It was unusual that Gary Ott could spend four years as the elected Salt Lake County recorder with progressive Alzheimer’s disease that has advanced to a point where he may finish his life in care, “but still not impossible,” an attorney for Ott said as she summed up his guardianship case Friday.
It was “odd” that Ott’s chief deputy filled out part of a piece of paper that’s at the center of a court battle for his permanent custody that sought to make Karmen Sanone his future guardian, “though not impossible.”
And it was “irregular, but not impossible,” Dara Cohen, Ott’s independent attorney, said, that Sanone met with a financial planner for Ott and became the death beneficiary of his retirement account after his family filed a petition in court to take over his finances and care.
But taken together, Cohen told 3rd District Judge Bruce Lubeck: “It doesn’t pass the smell test, your honor.”
Lubeck is now considering whether he will assign Ott’s three siblings or Sanone, his former fiancee and employee, as his permanent guardian and conservator after the longtime recorder’s suffering and removal from office following a debilitating and terminal illness.
Aaron Bergman, Sanone’s attorney, called witnesses Friday who testified to what Cohen described during her closing statement as the unusual circumstances in recent years.
Julie Dole, who was appointed in March 2014 to become Ott’s chief deputy, said she was surprised when her boss entered her office in January 2015, the day he was set to be sworn in, and asked her to be the witness of him signing an important document.
The document, known as an advanced health care directive, would assign Sanone, his fiancee and then-exempt secretary, to be Ott’s caretaker should he ever need one.
“I said it’s pretty personal, Gary, to have me do that,” Dole recalled telling Ott at the time. “He said it was personal but he wanted to tell me a story.”
Dole said Ott told her his siblings took care of their mother as she was suffering from an illness, but that they didn’t care for her well and were interested in her money.
“If anything had happened to him like had happened to his mother that he wanted Karmen to be in charge,” Dole said. “He would never want his siblings to do such.”
Dole helped fill out the first page and couldn’t recall whether she or Ott filled out pieces of the ensuing pages, but she said she became the witness of his signing the document after it was complete.
Later that day, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen swore Ott into office. While Swensen said she didn’t see anything out of the ordinary at the private event in her office, one of Ott’s employees had a different view.
“He struggled to take the oath, which was uncomfortable and awkward,” said Dottie Sinfield-Ellis, an administrator in the county recorder’s office. Ott “needed to be prompted for each part of the oath.”
Over a year before, in 2013, Ott’s physicians diagnosed him with dementia and noted all of his cognitive abilities, including language, were declining and possibly had been for years.
Sanone, who previously publicly denied Ott had a disease that was affecting his brain, said Friday she was with him when he received his first and subsequent dementia diagnoses.
She said she and Ott were “life partners” and had been a couple for about 10 years. She wears a ring she says he bought her in 2009 or 2010. The two weren’t married, but they enjoyed being together on her farm in North Ogden, where he moved full-time in July 2015 after a debilitating hand injury while he was riding a piece of farm machinery.
For about two years before he moved in, Sanone said during at-times emotional testimony, she’d been paying Ott’s bills.
Mary Corporon, the attorney for Ott’s siblings, asked Sanone about over 100 pages of documents that included late and past due bills and service shutoff notices for Ott’s Salt Lake County home from 2013 through this year. He was twice at risk of defaulting on mortgages. Sanone responded by saying the bills were eventually paid.
Sanone was made aware that Ott’s family had asked the court for power to make all decisions for Ott when a reporter called her in June. She started looking for the advanced health care directive, and emailed Ott’s financial planner to see if she’d left it at his office when the three met in May to plan for his retirement.
Around that time, the office was under pressure following a Deseret News article in which a reporter interviewed Ott outside Sanone’s farm and included a long interview with Ott’s incoherent answers. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and others had asked Ott to step down. Questions about Ott’s health had become public over a year earlier when he was picked up by officers wandering and incoherent. Police had been called about Ott at least three times since 2016.
After finding out about the siblings’ court filing and contacting the financial planner, Sanone was made beneficiary to one of Ott’s retirement accounts just before his siblings picked him up from a Walmart parking lot and brought him to their home in southern Utah, according to court testimony. He’s now in a facility in St. George.
“Gary wanted me [as] his death beneficiary,” Sanone said. “My main purpose was when he retired and as he got worse I would have access to control that account and withdraw money on his behalf.”
Corporon said the testimony heard in court Thursday and Friday made clear her clients were more fit to care for Ott.
“The dark version ... is he’s not being taken care of because nobody can admit that he’s incapacitated because they’ll lose their jobs,” Corporon said.
The “less dark version,” Corporon said, was that Sanone deeply cared for Ott but was still unable to prevent the incidents with police and the late payments from happening.
“He’s got to be treated like a child at this point. In many, many ways. A person has to look out for his safety,” Corporon said, “and she’s not done it.”
Bergman said there was “a key piece that’s being left out” of court proceedings.
“That is choice,” Bergman said. “The fact that Mr. Gary Ott chose to be with Karmen. No one is disputing that.”
“Would Mr. Ott have been better or I guess safer if in 2013 at the strike of a bell when it looked like he was having dementia we put him in a lockdown facility? Yes,” Bergman said. “But would have quality of life been better? No.”
Corporon and Ott’s independent attorney, Cohen, asked Lubeck to appoint Ott’s siblings as his guardians. Cohen’s second choice, she said, was a third party. Bergman asked him to appoint Sanone.
Lubeck said he hoped to make a decision as quickly as possible, perhaps within days.