ST. PETE BEACH, Fla. — Under guardianship in Florida, a stranger can take you to court and have all your rights taken away, even if you have family members willing to care for you.
The ABC Action News I-Team uncovered the financial, emotional and deadly consequences of guardianship for one Florida woman and her family.
Genyte Dirse lived and built her American dream at a small hotel beside one of Florida’s best beaches.
“She had a rental business in St. Pete beach in the Don Cesar area and she was doing very well,” her great-nephew Gedi Pakalnis said. “I lived with my great aunt or nearby for almost 15 years and she's like my mother.”
“She was out there every single day, when she was in her 80s, out there sweeping,” Dirse’s neighbor Beth Morean said.
Morean lived across the street from Dirse for 38 years.
“She kept it clean around here. Always had a smile on her face,” her tenant, Tim Everett, said of Dirse. “He (Pakalnis) took care of her. She took care of him. That’s what family does.”
Pakalnis moved from Lithuania as a teen and lived rent-free at the Dirse hotel through college and graduate school.
“He was helping with the property and meals and cleaning. Doing everything,” Morean said.
Trouble in paradise
Tim Everett says the hotel was Dirse’s version of paradise.
“She enjoyed it so much, I think she'd rather be here than anywhere else,” he said.
But as Hurricane Irma approached in September 2017, there was trouble in paradise.
“It started with a real estate agent who was pushing her to sell her property,” Pakalnis said.
After Pakalnis flew to Lithuania for a family emergency, neighbors say realtor Diana Sames began showing up at the hotel.
“She never knew her. She was never a friend to her,” Morean said, adding that she had never seen Sames around the hotel before.
Everett says he overheard Dirse refusing to list her property with Sames.
“Genny would say ‘I no sell. I no sell,’” Everett recalled.
But as Hurricane Irma approached, Sames took Dirse to ride out the storm at her former client's home across the street from her hotel, posting a YouTube video of the two there.
Months after the hurricane, Dirse sold one of her three buildings to her great-nephew for a below-market price of $50,000, closing at a title company in front of a notary and witnesses.
Sames went to a lawyer who helped her file a petition to ask a judge to declare Dirse incapacitated.
In that court document, she claimed Pakalnis had exploited Dirse.
Sames also misspelled Genyte’s first name and wrote “Her native language is unknown and she speaks English with a heavy accent.”
Sames also described herself to the judge as a close neighbor to Dirse, but she lives six-tenths of a mile from her.
As court proceedings progressed, Dirse reported unwanted visits from Sames.
“This is Dirse Apartment Hotel. Diana Sames comes all the time here. Very bad woman, talking, talking too much,” Dirse said, in a 9-1-1 call made in February 2018.
“It was against her will, but she loves him”
Sames initially declined our interview requests, but we caught up with her outside her office.
“I was so happy to involve myself with the corruption that I saw,” Sames said. “He was dishonest. He didn't contact any of the family members. And he did it by himself and it was against her will, but she loves him.”
Sames denied she had any interest in Dirse’s property.
“All I care about is Geny Dirse. I don't care about any other dramas. And it was very important to protect her interests,” Sames said.
Judge Pam Campbell declared Dirse incapacitated, took away her rights and placed her in guardianship to protect her from her great-nephew.
“He was taking property from Mrs.Dirse for less than the fair market value during the time of the guardianship being established. So that does raise concerns about Mrs. Dirse's right mind,” Judge Campbell said during a court hearing.
“She’s trying to get her hotel back”
The judge appointed Traci Samuel, now known as Traci Hudson, to be Dirse’s guardian. Samuel was paid from Dirse’s funds.
She used Dirse’s money to file an eviction lawsuit against Pakalnis and to try to reverse the sale of the hotel.
“She's trying to get her hotel back. She didn't sell it to him,” Samuel testified.
Samuel initially hired caregivers to take care of Dirse at the hotel, but one day, Pakalnis caught a caregiver on videotape yelling at Dirse and pulling her by her arm.
Pakalnis reported the incident to police, but no charges were filed.
Samuel told the court she stopped using that company after the incident and Dirse was moved into assisted living. Pakalnis, her nephew, was prevented from seeing or communicating with her.
“She doesn't want him to visit. I’m respecting the privacy of her,” Samuel said.
Guardian arrested on felony charges
In November 2019, Dirse’s guardian known then as Traci Hudson was arrested, accused of stealing more than half-a-million dollars from a 92-year old man under her care. Authorities say she used the money to buy a 4,000 square foot house in Riverview, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tickets and jewelry.
“That case she was charged with is a power of attorney case, so totally different from our guardianship cases,” Judge Pam Campbell said, at a hearing for family members and attorneys for about two dozen people under Hudson’s care.
That case is still ongoing and Hudson has not been charged in the Dirse case. But the judge assigned Dirse a new guardian who filed documents with the court showing that Dirse, while under Hudson’s care, had “not been to an eye doctor, nor a dentist.”
As for Dirse’s home, the guardian wrote “nothing has been done, not even food out of the refrigerator. Speechless! ”
Hudson also failed to turn over Dirse’s tax returns, family contact numbers, bank statements, canceled checks, keys and dozens of other items, despite a judge’s order.
Court records show guardians and lawyers billed Dirse $287,648 in less than two years.
“It cannot be any worse”
In late April, Pakalnis received the news he most feared.
“I see on my phone pop up a message, email message saying that my aunt is hospitalized and infected with coronavirus,” Pakalnis said. “And my heart said this is not good news. “
Pakalnis tried to find a way to visit or talk to his great-aunt.
“The problem is we had an order, a no visitation order,” he said. “I started communication with an attorney and then the guardian.”
Dirse died less than a week later. Pakalnis didn’t talk to her during the last year-and-a-half of her life.
He held a memorial service in her honor on the beach in front of her hotel, with attendees wearing masks and standing apart – unable to hug and comfort each other.
“She loved her beach home and worked around it until she was moved to an assisted living facility,” Pakalnis said. “We wish that the last two years away from her family and her home would not be lost to her. That things could have been different for her and for all of us. “
Dirse was entombed next to her late husband. She was one of more than 7,000 Floridians living or working in long-term care facilities to die from COVID-19.
Pakalnis fought to expose issues with the guardianship process during the time he wasn’t allowed to see his relative.
“Now we have the results. The results were getting worse and worse. And on May 5, we end up with my aunt’s … death. It cannot be any worse. It can’t be worse,” he said.
If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org