An elderly widow. Profound dementia. $3.1 million stuffed in dresser drawers. Forged signatures. Lawyers and armed guards. A complicit personal driver. A successful business.

A family torn apart

Aida Corey and her family stuck together for most of her nine decades. Her children worked at the profitable factory her husband built, and they shared family meals almost every evening.

But family bonds began to unravel in the early 2000s when death and dementia struck.

After her husband died, her children grew so alarmed by her erratic behavior that they sought to have her declared incompetent. That led to lawsuits lasting for years as lawyers battled over her mental status.

A startling discovery in 2008 showed just how estranged the elderly widow had become from her children. When lawyers and armed guards entered her mansion on a 9-acre estate in Aurora, they found wads of $100 bills totaling $3.1 million stuffed in dresser drawers, a nightstand and other furniture. They even found cash in a bathroom.

Her onetime driver and groundskeeper told The Buffalo News that she hid the money because she no longer trusted her children. Two months later, when she was taken to Mercy Hospital after falling and gashing her head, the attendants in the emergency department found $14,000 in cash pinned inside her clothing.

The doctor who examined her diagnosed her with profound dementia.

By then, her children had already been barred from Permclip Products, the Town of Tonawanda company that makes file folder fasteners with two-pronged clips to hold paperwork in place. They would not regain control of the company for three years.

They had to agree to let their mother’s lawyer keep $900,504 in legal fees, commissions and other compensation he charged over five years. Another law firm received $700,000.

What happened to Aida Corey and her children shows how dementia can put a family and its fortune at risk – and how costly and difficult the legal strain can become.

Aida Corey lived for years at this mansion on a 9-acre estate in Aurora. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Today, the 91-year-old widow is worth some $30 million. Her oldest son, Thomas J. Corey, 66, now runs the business. And the family is making sure she is well cared for.

But Thomas Corey remains angry about what happened over the past decade.

“If my mother didn’t have money, no one would have bothered with her,” he said. “This is all about our mother. They betrayed her and our family,” he said, accusing lawyers, bankers and former employees of taking advantage of her diminished state. “They did this for money.”

Growing a business

Aida Corey’s late husband, Joseph T. Corey, was a tinkerer and inventor. At Remington Rand’s North Tonawanda plant, he invented a way of making a less-expensive file folder clip. In previous jobs at other plants, he patented ways to improve manufacturing processes. He operated a machine shop on the side.

When the Remington Rand plant closed, Corey went to work at another plant, but in his spare time he designed an even better file folder clip that used fabric. He persuaded several investors to back him with a $60,000 loan and opened Permclip in 1971.

“Every single file folder manufacturer in the country was our customer. We had a customer list of over 100 – and 20 of them were from other countries,” Thomas Corey said. “Our business brought money into Buffalo from all over the world. We employed 40 workers and we operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

Thomas Corey is back at Permclip Products and running the family business, but it's been a rocky road for him and the rest of the Corey family. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

By 1982, Joseph Corey had bought out his investors, paying each of them $1 million.

His children worked at the plant over the years. Thomas eventually left to pursue his dream of owning a restaurant. Rosanna, a daughter, worked at the plant, as did her husband, a mechanical engineer. Another daughter, Olivia, headed operations in the front office for decades. The youngest child, Christopher, stopped working there after a disabling 1978 traffic accident.

Through the years Permclip prospered, eventually reaching $9 million in annual revenue.

Time takes a toll

Joseph Corey met a petite 19-year-old woman named Aida Puscedeux in 1946 in Italy, where he fought Germans during World War II. Joseph knew only a few words in Italian, and she did not speak English. Her family opposed the match, but the couple soon married and boarded a ship for America.

It was a rags-to-riches story for Joseph, the fourth of five children raised by his widowed mother on the West Side. The Hutchinson-Central High School graduate died at age 76 in 2002.

That is when Aida’s story began to sour. She previously had suffered from depression and anxiety, but after he husband died, she became even more erratic, according to her children.

In the summer of 2005, Rosanna E. Heckl, the oldest of Aida’s four children, took her then-79-year-old mother to a doctor, who diagnosed dementia.

“We did a mini mental status examination, which the patient was unable to complete,” the doctor recorded in Aida’s medical records. “On immediate recall, she was able to name only one object out of three and on delayed recall, she was unable to name any objects at all.”

She also couldn’t answer simple math and spelling questions.

Aida Corey on her wedding day. (Family photo)

Troubles at the plant

In late 2005, Aida Corey fired the entire office and engineering staff at Permclip.

Thomas Corey recalled coming to the office at his mother’s invitation.

