Sherwood Svarvari had a sneaking suspicion that something was amiss about four years ago. Shortly after his aunt died, Svarvari got a call from a woman in Oregon who claimed to be a good friend who'd been helping her with bill paying.

"I talked to my aunt about every week," says Svarvari, who lives in California. "And I'd never heard her mention this woman." His suspicions grew when he learned his elderly aunt had bought the woman a Lincoln City beach house as a wedding gift.

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge pro tem L. Randall Weisberg was inclined to agree. On Dec. 8, Weisberg found Deborah Ann Pelikan, an insurance agent for Bankers Life and Casualty Company, guilty on 13 counts of theft from Freda Eakin. Pelikan, 44, is due to be sentenced Feb. 4; she could spend six years behind bars.

Lawyers and senior citizens' advocates say elder-abuse cases are extremely difficult to prosecute. The victims are often too bewildered to act as good witnesses (if they're even still alive), and the scams that snare them often seem legit. What makes this case noteworthy--and maybe even a first in Oregon--is that prosecutors were able to secure Pelikan's conviction based on the projected wishes of a dead woman. Eakin died four years ago, at the age of 81.

"Trying to prove something like this without a victim [to testify] is difficult," says Brenda Allen, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case. "This is the first one I know of that has gone to trial."

Part of what made Pelikan's prosecution feasible was the extensive paper trail she left behind. After Pelikan gained Eakin's confidence in January 1999 and sold her an insurance policy with an initial premium payment of $84,000, she knew she had an easy victim. Pretending she was offering her client friendly help, Pelikan funneled approximately $350,000 from the confused Eakin's bank account directly to her own, using the proceeds to renovate her home and buy a new car.

Portland detectives also found extensive records of Pelikan's huge gambling losses at Spirit Mountain Casino. Pelikan even got hold of the key to Eakin's safe-deposit box and swiped everything inside, including jewelry and her original will.

But even when stacks of evidence are available, the lack of resources for elder-abuse enforcement makes it all but impossible to get cases heard, says Portland lawyer Roberta Siegel, the conservator of Eakin's estate.

"At the end of the case, the district attorneys were telling us they don't have the money, time or interest to take up these cases," Siegel says. "People haven't realized that elder abuse is a big problem, and it's only going to get worse."

Siegel has filed a civil suit against Pelikan to recover the lost money and has also included Bankers Life in the list of defendants, claming the Chicago-based insurer, which focuses exclusively on seniors, failed to adequately supervise Pelikan. She's seeking damages of $1.7 million.

Svarvari, who came to Portland for the criminal trial, says the verdict was not exactly cause for celebration. "You hate to see anyone taken advantage of," he says. "My Aunt Freda was a kind and gentle person."