Macomb judge frees veteran jailed over $6M missing from mother's estate
Mount Clemens — A 73-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who was jailed for nearly three months for refusing to say what happened to $6 million missing from his mother's account was freed Friday by the same judge who ordered him to jail.
Macomb County Probate Judge Sandra Harrison ordered the release of Fred Smith, who lives in Bruce Township, but with a stern warning that if he doesn't account for the missing funds, he will find himself back behind bars.
Smith, who spoke to The News shortly after his release from the Macomb County jail Friday, denied he has mishandled his mother's estate, calling such allegations "absurd."
"I'm an honorable man," said Smith. "Everything they said is false. I have never mishandled (the estate). Not one penny. I'm an Eagle Scout Triple Palm. I have been wronged and the truth will come out."
Smith was jailed for 79 days for contempt of court for allegedly refusing to tell the judge and a trustee where the money from the estate of his 92-year-old mother, Shelby Smith-Steves, has gone. Smith controlled his mother's estate for 10 years as the trustee. At issue is how the money was spent between 2005 and 2008, said George Heitmanis, an attorney who is the current trustee.
Harrison said she has given Smith plenty of chances to tell how the money was spent. Smith has been fined $100,000 for allegedly failing to comply with the court's request for information on how he handled the funds from his mother's estate.
"I've fined you. I've surcharged you. I'm going to give you 90 days to file the accounting," Harrison told Smith.
Heitmanis said Friday and during a Dec. 12 hearing that Smith has spent money "on toys" like expensive cars and a motorcycle business and has eluded persistent questions about his mother's missing money.
Heitmanis said Smith has purchased 2003 and 2005 Jaguars, a 1931 Ford and a motorcycle dealership but has failed to disclose the whereabouts of the $6 million, partly made up of investments involving property in California, Florida and Pennsylvania belonging to his mother.
Smith-Steves is in a Romeo nursing home. The elderly woman showed up at the Dec. 12 hearing, where she asked her son, from a wheelchair, to cooperate with authorities and explain how the money was spent.
Smith was released after civil rights attorney Lisa Walinske argued that he cannot conduct a forensic accounting of the missing funds behind bars.
"I don't see the point of keeping him further confined," Walinske said in court Friday. She said Smith's health and his ability "to complete the tasks" regarding the spending of his mother's money have deteriorated while he's been locked up.
On Dec. 12, Smith's son Fred W. Smith pleaded with him to tell Harrison how some of the money was spent. The son made an impassioned plea to the judge to release his father to his custody so that the two could do a forensic accounting of how his father has spent his grandmother's money.
The judge told Smith and his attorney Friday, "All I want is (for Smith) to file an accounting and explain where the money is."
Heitmanis said Smith has been asked about where the money has gone for four to five years.
"He's sitting on 24 banker boxes of records," Heitmanis said Friday.
Several storage units belonging to Smith, and which the trustee says contain numerous boxes of documents, have been seized by authorities, as has one of the Jaguars bought by Smith.
Smith is due back in court at 9 a.m. April 10 before Harrison, who said she is expecting him to have some answers for her about the missing money.
Elder advocate Marty Prehn said he was happy with Friday's outcome, calling the jailing of Smith "unconstitutional."
"I'm pleased with the outcome," he said. "His constitutional and civil rights have been violated."
Heitmanis' takeaway was different: "His mother has a right to know what happened to her money. The question is simple ... where is your mother's money?"