This is Part 2 of a BuzzFeed News investigation. For Part 1, click here.
It was 2,000 miles away, in Florida, that a retired engineer and former Navy reservist named Doug Keegan donned a crisp suit and said his vows. His bride wore a white dress dotted with pink flowers. Monica Steele had transformed Keegan’s life since the pair met the previous year. After decades as a bachelor, he finally had someone to cook for, sing to, and teach how to swing a golf club. They had already honeymooned in Kenya. Now it was time to make it official. “When I said ‘I’m going to love you forever,’” he later recalled, “that was cemented into my heart.”
The two couples were worlds apart in age, wealth, and social background — but their marriages had something in common that neither could have imagined. They would each be used to support arguments that both Wynter and Keegan had mental disabilities so profound that they were incapable of making decisions about their own lives and should instead live under the control of virtual strangers.
Wynter and Keegan were sucked into America’s sprawling guardianship system, which was designed as a last-resort protection for people who are incapacitated by a mental or physical disability. Guardians who carry out their duties faithfully can provide a lifeline for those in need. But an ongoing BuzzFeed News investigation has found that the system has grown into a lucrative and poorly regulated industry that has subsumed more than a million adults.
Most of the freedoms articulated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights are denied to people under full guardianship: They can lose their rights to vote, marry, start a family, decide where they live, consent to medical treatment, spend their money, seek employment, or own property. It is among the most severe measures the courts can impose on a US citizen.
Our investigation has revealed how an established network of guardians, lawyers, and expert witnesses, appearing frequently before the same judges in local courts across the country, are often paid from the estate of the person whose freedom is on the line, creating many possible conflicts of interest. Guardians who work for the state get paid from government funds, sometimes overseeing hundreds of people at a time. Other wards are consigned to the care of untrained volunteers or family members. All scenarios can leave vulnerable people susceptible to abuse.
Debra Slater, an attorney who has handled hundreds of guardianship cases in Florida, said the system is intended to help people who cannot help themselves and added that the majority of guardians and lawyers work hard to ensure people in their care live the fullest lives possible. But abuses can occur, she acknowledged. “For my whole professional life, I’ve been speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Slater said. “It is very frustrating to spend your life trying to do that and then to see others taking advantage and doing harm to those who need protection most.”
People whom the courts have declared to be incapacitated rarely lead straightforward lives. Wynter has serious mental health issues; Keegan has ongoing struggles with alcoholism. Caring for people under those circumstances is undoubtedly challenging. Their cases also show how people coping with complex life challenges can get trapped in guardianships that are dangerously ill-suited to their actual needs and deny them what some experts call the “dignity of risk”: the right to make their own choices, both good and bad.
For Keegan and Wynter, guardianship meant being denied one of the most fundamental rights of all: to be with the person you love.
Neither had a fairy-tale marriage, but their cases raise the question of when, if ever, a third party should get to decide whether two adults deserve to be together.
When Keegan’s relatives found out he had married Monica Steele, a Kenyan American trainee nurse, they hired lawyers to persuade a judge to put him under guardianship, blocking her access to money the family expected to inherit. Lawyers cited alcoholism and his marriage to a woman they claimed was encouraging him to drink and stealing his money as proof that he was incapable of making his own decisions. Along the way, they referred incorrectly to Steele as Keegan’s “mail-order wife” and falsely alleged he was being “grifted by Nigerian women,” records show. He was locked in a series of homes for people with severe mental impairment, while annual accounting records show his guardians spent more than $400,000 of his savings in fees and other guardianship expenses.
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As a teenager living in poverty, Wynter was placed under the permanent control of a guardian without a court hearing. For months, she begged to be released from a residential facility where she said she was “in so much damn pain” and “getting worse every day.” After BuzzFeed News started looking into her claims, a state agency launched an investigation and found that staffers there had abused and neglected her.
The public rarely hears from people under guardianship, but Keegan and Wynter overcame tremendous odds to speak to BuzzFeed News about their experiences over more than seven months. They hid their communications from guardians, concealing burner phones and secretly logging on to computers. Many of the people who have been instrumental in keeping them under guardianship said it had provided them the stability they very much needed. The benefits of guardianship were obvious, they said, and claims to the contrary were lies or delusions that should not be trusted. BuzzFeed News reviewed thousands of pages of documents and conducted dozens of interviews to report on their cases.
Keegan’s and Wynter’s desperate attempts to break free — or even to seize a simple moment of freedom, such as riding a bike or stealing a kiss — further cemented their fates. Only one of them would escape.
