POMPANO BEACH, Fla. -- Olive Preito was a geriatric miracle at the state retirement office: The long-time public school teacher had turned 107 in January and was still going strong, cashing her monthly pension checks at a military surplus store in Pompano Beach.
She was so active that she never was around when state workers called her apartment last spring. She was at the doctor's office, in bed or simply not at home, relatives said.
What Olive Preito really was, was dead. Since 1950.
So, who was cashing the checks?
Her 72-year-old nephew was arrested yesterday in Pompano Beach after being secretly filmed cashing Olive Preito's last $616 check, state investigators said.
The total take since her death in 1950, police say: $125,000.
"For 40 years, we had no reason to be suspicious," said Pat Connolly, chief of Florida's Bureau of Benefit Payments. "There were even letters in her files dating from the '70s -- a change of address and that sort of thing. There are verifications on file that she was still living up until we caught him."
Olive Preito's nephew, Lars Copeland, who police say is a leader at the Free Will Holiness Church in Pompano Beach, was charged with second-degree grand theft and 36 counts of forgery -- one for each of the retirement checks he is accused of cashing over the past three years.
Mr. Copeland was being held yesterday in the Broward County Jail on $41,000 bond.
Because of the statute of limitations, investigators did not charge Mr. Copeland with cashing all the checks mailed to his Pompano Beach home, said Don McCrindle, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
State retirement officials say the case of the long-dead school teacher was particularly difficult to break because Olive Preito taught grade school in Florida's Panhandle in a time when many teachers did not have social security numbers. She also died before national death records were put on computerized tapes, making it harder for auditors to match against elderly state employees still receiving retirement benefits.
The state first grew suspicious last year during an audit of the handful of pension-receiving retirees over the age of 100. Although notarized forms showed that a relative had power of attorney over Olive Preito's account because she was too ill to handle it herself, auditors grew nervous when they were unable to reach her by phone.
Mr. Copeland told the auditors that his aunt was weak but still alive, police say. But he never produced her notarized signature -- something he had promised them over the phone in April 1992, Mr. McCrindle said.
OC A month later, Mr. Copeland called back and told the office his
aunt had just died, Mr. McCrindle said. Her death certificate, however, did not surface when auditors checked. The office called in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for help in November.
Abandoning their computers, investigators checked back 10 years, then 20, then 40 years. They discovered Olive Preito's death certificate in the Bureau of Vital Statistics: Born Jan. 8, 1886. Died May 9, 1950, in Lake City, Fla.