A daughter has been ordered to pay more than £300,000 after wrongly accusing a 61-year-old churchgoing family friend of looting her dead mother’s home.
The ‘decomposed’ body of Lucille Maeda, 77, was found by police in September 2015 in her £700,000 Surrey home after her USA-based daughter Deborah Ziparo, 59, raised the alarm when she failed to return her calls.
When the former secretary flew over from the states in November 2015 to sort out her mother’s possessions, she claims a long list of valuable items – including her wedding ring and other jewellery – had ‘mysteriously vanished’ from her home.
After spending £100,000 hiring private investigators to solve the puzzle, Mrs Ziparo tried to sue family friend, neighbour and former executor of her mother’s will Christopher Martin, 61.
She accused Mr Martin of ‘taking items’ from her late mother’s home before she arrived in the UK – after not seeing Mrs Maeda for 37 years.
But a judge rejected her claim and cleared Catholic churchgoer Mr Martin, from Frimley, Surrey, of any wrongdoing.
Mrs Ziparo now faces paying bills totalling £300,000.
The ‘decomposed’ body of Lucille Maeda, 77, was found by police in September 2015 in her Surrey home after her USA-based daughter Deborah Ziparo raised the alarm when she failed to return her calls. Mrs Ziparo tried to sue family friend, neighbour and former executor of her mother’s will Christopher Martin, 61, (right) for taking jewellery and other valuables, but a judge cleared his name
Judge Simon Monty QC said the missing items had probably been sold by the pensioner, who was in financial difficulty and had sold other jewellery.
He said Mrs Ziparo had been ‘too willing’ to point the finger at Mr Martin.
Speaking afterwards, quality engineer Mr Martin – who had known Mrs Maeda’s family for 30 years as his parents were close friends and neighbours – said: ‘This has just been a nightmare for me for five years.’
Mrs Maeda was British-born, but lived in the US for some time, where she had three children with her American first husband before moving back to the UK.
She then lived in Germany, where she met her second husband, Susumu Maeda.
In the 1980s, she moved into the same street as Mr Martin’s parents in Merrow, near Guildford, where the retired secretary’s body was found by police on the floor of her home on September 24, 2015, after the alarm was raised by her daughter.
Mrs Ziparo said she had been calling her mother up to 20 times a day for weeks and getting no response, and told a coroner’s inquest that she had ‘feared the worst’.
A post-mortem examination was carried out, but the cause of death was ‘unascertained’ because the pathologist was unable to conduct a toxicology report because there were no fluids or blood to take.
The inquest concluded that Mrs Maeda – who had become a ‘reclusive hoarder’ after the death of her husband in 2011 – could have been lying undiscovered for weeks before the police found her.
Family friend Mr Martin had been appointed one of the executors of Mrs Maeda’s will made in 2012.
But Mrs Ziparo – who inherited her mother’s entire estate – took him to court and had him removed from that role by a judge in 2019.
She then sued him at Central London County Court, demanding that he pay her mother’s estate for the missing valuables.
This included the cost of jewellery, that Mrs Ziparosays her mother had told her she had placed in an envelope and was keeping for her, and the costs of her investigation.
Her barrister Gideon Roseman claimed that Mr Martin had ‘secretly attended the property on repeated occasions’ but ‘failed to carry out any inventory of the chattels in the property during any of his repeated visits.
‘It is clear a number of valuable chattels have mysteriously vanished from the property,’ he said.
‘Despite the fact there is clear evidence the deceased owned expensive jewellery and other valuable chattels, many of these items have disappeared.’
But giving his ruling, Judge Monty said there was no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Mr Martin.
He said the missing items were likely to have been sold by Mrs Maeda or skipped when the house was cleared.
‘The basis of the claim can fairly be said to be put as a process of elimination,’ the judge said.
The £700,000 house in Guildford, Surrey, where Lucille Maeda lived and her body was found
‘It is said that there were items belonging to Mrs Maeda which were in the property when her body was discovered in September 2015.
‘By the end of December 2015, those items were no longer in the property and that in the particular circumstances of this case, the only conclusion can be that it was Mr Martin who wrongfully removed the items.
‘In order to prove this contention […] it must be established that the items were there at the outset […] and that they were no longer there at the end […] and that their disappearance is because Mr Martin took them or unlawfully permitted or authorised their removal.’
The judge highlighted evidence that Mrs Maeda ‘appears to have been living off her credit cards and to have got into financial difficulty’ and that she had previously sold items of jewellery for cash.
‘In my view, it is quite likely that Mrs Maeda made further sales of jewellery which are undocumented.
‘Any written record of further sales may have been somewhere among the papers in the house which went into the skip,’ the judge found.
‘In my view, the claimant was too willing to assume that her mother was right about placing jewellery in an envelope and was not prepared to accept that her mother might have made a mistake,’ he added.
He also said she was ‘too willing’ to blame Mr Martin, who the judge found was completely innocent.
‘Having heard Mr Martin cross-examined at length, I formed the clear view that he is not a dishonest man and that he was giving truthful evidence,’ he said.
‘I accept that he did not find an envelope full of jewellery at the property.
Turning to the other missing items – which included expensive watches and Cartier cigarette lighters – the judge went on: ‘In my judgment, what actually happened was far more prosaic than the alleged theft of dozens of items, most of negligible value.
‘The items now said to be missing were thrown into the skip during the house clearance.’
The judge ordered Mrs Ziparo to pay Mr Martin’s lawyers’ bill, with £80,000 up front pending an assessment of the final total, which could be more than £160,000.
She will also have to pay her own costs of about £210,000, which includes her fees for the private investigators.
Mr Martin’s barrister William Moffett said he had been ‘perplexed and upset’ at the allegations and that Mrs Ziparo, in spending hundreds of thousands on the case, had ‘lost all sense of proportion and reality in this matter.’
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