Keegan first heard he was facing guardianship when a stranger turned up at his door a few weeks after his wedding, in November 2014. Dressed in a suit, with graying hair and a gravelly voice, he introduced himself as Calvin Horvath, Keegan’s new court-appointed attorney.
Keegan’s family had filed a petition asking the court to place him under emergency guardianship, Horvath explained. They said he had been incapacitated by years of excessive drinking and that his new wife was trying to steal his money.
He did not deny his troubles with drinking, which included several hospitalizations for severe alcohol poisoning and a DUI. He’d had spells in Alcoholics Anonymous, but said he found the emphasis on a higher power off-putting, so he tried to control his drinking on his own. He was blindsided by his family’s move. “My background is I’m an alcoholic, but there’s nothing wrong with my mind,” he said. “I’m as sharp as a tack.”
After working all over the world as an electrical engineer, Keegan had retired in his early 50s to a three-bedroom condo in Orlando with soaring cathedral ceilings. He met his wife when he got lonely and advertised for housemates online. Monica Steele was an energetic trainee nurse in her late 30s who had emigrated from Kenya a decade earlier and become a US citizen. Romance quickly blossomed.
She said she loved it when he sang to her — “Tomorrow” from Annie was her favorite — and laughed at his jokes until she cried. Keegan cooked up hamburgers and steaks, and she introduced him to Kenyan staples like boiled beans with corn and peppers. He still had lapses into heavy drinking, and the relationship could get stormy, but both said Steele pushed him to stay healthy. They went to the gym together, and he taught her to ride a bike. “She was someone to share life with,” Keegan said.
When he told his relatives he had married Steele, he said, he expected some backlash, but not its ferocity.
His brother Kevin Keegan turned up at their house, the couple said, claiming Steele had only married him for money and a green card. Steele, who already had US citizenship, said she was outraged. “I loved him,” she said. “He’s a very good person and a very, very intelligent man.” But the rest of the family soon joined in.
“My family didn’t like me marrying a Black girl,” Keegan said.
The family painted a starkly different picture of the relationship in court filings and in responses to questions from BuzzFeed News, maintaining that the marriage was a sham and that they were trying to rescue Keegan from an exploitative situation. “My brother Douglas is the gift that just keeps on giving,” Kevin wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “Most of the family took turns trying to help Doug but like many alcoholics he resists AA and other available help. All the unfortunate things that have occurred to him are his own making.”
A lawyer representing Kevin challenged the suggestion that the family had objected to Steele’s race. “The truth is that Douglas has battled inner demons for quite some time now,” the lawyer wrote, adding that “Monica didn’t seem to help.”
“This is a complicated situation and the family has stepped in for his interest doing the best they could to help a loved person,” he added.
Both Keegan and Steele strongly denied that she had ever taken advantage of him. But Keegan said his relatives had never shown much interest in him before, and part of him had wanted to believe they cared. It was true that Steele was less frugal than he was; she wanted him to buy her a car, he said, and he refused. He figured those kinds of tensions were normal in any marriage, he said, but he agreed to his brother’s request to talk to a lawyer about “some sort of protection like a postnuptial agreement.”
Emails between the newlyweds show tensions building up. “I am heartbroken and not sure what’s going on with the so-called Attorney and your family,” Steele wrote to Keegan. “I know they’re trying to create enemity between us because i am a black woman.” Keegan said he and Steele both sometimes wondered if it would be easier just to end the marriage, but they resolved to try to make it work.
The lawyer, Dean Turman, talked to Keegan about drawing up a will bequeathing his wealth to his siblings, records show. Keegan figured that was fair for the time being, since his marriage was only a few weeks old. He also signed a power of attorney — believing, he said, that it would be used to make an asset protection plan. “I didn’t perceive the threat,” he told BuzzFeed News, speaking over a burner phone.
Billing records reveal that Turman and Kevin had already met privately to discuss plans to put Doug under some kind of guardianship — although the lawyer noted that he seemed “competent.” Using the power of attorney Keegan had signed, Turman froze his accounts, telling his bank that he was “the subject of exploitation by a woman that he has met on the internet.” Then he filed a guardianship petition on the family’s behalf, alleging that Steele had used deception to “induce the proposed Ward to marry her” and had encouraged Keegan to drink so she could steal his money.
Turman declined to respond to detailed questions from BuzzFeed News. He said aspects of this story were “absolutely false” but refused to specify his concerns.
Keegan was outraged and said he had told his lawyer to fight the incapacity petition all the way. Instead, records reveal how the actions of Horvath, along with Turman, and other professionals in the case, paved the way for Keegan to lose his rights. In the first full year of the guardianship alone, they were collectively paid $140,000 from his accounts. Horvath refused to answer detailed questions from BuzzFeed News, citing confidentiality.
