When Elizabeth Whitney and her husband, Marvin Whitney, retired to Santa Barbara in 1975, they planned for years spent on the golf course and traveling, but he died unexpectedly in 1977. Betty Whitney lived out her life “whip-smart” to the age of 102, her obituary last November stated, but her grand-daughter April Whitney had noticed her grandmother slowing down a bit, needing a wheelchair in her last six months at a retirement community. About four years ago, she became concerned about two women handling some of her grandmother’s financial affairs, a fear that culminated in the arrest of Erica Salda and Wendy Jane Foster on April 11.
Salda is a Santa Barbara insurance agent, and Foster is an Oxnard financial advisor. According to the California Department of Insurance, the two had convinced Betty Whitney to liquidate her $3.5 million investment portfolio and then “churned” her account over 10 years. The two signed her up for a successive 25 annuity policies between 2006 and 2015, most without Whitney’s knowledge, the insurance investigator declared, incurring penalties for early closures. Salda made $1 million in commissions, the complaint alleges, and Foster was paid $400,000 in fees. The department claims the two tried to isolate Betty Whitney from her family and friends, and received cash gifts in the five-figure range.
The two were jailed in their respective counties on $500,000 bail. Salda’s attorney, Stephen Dunkle, said he couldn’t talk about the case, since it is a pending matter. He confirmed that she was released from jail on her own recognizance. The court record shows that Salda has pled not guilty and denied all charges. Sources close to her claimed she was innocent and that Whitney’s finances had grown over the 10 years. Foster had posted bail, the Ventura Sheriff’s Office stated, and calls to attorneys appearing for her were not returned.
In a conversation with Whitney’s granddaughter, April Whitney said her grandfather, Marvin Whitney, was an engineer by profession and “did a great job of planning their finances and investing for my grandmother’s future.” That was more than 40 years ago, and Whitney stated, “He didn’t anticipate she’d live to 102, and neither did she.” Whitney said her grandmother was always “way on top” of her own affairs, so she never “put her nose in her grandmother’s finances.” When her concern led her to suggest a third-party audit of Salda and Foster’s investments, her grandmother replied, oh no, they’re wonderful, they’re my best friends, Whitney said.
The insurance investigator’s declaration stated Betty Whitney was so close to Foster and her four children that they came to call her “Grandma Betty.” But when Foster suggested Whitney strike her son from her will, Whitney became “incensed,” according to the investigator, and sought help from her family. April Whitney said Santa Barbara County’s Adult Protective Services helped them find caregivers and a qualified fiduciary for her grandmother, who had become less and less able to walk after a fall in 2011. “When this came out,” she said, “I was shocked my grandmother allowed these things to happen.” From her research since this happened and conversations with friends, she thinks older people can be more trusting and less skeptical, sometimes to their detriment. “I’ve realized that it is in their best interests to ask questions,” she advised, “to be more probing.”
Salda, who owns E-Pro Insurance Agency, and Foster are being charged by the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office with conspiracy, theft from an elder adult, and multiple counts of insurance fraud. Their next court hearing is June 3.