Sarah Wilding wanted her church in Anderson to receive the bulk of her estate when she died in April 2012. The church is still waiting, and so are other beneficiaries who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to a lawyer accused of plundering their estates.
Stephen W. Schuyler, 62, was Wilding’s estate attorney, and about two years after he opened her estate, it became clear something didn’t add up. After Wilding’s individual heirs received their inheritances, the only residual beneficiary was the church.
Anderson attorney Patrick Cunningham represents East Lynn Christian Church and intervened in the estate case in April 2014. After Cunningham moved for distribution of the church’s share of the estate, Schuyler twice failed to obey court orders to appear at hearings. An arrest warrant was issued last December and stayed for a week to give Schuyler an opportunity to comply.
Schuyler responded and initially appeared to satisfy the court. “Initially, (the church) thought they were only going to get about $78,000,” Cunningham said. “And (Schuyler) gave us a bad check.”
It was at this point in January of this year that Madison Circuit Court Commissioner Jason Childers notified the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission. A short time later, Magistrate Judge Stephen Clase referred the case to the county prosecutor and removed Schuyler from all estate and guardianship cases he represented.
But Schuyler’s alleged crimes were only beginning to come to light. After Anderson attorney Charles W. Byer was appointed to handle Wilding’s estate, he determined more than $164,000 was missing and rightfully belonged to the church. “All the checks essentially were payable to Mr. Schuyler,” Byer said.
Other shortchanged heirs were soon discovered in estates Schuyler represented.
Schuyler’s alleged theft from Wilding’s estate and three others form the basis of the 13 felony counts he’s facing that were filed in May and amended in September. Attorneys familiar with the case say total losses from the estates may be as high as $500,000, though the total allegedly taken by Schuyler may never be known.
“It got to a point where the state police came to us and said, can we just stop,” said Madison County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Stephen J. Koester. “At some point you’ve got to tell them, let’s focus on what we’ve got and get the case ready.
“In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, there have been a couple of cases that were similar, but nowhere near the amount of money involved,” he said.
Schuyler faces three counts of Class C felony theft of at least $100,000; Class C felony and Level 5 felony counts of corrupt business influence; one count of Class D felony theft; one count of Level 5 felony check deception; four counts of Level 6 felony check deception; and two counts of Level 6 theft.
No trial date has been set.
The corrupt business influence charges allege Schuyler “through a pattern of racketeering activity, knowingly or intentionally acquired or maintained an interest in or control over property or an enterprise.”
Schuyler’s criminal defense attorney, Bryan R. Williams, did not reply to messages seeking comment.
In September, Schuyler’s law license was suspended for failure to cooperate with the disciplinary commission. He faces three pending investigations, and the commission has sought suspension for noncooperation in each.
“I feel terrible for the people he took advantage of,” said Anderson attorney John E. Eisele. “It shocked me. It shocked the whole town.”
Eisele purchased a law office building in the 1980s with Schuyler’s father, Billie Schuyler, who Eisele said left his portion of the building to his lawyer son. Eisele never was in partnership with either Schuyler, but he said the association nonetheless may sully his reputation. “I don’t think it could help.”
Eisele said he had to sue the younger Schuyler in a partition action in order to sell the property. “I’m sorry to be in this position, but this is one of those times I have no real choice,” he said.
“The thing that’s really shocking, too, is Steve was left well-off by his father,” Eisele said, describing the senior Schuyler as “just a fine, honest lawyer. … It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Eisele is among more than three dozen witnesses the state may call, which also include representatives of the East Lynn Christian Church, Anderson Monthly Meeting of Friends, Madison County Humane Society and other potential victims prosecutors say were cheated out of bequests.
Byer said nearly a dozen Madison County lawyers were assigned to take over the cases removed from Schuyler, a few of which resulted in possible misappropriation or theft.
“That will all come out eventually,” said Koester.
Local attorneys were assigned roughly 90 to 100 cases after Schuyler was removed, sources estimated.
“I think because of the age (of some of the cases), most of the attorneys were surprised at the number of cases out there left open that were not completed,” Byer said. He said in some cases, it appears Schuyler also may have taken fees for work he didn’t complete.
Schuyler was arrested in May, after the state filed its initial information. Over the state’s objections, Madison Circuit Judge Thomas Newman Jr. in June modified terms of Schuyler’s bond that had been set after his arrest requiring $200,000 full cash. Schuyler was released on his recognizance on the condition he surrender his passport.
Koester said the state argued that given the nature of his crimes, Schuyler could be a flight risk. He argued that as long as Schuyler had disposable property, a cash bond should be required.
Cunningham, meanwhile, is hopeful Wilding’s desire that her estate largely go to her church may still be realized, at least in part. Some of those properties in Schuyler’s name include a lake home in northern Indiana. But there are other names on some of those properties as well as liens.
The church has done what it can to pursue liens of its own where it can, Cunningham said, but it’s unclear whether Wilding’s gift will ever reach its intended recipient.
“This criminal stuff will come, and he’s got to answer for it,” Cunningham said. “I heard somebody say once, you can go to prison for taking somebody’s money, but you take money from a church, you might go to hell.”•