Keegan’s predicament reflects an all-too-common occurrence across the US, in which people facing complex personal challenges can become trapped in a system with no one fighting for their wishes.
Florida’s laws, like those of most other states, say judges should establish guardianships only when no less restrictive option is possible. But the hearings in which they are decided can conclude in just a few minutes without considering any alternatives. Many states allow petitions to put people under a guardianship to be heard on an emergency “ex parte” basis — a measure that can be necessary in extreme cases where someone may pose an imminent danger to themselves or others. But that procedure can be misused to strip people of their rights without any advance warning or any chance to speak up on their own behalf. And once a person has been declared incapacitated, they generally lose their right to contract, so in most states they can’t appoint their own lawyer to speak up for them, either.
Guardianship statutes often allow court-appointed lawyers to make their own determinations about what is in the ward’s best interests, regardless of what the person wants. But that’s not the case in Florida, where the law is intended to give people who have been found incapacitated more of a voice. “If the ward expresses a wish to resist the guardianship, the attorney should zealously advocate for that,” Anthony Palmieri, the state’s leading guardianship investigator, told BuzzFeed News. “Does that always happen? No.”
Keegan said it was his understanding that he didn’t have to attend his first court date, and that Horvath had reassured him that a full hearing would follow after a panel of doctors had examined him. But that first hearing turned out to be critical.
Lawyers for the family told the judge that Keegan was a “chronic alcoholic” and repeated their claim that Steele was stealing from him. Keegan had sobered up recently, they said, but that was only because his relatives had stepped in to help him. Keegan acknowledged in later filings that his alcoholism was “a health issue” that he was “well aware of” — but he said it had been used as a “pretext” for his family’s efforts to take control of his life. “Guardianship is not a substance abuse program,” he wrote.
On the day of the hearing, Horvath read out excerpts of an email in which his client said he would be happy to accept some help from his relatives, but that he was not incapacitated. “I do not believe guardianship is the best answer,” Keegan had written. “I want to believe it is in my best interest to have primary control over my financial and personal interests.”
But in contrast to his client’s stated wishes, Horvath told the court it would be “appropriate” to appoint his stepfather as his emergency temporary guardian.
The judge agreed to place Keegan under emergency guardianship “because of all these parasites gnawing at the door.”
Later, when Keegan found out that his own lawyer had agreed to the arrangement, he said his wishes had been deliberately “misrepresented” in “a mockery of due process, transparency, and rule of law.”
But that came too late. Addressing Keegan’s stepfather, the judge said: “You will possess all of his rights at this point.”
Ever since Wynter was little, she said, the deck has been stacked against her, but her trauma makes it hard to talk about it. “I want out of guardianship so bad but I can’t even explain what led up to it in the first place,” she said earlier this year in a late-night message to BuzzFeed News.
During the rare times Wynter said she could find privacy to speak on the phone, her voice was soft and clear. Sometimes she would send selfies, her dark hair fanned out around her small pale face.
Hospital records, which Wynter shared with BuzzFeed News, describe her as a survivor of child abuse. (For that reason, she is being identified by her first and middle names only.) She told doctors that she first recalled hurting herself on purpose when she was just 7 years old. The records note Wynter’s history of depression, PTSD, and aggressive behavior toward others as she cycled in and out of various residential treatment facilities. She met Jones at one of them when she was 13.
At first, Wynter bullied him. But as Jones tells it, he knew what it was like to be a victim of abuse, and he started doing sweet things for her like pulling her chair out when she sat down at her desk and giving her flowers. Soon they shyly confessed their love for one another. Wynter told him that when she was 9 years old she came down with mono and had a feverish dream she still remembered: that one day a person would save her. Jones was that person, she told him.
The couple dated on and off through their teens and into their early 20s. Jones, who is autistic, had anger issues, and struggled with alcoholism, but he attended the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy, which taught him discipline and the basics of life, he said. If it weren’t for his time there, he said, he’d probably be under guardianship too. Instead, he can live where he wants, choose his own friends, and decide how to make and spend his own money.
Things panned out very differently for Wynter. A few months after she turned 18, she had a psychotic episode and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After six months of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and therapy, she “improved significantly,” records show, and the hospital wanted to discharge her. A group home managed by a provider called Life Skills Wyoming agreed to take her in if she had a guardian.
