UPPER WEST SIDE — With the wave of a wand, her fortune vanished.
A father-and-daughter scam team cast a spell over the frail and elderly widow of a renowned 20th century magician and looted her out of $1 million, court papers charge.
The family of Maurine Christopher says Santos and Jessica Molina posed as her caretakers but were really just controlling her bank accounts to write checks to themselves, to use her credit cards to purchase items at Victoria’s Secret and Juicy Couture and to get her to auction off hundreds of thousands of dollars of magic memorabilia.
The Molinas are accused of siphoning away Christopher’s money over the course of several years — despite the city’s Adult Protective Services twice opening investigations into allegations of financial elder abuse.
And even though Christopher died at 92 in 2013, her family claims in court papers filed July 16 in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court that the scheme hasn’t stopped. They accuse Santos of continuing to live illegally in her apartment in the Turin, a luxury apartment on Central Park West.
“This is the most egregious example of financial elder abuse I’ve ever seen,” said William Russo, a lawyer for Christopher’s brother and niece, who want a judge to remove Santos as the preliminary executor of her estate and force him to account for the money that went poof.
Christopher’s niece, Elaine Marie Brooks, described her aunt in an affidavit as a “courageous, independent and strong-willed” journalist who worked to preserve the legacy of her husband, Milbourne Christopher, a master illusionist, escapologist and historian of the craft who wrote Harry Houdini’s biography.
Milbourne was among the first magicians to perform his act on television in the 1950s. One trick was catching a bullet with his teeth.
“He was one of the pioneering magicians to get a network special in the 1950s,” David Haversat, a magician and Maurine's friend, told DNAinfo New York. “He lived his entire life in the field of magic. He was on Johnny Carson and the early Ed Sullivan show.”
After Milbourne’s death in 1984, Maurine started a foundation in his name that honors magicians, and oversaw the republishing of his most famous book, “The Illustrated History of Magic.”
“She was pretty much in command and in control of how she wanted his name to be remembered and what she wanted to do,” recalled Haversat, who collaborated with Maurine on republishing her husband’s books.
But when Maurine reached her late 80s, she weighed 90 pounds, was drinking heavily and was beginning to lose her faculties, her family says. That’s when the Molinas allegedly swooped in.
She met Santos, who is now 71, at one of her local drinking joints around 2005.
“After the two met, Santos Molina introduced [Maurine] to casino gambling and encouraged her drinking habits in order to further his scheme to systematically loot her assets,” Russo said in a court filing.
Brooks, who lives in Tennessee, said in an affidavit that she met Santos in 2009 when he accompanied her aunt on a trip to the state. Despite Maurine being more than 20 years his senior, Brooks initially believed they had a true friendship.
“What I eventually learned, however, was that this was not a friendship between two individual who mutually cared about each other,” Brooks said in the legal filing. “Instead, it was a friendship in which the older, more vulnerable individual came to depend on the younger individual, who exploited the older individual for personal financial gain.”
Santos told DNAinfo that the accusations were false. He countered that Maurine’s relatives, who didn't live in New York, showed little concern for her, never visited her during her final days and didn’t attend her funeral.
“I loved her like a mom. I did so much for her,” Santos said. “It’s insanity that they didn’t come to witness when she died. I had to bury her. I had to cremate her. I had to scatter her ashes.”
But Maurine’s family says that’s a bunch of hocus pocus.
They accuse Santos — who is married and has a home in Delhi, N.Y., but lived with Maurine sometimes — of isolating her from relatives.
They claim in court papers that when Maurine was hospitalized in 2010 after falling out of bed, she told her doctors that she was being held captive by a man against her will.
When Maurine was released, Santos had his daughter Jessica start working for her as a housekeeper and later as a caregiver despite not having any training, according to Brooks.
The Molinas also obtained power of attorney, according to the court papers.
They’re accused of using Maurine’s credit cards to buy steak dinners, gasoline and clothes at Juicy Couture and Victoria’s Secret — items that a 90-pound elderly woman who ate very little and didn’t drive wouldn’t need.
One credit card purchase was at Bounce U, a kids’ party venue where children can jump on large inflatable structures.
It is “unlikely that an elderly, frail, alcoholic woman would invite nine of her friends to jump around on bouncy castles for two hours,” Russo said in a court filing.
The Molinas are also accused of writing $214,753 in checks from Maurine’s bank accounts to themselves.
They also persuaded Maurine to sell $573,320 worth of her husband’s magic memorabilia and place the money in an account that would transfer to them when she died, court documents claim.
Santos Molina told DNAinfo that the items were gifts from Maurine to him and his daughter.
Maurine’s family also accuse the Molinas of stymieing and lying to investigators from Adult Protective Services, a program run by the city’s Human Resources Administration that helps at-risk adults live safely in their homes.
During a 2010 probe into alleged financial abuse, Jessica Molina, who is now 29, lied to an APS social worker, claiming she had known Maurine her entire life, court papers charge. Maurine’s family also claims she coached Maurine during the social worker’s visit.
City records show that the social worker closed the case without any action because Maurine’s estate planning lawyer, Maura Murphy, was willing to assist her in overseeing her finances.
In 2013, during the second probe over alleged financial abuse, an APS social worker visited Maurine’s apartment. The social worker noted that a man there may have misidentified himself as Maurine’s brother, John Brooks, because the information the man provided did not match records.
Russo, who represents Brooks, said his client was not there during that APS visit and it was likely Santos impersonating him.
However, the APS social worker closed the case less than two months after its start because Maurine died on Feb. 28, 2013.
The Human Resource Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Maurine's family members say Santos also coerced her into changing her will several times. The will evolved from him receiving $10,000 to him getting her $1.1 million apartment and other assets valued at more than $347,000.
Santos is also named as the executor of the estate in her will. Maurine's brother and niece want a public administrator who would have no conflict of interest looking for missing money.
Haversat, Maurine's magician friend, said he purchased some of the memorabilia she sold during auctions in 1997 and 2011.
He said he was surprised about the financial fight between the Molinas and Maurine's family. He described her as a no-nonsense person “who didn’t allow a lot people of into her life or into her place.”
“It wasn’t my business,” he said of Maurine's relationship with Santos. “I just thought, 'Well, it’s an older woman who has a caregiver there.'”