“I looked around and nobody was there. So I asked her, ‘Where is everybody?’ She didn’t answer,” Thomas Corey said.

Daniel M. Walsh – her driver and groundskeeper, who says he was Aida’s lover at the time – answered the question: “She fired everybody.”

Thomas Corey looked at his mother.

“Mom, this is a big business. This isn’t a Kool-Aid stand,” he said.

Her children would help run the business, he told her. But Aida Corey refused.

Gene Mack, who worked as Permclip’s comptroller for 20 years and considered himself a close friend to Joseph Corey, confirmed she fired everyone.

“As crazy as it sounds, she didn’t care if she made any more money,” Mack said. “She didn’t need any more money. She never spent lavishly on cars or anything, except on her homes.”

The Aurora home in which Aida Corey lived has living space the equivalent of three tennis courts.

Olivia Corey, the daughter, ran Permclip’s front office until she quit in June 2005.

“When Olivia stormed out of the office, she threw an accordion file folder at me and said, ‘I’m out of here. You run the business with my mother and Dan Walsh,’ ” Mack said.

In December 2005, Thomas Corey said he tried one more time to persuade his mother to accept help.

“She started hitting me. I knew she couldn’t hurt me. She was 90 pounds. Finally, I yelled, ‘Stop acting like this and act like the president of the company!’ It was like a light switch had been flipped,” the son said.

In a moment of apparent clarity, the mother agreed to the children’s offer of help, Thomas Corey said. Plans were made to visit the family’s lawyer.

But on Dec. 31, the son received a letter from Magavern Magavern and Grimm law firm directing him to “cease and desist” from contacting his mother or stepping onto Permclip’s property.

Deciding they had no other recourse, Thomas Corey and his siblings began court proceedings on Jan. 3, 2006, to have their mother declared mentally incompetent and to serve as her guardians.

Dan Walsh at her side

The case dragged on for nearly three years with a different law firm, Phillips Lytle, representing Aida Corey. She also hired attorney Lawrence J. Mattar to represent her in business matters.

During those years, she and Walsh drove from her European-style home in Aurora – with living space the equivalent of three tennis courts – to check on operations at Permclip. Walsh said she would go to her office while he reviewed sales figures and checked for any production problems.

“She made all the final decisions,” Walsh said.

During the legal fight over Aida Corey’s mental status and guardianship arrangement, the company’s sales dropped from $9 million annually to $5.5 million. Profits eroded from $3 million annually to $800,000.

Half of Permclip’s 40 employees lost their jobs.

Thomas Corey acknowledged that companies’ moving to digital record keeping and relying less on paperwork also contributed to the company’s declining business.

For Aida Corey and Walsh, their work days often ended with a stop at the then-HSBC Bank branch at 1690 Sheridan Drive in the Town of Tonawanda. They frequently cashed company checks totaling $35,000, but sometimes even more.

Attorney Corey Hogan, a cousin of the Corey children, represents them and the company. He provided a bank document showing that on May 13, 2008, 12 company checks were cashed in the amount of $387,000. The lawyer says Walsh forged Aida Corey’s signature on those checks and many others over the years.

Walsh acknowledged he often signed Aida Corey’s name to company checks. But it was always with her permission, he said.

“Everyone in the family knew I was signing the checks. I was doing it for years,” said Walsh, 68, who says his romance with Aida Corey began in 1975. He was 27 and she was 49.

If he wanted, Walsh said, he had plenty of chances to steal from her.

Daniel Walsh, the driver, groundskeeper and – he says – lover of Aida Corey.

Hoarding money

In April 2008, Walsh said, he alerted the Phillips Lytle lawyers that Corey had about $2 million in her home.

“Nobody knew the money was in the house except me and her, none of the family. So if I wanted, I could have taken the money,” Walsh told The News.

Walsh said he and Aida Corey hid the money from all of the checks they had cashed. It was her money to do with what she wanted, Walsh said.

She had another reason, too, he said.

“This is the God’s truth,” Walsh said. “She told me she did not trust her children and that was why she was cashing the checks. She said if anything happened to her, I was to take that money.”

The children’s lawyer questioned why Phillips Lytle waited months before removing the cash and placing it in a bank account for safekeeping.

When lawyers and armed guards entered Aida Corey's mansion, they found wads of $100 bills totaling $3.1 million stuffed in dresser drawers, this nightstand and other furniture. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

On Sept. 4, 2008, three lawyers arrived at Aida Corey’s Aurora home: Alan J. Bozer of Phillips Lytle; Mattar, who represented her business interests; and Vincent J. Sorrentino, who had been appointed in State Supreme Court to evaluate Corey’s mental status. Four armed guards accompanied them.

