Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Disabled dentist in Texas tries to regain her independence

From The El Paso Times:

EL PASO, Texas -- Monica Yepez (pictured), a prominent El Paso dentist who is now paralyzed, may be getting closer to retaking control of her life.

Yepez last week agreed to retain a lawyer who advocates for the restoration of rights to disabled people.

According to court records, attorney Constance Wannamaker is representing her. Wannamaker is the regional managing attorney for Advocacy Incorporated, a nonprofit mandated by the state to fight for the rights of disadvantaged people.

Wannamaker confirmed that she is representing Yepez, but declined further comment. A status hearing for Yepez, who became a ward of the state three years ago, is scheduled for Sept. 29.

Yepez, 44, says she is seeking her independence because she still struggles to pay bills and is finding out that just about everyone who says they want to help would rather take advantage of her. She said she was misled by lawyers, contractors, friends and people claiming to be a friend of a friend.

"People have come out of everywhere wanting to help, but they really want to help themselves," she said. "I think I'm ready to run my own life."

Yepez, who lives on an $11,000-a-month disability insurance check, met with different lawyers and rejected them all before settling on Wannamaker.

"We can't keep mistrusting everybody. At some point we need to start trusting people again," said her father, Alonso Yepez.

Yepez, who was a pediatric dentist for 13 years, has been a ward of the state since 2006. A medical procedure at Del Sol Medical Center in 2006 left her paralyzed. According to court records, she went to the hospital because she was dehydrated. Fluids that were supposed to help her instead caused her brain to swell, resulting in paraplegia.

At that time, she was expected to die, her father said.

"That is what everyone told us and what everyone expected," he said. "I think that is why people thought they could take advantage of her. But look at her, she is getting better every day."

Yepez, who was a well-known University of Texas at El Paso cheerleader in the mid-1980s, has regained her ability to speak, the use of her hands and her memory.

In July, she wrote a letter to Mayor John Cook, asking if there was anything he could do to help her end her guardianship. He replied that he could not, but asked to meet her. She recently went to his office.

"I just want to thank you for listening to me and treating me like a person," she told the mayor.

Cook told her he could not influence the courts. But he also said he was aware of her plight and that he would keep a watchful eye on her case.

Yepez's case became public in June when she wrote a curt letter to Probate Judge Eduardo Gamboa, criticizing the handling of her $1.1 million estate. She asked that the judge remove the guardian of her estate, lawyer Hector Phillips. She sent copies of the letter to Gamboa, Phillips, the FBI, the Texas attorney general, the IRS and the media.

Since then, Yepez said, she has become aware of more problems created by people who have been mingling in her estate. She recently became aware that someone has been signing contracts and legal papers without her consent.

She did not have the details, but in open court Phillips told Gamboa that he received a collection letter from a law firm requesting $39,000 from Monica Yepez on behalf of a construction company that worked on her house. Phillips did not name the contractor, but he told the judge the law firm had a contract signed by Yepez, which Phillips did not authorize.

Monica Yepez said she never signed the contract because she knows she can't enter into legal contracts. The details of the contract were not available in Yepez's court file last week, and Phillips did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Also in court, Phillips told Gamboa that Monica Yepez had deeded her house to her father. Monica Yepez and her father said they did not ask for that change, and they just found out it had been done.

"If it was done, someone signed for me," Yepez said. "It will not be my signature on the deed, and we think we know who signed it."

Judge Gamboa, during a brief hearing, said those two filings would be set aside for now because the priority is to see if Yepez's rights should be restored.

Gamboa has also appointed Karen Carson, an accountant, to audit Yepez's estate.

Yepez said she is looking forward to the results of the audit because she is eager find out what happened to everything she owned.

Court records show that Yepez's home on the West Side was sold, and part of the profit was used to buy her parents' home on the East Side, which is where she lives today. Records also state that her three vehicles, worth a combined $140,000, were sold, as were the assets of her dental practice. But the details of where the money went were not in the court records.

Court documents, though, show that her estate signed a $95,000 contract in 2008 with Alicon Construction to remodel her house and make it wheelchair accessible. The records do not show if that note was paid or if the construction was finished.

An official with Alicon Construction did not want to comment.

Monica Yepez contends the construction was never completed, and that a second company had to come in and finish the work.

"I wish I knew where that stood because my house still isn't ready and my aunt is coming to help take care of me," she said.