Estate attorney’s actions called into question
May 4, 2010
Arroyo Grande estate and trust attorney Mike Zimmerman’s actions as the trustee of a large estate have led some to question his handling of a more than $2 million estate of an eccentric client.
“Zimmerman is, I felt, like a stranger who had come into our personal lives and stole from us,” said Lora Treadwell, the deceased’s only child. “. . . Like someone’s dirty fingers had been in my personal possessions.”
Law enforcement officials, along with family and friends of Terrance Treadwell, an Arroyo Grande survivalist who died in 2008, have been given different accountings by Zimmerman of how the man died and the whereabouts of the man’s personal belongings, including $154,000 in cash that was in the man’s home.
Everyone seems to agree that Treadwell, 71, passed away on April 28, 2008. His family and friends describe him as a recluse and a survivalist, who kept a hoard of guns and cash in his home.
On that date, around 2 a.m., someone called the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department and asked officers to check in on Treadwell. Deputies went to the home and discovered that he had died earlier that day.
They also discovered in the home a “do-not-resuscitate” order with Zimmerman’s name on it.
However, Zimmerman told CalCoastNews on Monday that he was not aware that he was the trustee of Treadwell’s estate until after the man died. He claims his father-in-law and deceased law partner had written the trust.
CalCoastNews repeatedly called Zimmerman for comment for this story since last Friday, and he returned the calls on Monday.
After the death, versions of what happened next remain murky.
Deputies called Zimmerman to the home. According to deputies, Zimmerman explained that the deceased had no living immediate family members. Sheriff’s deputies also allowed Zimmerman to leave the residence with almost $154,000 in cash that he discovered in a closet.
That amount differs from what Treadwell’s longtime girlfriend says was in the closet.
“He had just under $250,000 in the back corner of the closet in a box with a pillow and a rifle on top,” said Valen Guajardo, Treadwell’s long time girlfriend who said she was told by him about the large amount of cash.
Shortly before his death, she said, she helped Treadwell count the money, which was comprised of $100 bills stored in white envelopes.
Guajardo questions who might have called the Sheriff’s Department to ask deputies to check in on Treadwell since the man had very few friends, noting that he was a reclusive who made few acquaintances.
Guajardo, 58, a longtime friend of Treadwell’s, accuses Zimmerman of failing to follow Treadwell’s wishes.
“Zimmerman said he took the money from the house,” she said. “(Zimmerman) said they (deputies and Zimmerman) spent all night counting the money.”
Guajardo says she told Zimmerman the day after Treadwell died, that she would arrange for Treadwell’s burial. However, when she arrived three days after the death, Zimmerman had already ordered that Treadwell’s remains be cremated.
“There was no money set aside for a burial,” Zimmerman said.
However, Treadwell’s trust instructs Zimmerman to provide money from his trust to pay for a funeral, one he never got.
“I thought Zimmerman was very cruel and he didn’t handle it nicely,” Guajardo said. “I was very upset that he had decided to cremate him.
“This was a man that I love,” she said crying. “How could he do this to us.”
A month passed before Zimmerman told Lora Treadwell, the dead man’s daughter and only child, that her father had died. Other than an insurance policy, the daughter, who was noted along with Guajardo in the will, admitted that she had been disinherited by her father.
Nevertheless, she is outspoken about Zimmerman’s failure to tell her about her father’s death and what happened to his estate.
Lora Treadwell and her stepfather, Los Angeles attorney Kevin Kane, both remember Zimmerman telling them that the death was a suicide and that Treadwell had given all his animals away a few weeks before his death.
Zimmerman also said that his father-in-law and former partner had written up the trust and that he had not been aware he was the trustee and executor until after Treadwell died, Zimmerman told the daughter and Kane.
However, Zimmerman’s name is on trust documents written in 2005.
In addition, Guajardo said Treadwell had a collection of birds that had perished from smoke inhalation because of a pan he left on a burner more than eight months before his death.
The distraught Treadwell than decided to give his only remaining pet, a cockatiel, away to Guajardo.
Sheriff’s deputies said that the death, in fact, was not a suicide and did not even merit an autopsy.
An official with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department, Senior Deputy Coroner Steve Crawford, said Treadwell’s doctor, who had seen him about three weeks earlier, attributed his death to heart failure.
In addition, the deputies said they were told by Zimmerman that Treadwell had no living relatives.
“He had no family,” Zimmerman said when asked why he had informed deputies that Treadwell had no family.
When informed that CalCoastNews had spoken to Treadwell’s daughter, Zimmerman said she was not a beneficiary because she had been disinherited by her father. He then claimed that he had not told police Treadwell had no immediate family.
In addition, though the estate was valued at more than $2 million, the money taken from Treadwell’s closet does not appear to be included in the estate’s final accounting.
Zimmerman said he put the $154,000 into a bank account and has since donated it to charity.
“I am shocked that anything as small as a pen was allowed to leave without an investigation,” Lora Treadwell said. “How is it allowed that a lawyer can leave with all that money?
“This is all so wrong,” she said. “I am frustrated and angry.”
Zimmerman, 57, has been practicing law for 31 years. Trust and estate attorneys prepare trusts and administer the estates of deceased persons.
Zimmerman married his wife, Joan, while studying farm management at Cal Poly. The father of eight children, he is currently running in the South County to replace 4th District Supervisor Katcho Achadjian, who is running for the state Assembly.
Zimmerman is one of three candidates seeking election to the supervisorial seat that Achadjian currently holds.
CalCoastNews first became aware of the Treadwell property while researching material for the three-part series about San Luis Obispo County Assessor Tom Bordonaro.
According to county computer records, Zimmerman had a homeowner’s exemption on both his own home as well as Treadwell’s home, each located in Arroyo Grande.
Following Treadwell’s death, Zimmerman stepped in as the trustee, executor and petitioner of the Treadwell trust and probate. In early 2009, Zimmerman placed Treadwell’s home — valued at $850,000 — and his Mitsubishi Eclipse Spider in his own name.
CalCoastNews recently e-mailed Zimmerman a copy of the assessor’s file that showed Treadwell’s home was owned by a Michael Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, in a telephone interview two weeks ago, said that he had never owned the property while noting the commonality of his name.
“That is a different Mike Zimmerman who lives in Shell Beach,” Zimmerman insisted. “Do you think I would be stupid enough to break the law for $700?”
In the interview Monday, Zimmerman said he was assuming it was a different property.
A closer check revealed that the computer readout did not match assessor’s file records and Zimmerman had not filed two homeowner’s exemptions. He had, in fact, owned both pieces of property.
“It was in the name of the trust and not my name,” he said.
When asked why Zimmerman had not sent the family a final accounting of the distribution of the estate, he responded, “They don’t have a right to an accounting.”
However, a local lawyer who specializes in estate law reviewed the trust and probate documents and told CalCoastNews that both Treadwell’s girlfriend and daughter had a right to a full accounting.
The lawyer, who asked not to be identified because of his relationships with people who may support Zimmerman in his race for county supervisor said that Zimmerman’s statements were incorrect.
Zimmerman told CalCoastNews that he donated the bulk of the Treadwell estate to animal protection organizations to be selected by Zimmerman, though he admits that a small portion of the estate is to be distributed as directed in the near future.