Daughter of alleged victim testifies in $2M theft trial

Michelle Bouchard denies 26 charges

The daughter of millionaire James Bruce Handford, from whom defendant Michelle Bouchard is accused of stealing more than $2 million, told a Grand Court jury that her father contacted police after examining joint accounts he held with Bouchard in 2012.

Michelle Bouchard
Michelle Bouchard

Bouchard is accused of 15 counts of theft for amounts totalling CI$1.59 million and US$805,806.25 between 2010 and 2012.

The defendant has pleaded not guilty to all charges, which also include three counts of transferring criminal property, six counts of attempting to transfer criminal property, one of forgery and one of obtaining property by deception.

On Thursday, Susan van Dijk told the court that her father currently lives in Queensland, Australia, in a secure care facility’s dementia ward. He will be 88 on April 11. She said he was in good physical health but did not understand his condition.

She said her father, a surveyor and property developer, had been a very successful businessman and had invested in an east-west railway line in Australia. He had also invented a special kind of water pump.

Mr. Handford came to live in Cayman in 2007 and bought a condo on Seven Mile Beach after selling a property in Australia for “23 or 24 million dollars,” Mrs. van Dijk told the court. He was taking advantage of the tax regime, since he would be regarded as a non-resident if he spent less than six months per year in Australia. He also enjoyed the climate. He typically came back to Australia for four months per year.

In his spending habits, her father was both frugal and extravagant, Mrs. van Dijk said. He was frugal in everyday things, but if he wanted a piece of machinery he would buy it – an airplane or a helicopter, for example.

She thought her father did not mention Michelle Bouchard until 2009. After she and Bouchard began contacting each other, mostly by email and sometimes by phone, Bouchard “said she was happy to look after him,” the witness recalled.

“I don’t think she exactly said what ‘looking after’ was … At the beginning, he just really needed company, I think.”

She said her father began showing signs of forgetfulness, repeating himself and not remembering names, but could look after himself. The first time the family noticed that Mr. Handford might need help was in 2010, when a helicopter he was flying missed a house by about a foot and a half. The family engaged a pilot for him after that.

She noted that he kept an eye on his business via fax machine. When the machine ran out of ink, instead of replacing the cartridge, he would buy another fax machine and had a collection.

Mrs. van Dijk said she met Bouchard in 2011 when she, her husband, her sister and brother-in-law came to visit.

Bouchard was living in her father’s condo at the time. “We got along well,” Mrs. van Dijk said. Asked what she thought Bouchard’s role was, she replied, “She was helping Dad pay bills while he was in Australia.” Asked about the relationship between Mr. Handford and Bouchard, she said, “Dad was keen on her and she just wanted to be a friend.”

In early 2012, Bouchard began emailing Mrs. van Dijk about her father’s “declining cognitive ability” and indicated she was thinking of leaving because she needed to spend more time with her family in Canada. Bouchard also emailed medical reports, including one after a visit to Baptist Hospital in Miami.

In May 2012, Mr. Handford arrived in Australia without his medications. He was hallucinating: he thought the plane had landed in the river. It took him a long time to stabilize after his arrival, his daughter said.

Later in 2012, Mrs. van Dijk received a communication from Butterfield Bank that a banking officer was going to send her documents to sign. Instead, Mrs. van Dijk advised that she was coming to Cayman. She arrived Sept. 24, 2012.

She and her father went to the bank and Mr. Handford received statements on two joint accounts with Bouchard. She said her father looked very confused and could not understand, so the bank officer suggested they take the statements home and look at them. He studied them over the next few days and one evening, after studying them, he got up to go to the police. She said she thought police would laugh at him and say it’s a civil case, but her dad thought it was a criminal case.

He made a statement to the Financial Crime Unit on Oct. 9, 2012. Bouchard was arrested the next day.

Earlier in the week, the court heard from Dr. Denise Osterloh, who said she first met Mr. Handford in January 2012 when Bouchard brought him in because of a chronic cough. She saw him again in April 2012 after he had been to the Miami Baptist Hospital for an executive medical examination. That report mentioned memory problems.

Dr. Osterloh said Mr. Handford needed a formal neuropsychiatric evaluation, but some physical problems, such as vitamin B deficiency and an underactive thyroid, had to be dealt with first because they could impact mental issues.

Mr. Handford did have a neuropsychiatric evaluation, she confirmed.