure her appearance for court hearings.
Woods has no known current ties to Brattleboro, officials said.
Woods eventually began living in Waterloo, Iowa and knew the criminal investigation was underway, records show. After she was indicted, attempts to serve a summons on her were unsuccessful because she had moved and left no forwarding address as of October 2022, Waples said in seeking an arrest warrant. Woods had claimed to investigators that she did not have a phone or computer.
An arrest warrant was issued Oct. 19, 2022 and she remained on the run until July 6 when Woods was arrested in Iowa. Federal Magistrate Judge Mark A. Roberts, sitting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, ordered her returned to Vermont. Woods was making her first court appearance in Vermont on Thursday.
Chief Federal Defender Michael Desautels did not object to the temporary detention, but said he could be back with a possible release plan.
Magistrate Judge Kevin J. Doyle had Woods placed under oath, like most defendants, before he asked a series of questions. Woods questioned why there was no Bible.
“Usually, you put your hand on a Bible,” Woods asserted. Deputy Court Clerk H. Beth Cota said that was no longer done.
When asked by Doyle if she had read the indictment, Woods said she did not have her reading glasses. Desautels assured the court that they had gone over the two charges.
After she began to answer questions with “yup” and “nope” Desautels whispered in her left ear and she became more formal with the magistrate. Woods also told the court she does not answer to “Ella,” but she does to Ella Mae.”
Doyle reported there was a “substantial discrepancy” about her cash savings between affidavits filed in Iowa and Vermont while seeking a court-appointed lawyer. Desautels, after conferring with Woods, told the court that the Vermont affidavit, which had a lower amount, appeared correct.
When asked if she had anything to drink in the last 24 hours, Woods said no and reported she thought drinking was “disgusting.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Lasher, who was filling in for Waples, said much of the evidence in the case has been provided to the defense. He said it included reports from the Social Security Administration, bank account records and the report of the interview with Woods by investigators.
Desautels said he wanted 90 days to investigate the charges and consider filing pre-trial motions. He said it appears some of the investigation would extend to Iowa, including conducting interviews with people there.
Doyle set a Nov. 29 deadline.
The indictment noted the SSA “did not learn of Jeannette Styles’ death until recently and, through June 2022, continued to make monthly benefit payments to Styles,” the indictment said.
The benefits increased annually and had increased to $1,280 a month by 2022. The payments after her death reached more than $328,000 and Woods used the money for her own benefit, indictment noted.
Woods took several steps to steal and convert to her own use the SSA benefits improperly paid after her mother’s death, court records show. Among the acts taken was Woods created a joint account with her mother at the TD Bank in Brattleboro in 2002, eight years after her mother died, the indictment said.
It noted Woods forged the signature of her mother on the bank signature card and proceeded to have the monthly SSA benefit checks deposited into the account “and used those funds for her own benefit and enjoyment.”
Starting in October 2007 and continuing through March 2020, the SSA deposited Styles monthly payment into the TD Bank account through the Automated Clearing House, an electronic transaction from the U.S. Treasury, court records show.
Starting in March 2020, Woods opened an account in the name of Jeannette Styles through the Comerica Bank and at the same time created an account at the bank in her name. The mailing address for both Styles and Woods was the same Post Office Box in Brattleboro, the indictment said.
Between April 2020 and June 2020 the SSA deposited more than $26,000 into the Styles account at Comerica Bank, court records note. The indictment said Woods used some of those fraudulently obtained funds for her own benefit and enjoyment.