Sept. 19--BRATTLEBORO -- About 40 minutes before medics arrived at an unconscious Nita Lowery's bedside on March 23, 2009, someone established a PIN number for her credit card and then withdrew a total of $3,018 in the days preceding her death.
In the 21 years Lowery had been a USAA -- or United Services Automobile Association -- member, she had never used her credit card to make cash advances at an ATM, nor had the card come with a default PIN number, said USAA Fraud Investigator Eric Garcia, who testified at the request of the prosecution Wednesday.
One of the first questions prosecutors asked Garcia was if a woman named Jodi LaClaire would have been authorized to make ATM transactions using Lowery's credit card in 2009.
"No, she was not," Garcia said, referring to Lowery's account, which does not list a secondary or alternate user.
LaClaire, 39, of Bennington, N.H., a former nurse's aide at Thompson House, is standing trial in Brattleboro, accused of seven counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult -- charges that were the focus of Wednesday's court testimony. LaClaire also faces one count each of second-degree murder in connection with Lowery's death and elder abuse.
On the morning Lowery was found unconscious in her room at Thompson House, someone requested the available credit on Lowery's card, and then proceeded to withdraw $500 from the former Chittenden Bank -- now People's United Bank -- at 100 Main St. in Brattleboro.
That same person would then attempt to withdraw $800 from a different branch of the bank on Canal Street in Brattleboro, Garcia said. But, he noted, the bank denied that request because it likely exceeded Lowery's daily credit limit.
On March 28, 31, and April 1, 2009 someone withdrew hundreds of dollars more from Lowery's account, but at Ocean Bank and TD Bank ATMs in Keene, according to USAA records Garcia shared with the court Wednesday.
But before anyone could have withdrawn the money in question, he or she would have needed to establish a PIN number -- a step prosecutors allege LaClaire took using Lowery's telephone and personal computer. Prosecutors say Lowery was in her room at the time, but unconscious as a result of a fatal insulin injection.
Detective Lt. Brian Penders of the Vermont State Police was asked by the state in July 2009 to perform a forensic analysis of Lowery's desktop computer. He said the state was looking for computer activity related to USAA on the morning Lowery fell ill.
However, in the weeks following Lowery's death, her grandson, John Lowery 4th, had taken the computer and it was now at his home in Burlington, where Penders would have to go to retrieve it for evidence.
John Lowery and his then-girlfriend were frequent visitors of Lowery at her room at Thompson House, and were seen by the nursing staff at all hours of the day and night, according to prior court testimony. John Lowery had been taking classes at the Community College of Vermont in Brattleboro, so he studied there and was known to use the computer, Lowery's daughter Gail LaHaise said.
When Penders visited the former couple's home in July 2009 to seize Lowery's computer hard drive, they were suspects in a 2008 jewelry theft from the grandmother's room. Today, that theft of more than $20,000 worth of Lowery's jewelry remains unsolved.
In analyzing the data on the computer, Penders found that someone had visited USAA's website beginning at 4:21 a.m. on March 23, 2009. Just prior to that Internet search, someone searched for the term "credit card" in Lowery's personal computer files, Penders said.
At 5:13 a.m. and 5:39 a.m., that same person was still accessing information on the website. And at 5:42 a.m., the computer showed a search in Lowery's personal files for the term "USAA," Penders said.
He also found evidence of Google searches for a New York Times writer and an ex-governor of Vermont, in addition to a history of visits to pornographic websites. But those were searches done on other days and not the morning Lowery was found unconscious, he said.
The activity on Lowery's computer between about 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. coincided with phone calls that prosecutors allege LaClaire made to USAA in an attempt to establish a PIN number for Lowery's credit card.
Hector Castillo, a information technology associate at USAA, testified Wednesday that the first call to USAA was made from Lowery's room at 5:31 a.m. At that time, the caller used Lowery's Social Security number to access her credit card information through the automated system.
The individual called USAA a second time at 5:50 a.m., and again accessed Lowery's financial account by entering her Social Security number.
Lowery's relatives testified earlier in the trial that Lowery wrote down her Social Security number in address books that were in a number of places in her room.
USAA records show the company received a third call from Lowery's phone at 6:24 a.m. Castillo said he suspects that up until this point the caller had been unsuccessful in establishing a credit card PIN number --a process that requires the member to enter his or her unique identification number.
"But on the third call, they provided the membership number," Castillo said.
Marc Lussier, senior security manager for FairPoint Communications, testified Tuesday that his company reported five calls to a toll-free 800 number between 4:44 a.m. and 6:24 a.m. from Lowery's telephone on March 23, 2009. Castillo said Wednesday the 800 telephone number listed on those records is the number for USAA's customer service.
The defense asked Castillo why FairPoint recorded five calls and yet USAA only recorded three that morning.
"If no information was entered into our system then we would not have recorded it," Castillo said, referring to the automated voice system's request for a Social Security number or USAA membership number to access any financial account.
The murder trial continues today.