Walsh and Corey were not home when the lawyers and guards removed the cash. It turned out to be $3.1 million, not Walsh’s estimate of $2 million.

But Hogan said they should have recovered closer to $5 million, based on the number of company checks that had been cashed over the years.

Hogan alleges that Walsh, using Aida Corey’s money, gave Frank M. Panaro, the customer services representative at the HSBC branch, a loan of $250,000. Hogan called the loan a payoff for allowing Walsh to cash the forged checks and ignoring Aida Corey’s dementia.

With such large checks being cashed, HSBC officials should have taken action to prevent that from happening since Corey was not in her right mind, Hogan said.

Panaro, in an answer to a question in an ongoing lawsuit, acknowledged he received the loan.

Panaro declined to comment to The News. He no longer works at HSBC. Laurie Baker, an attorney who represents him, called Hogan’s allegation false and said Panaro did nothing wrong.

“We dispute the plaintiffs’ claims against us and we are focused on the discovery process as we prepare our defense,” said Rob Sherman, an HSBC spokesperson.

Two checks, both allegedly signed by Aida Corey, with differing signatures.

Walsh says he did not steal the money.

He acknowledged making the loan to Panaro and also buying a $160,000 special edition Corvette with a Permclip employee.

Where did he get the money?

Walsh said he cannot comment on that because of the pending lawsuit against him, Panaro and HSBC.

Aida Corey’s children have filed lawsuits seeking $2 million.

In an interview inside the tiny living room of his Town of Tonawanda apartment, Walsh said, “Do you think I would be living here if I had money?”

Guardianship issue

The mental competency proceedings dragged on for years.

In October 2008, a judge declared Aida Corey mentally incompetent and appointed Mattar as Corey’s business guardian. Walsh and Aida’s granddaughter were appointed as her personal guardians.

It was a compromise, according to Attorney Kevin J. Cross, whose law firm represented the Corey children in the competency hearing. Cross said the children feared they might never see their mother again.

“Certainly the implication from Mr. Bozer was that the case would continue if there was not a compromise around who the guardians were,” Cross said.

Yet soon after the compromise, there was bad news. On the night of Nov. 14, 2008, Aida Corey’s family received an urgent call from Walsh. She had fallen. Her forehead was gashed and her limbs were bruised. When the family arrived at Mercy Hospital’s emergency room, they were shocked by their mother’s appearance.

She looked emaciated. Her toenails were overgrown. Her hair was unkempt.

And that wasn’t the only shock.

The emergency department staff found a lot of cash on her.

“Upon arrival in the ER, she had $14,000 removed from her person. The cash was pinned to the inside of her clothing in various locations,” a hospital record stated.

The house behind Aida Corey's mansion in which Daniel M. Walsh lived. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

About a year later, in October 2009, the Corey children succeeded in removing Walsh as a personal guardian. The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court ruled that his dual role as her “personal assistant” and guardian created a conflict of interest. The family later banned him from visiting their mother.

Two years later, Mattar resigned in exchange for keeping his more than $900,000 in legal fees and commissions.

Thomas and Olivia Corey were then appointed as their mother’s business guardians and took control of Permclip.

Olivia Corey suffered a stroke two years ago and has curtailed her activities at Permclip. Rosanna Heckl did not live to see the company returned to the family’s control; she died in December 2009 from cancer. Her husband, Robert A. Heckl, has returned to the business and serves as the plant manager and engineer.

Thomas Corey, Permclip’s president, says they are slowly rebuilding the company through the acquisition of competitors and addition of new products.

Aida Corey now spends her days in a wheelchair or hospital bed in a sprawling living room inside an Amherst home she owns. Her children moved her there several years ago from the Aurora home. She receives around-the-clock care from nurses, costing $500,000 a year.

Stolen time

The Corey family has filed a lawsuit against Phillips Lytle and Magavern Magavern and Grimm. The children want more than $700,000 in legal fees, reparation for lost company profits and compensation for the time they were prevented from seeing their mother.

Edward Bloomberg, a partner at Phillips Lytle, said the family’s allegations are without merit and that the firm “intends to vigorously defend itself against those claims.”

Attorney Dennis R. McCoy, who represents Magavern Magavern and Grimm, called the allegations outrageous.

“Fundamentally, this case involves a lady whose children were alleging she’s incompetent, so she came to my clients for representation and they agreed to represent her. It is her right to be represented, and it’s a lawyer’s obligation to represent,” McCoy said.

Her children contend that the attorneys isolated their mother in order to run up legal fees.

“Nothing will hurt them more than taking back that money,” Thomas Corey said. “The biggest crime in all of this is not the money that was stolen, but the years we could have had with our mother.”