Hundreds of thousands of young people enter guardianships as soon as they turn 18, as BuzzFeed News has previously reported. Officials often say there’s no other way to ensure their continued care. But research shows that when people lose the right to make decisions, they also lose the opportunity to develop independent living skills. Experts say that overbroad guardianships can have a significant negative impact on a person’s physical and mental health. Conversely, young people who exercise greater self-determination have a better quality of life; studies show they are more likely to gain employment and integrate into the community.
Her case file notes the total time spent on her hearing: “zero minutes.”
In Wyoming, people facing involuntary guardianship have the right to a hearing and a guardian ad litem, whose role is to report to the court on the best interests of the prospective ward. But since Wynter had agreed to her guardianship while she was in the hospital — without fully understanding what she was signing away, she said — her case was considered “uncontested.” The attorney for her prospective guardian filed a motion to waive her rights to representation, arguing she didn’t need it and couldn’t afford it, which the court granted. Her case file notes the total time estimated for her hearing: “zero minutes.”
The court gave Teresa Carlson, a retired teacher, “unlimited plenary power and authority” over Wynter’s life. With a court order, she could sterilize Wynter; if Wynter had children, her guardian could place them up for adoption. Her guardian had the power to control where she lived, whom she spent time with, and whether to consent to her marriage. Carlson did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ repeated and detailed requests for comment. The judge who granted her the guardianship said he declined to comment on pending cases.
According to the law, Wynter had the right to the least restrictive guardianship possible suitable to her circumstances.
If Wynter had an attorney or guardian ad litem, that person could have explained to her the rights she was in danger of losing and could have proposed a more limited guardianship or alternative arrangements, such as “supported decision-making,” under which people with disabilities construct their own formalized support networks. Thirteen states and DC have passed laws encouraging it, and a growing number of people nationwide have been released from guardianship after lawyers presented supported decision-making plans to the court.
But Wynter said she had never heard of those options. She felt trapped and alone.
The court appointed a panel of experts to assess Keegan’s capacity to manage his own life, and he passed the first examination with flying colors — performing above average on a variety of tests. The doctor concluded that he should not be placed under guardianship. “There is no question that continued alcohol abuse in Mr. Keegan’s case impacts his health and safety,” the doctor wrote. “On the other hand this argument places us on a slippery slope. Are we to recommend a guardian for an obese person whose health and safety are at risk?”
A second expert agreed that he had full mental capacity, while a third dissented: Keegan was well groomed and intelligent, his report noted, but his drinking and his “questionable judgement” in getting married justified putting him under guardianship.
The Florida statutes require that if a majority of examining experts find a person under emergency guardianship has capacity, the court must restore their rights. But billing records show that after the first report was filed, Keegan’s own attorney exchanged emails with the other lawyers about a conflict of interest that was used to have the doctor’s evidence disqualified. Horvath then asked the court to delay a hearing in December that had been set to decide whether to release Keegan from guardianship while a new expert report was prepared.
Keegan told BuzzFeed News that he had been expecting his ordeal to end at that hearing; when he learned it had been canceled, he fell into a spell of heavy drinking. Emails show his wife, Steele, begged him to get sober, and the pair agreed to start going to AA together — but then, she said, Keegan’s brother threatened her if she didn’t leave.
“I put some fear into her,” Kevin would later report in emails filed in court by Doug’s guardian. “As you know, the marriage was a sham.” He declined to elaborate when questioned by BuzzFeed News.
The relationship finally crumbled in January. “It was really heartbreaking because I cared for him and I loved him,” Steele said, adding that if she hadn’t been scared, she would still be with Keegan. The photographs from their trip to Kenya are still the screensaver on her TV.
The same month, with Keegan’s permanent fate still undecided, the court appointed a professional to replace his stepfather as his emergency temporary guardian. Jane Pronovost was a leading figure on the Florida guardianship circuit. Her firm, Guardian Angel Services, handled dozens of wards, and she even trained new professional guardians at Daytona State College. She was represented by Frank Nisi Jr., an experienced probate lawyer who had secured many of her previous guardianships.
The guardian took away Keegan’s phones and computers and had his mail redirected to her address, cutting off his contact with the outside world, he later complained in court filings. He had lost the right to drive and control his own money, which he said made him feel trapped in his own home. He made threats against his brother and told his new guardian that he was feeling suicidal. “It was a disaster as far as the drinking goes,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The worst thing you can do is isolate someone.”
Pronovost obtained a court order to have Keegan arrested and locked away in a substance abuse facility for five days. While he was gone, billing records show, she let herself into his home to “search for valuables” and removed $4,900 in cash, which she paid into the accounts from which she drew her fees.
Soon after Keegan got out, on an April day in 2015, she walked into the Orange County probate court — along with Horvath and Nisi — to discuss his fate.
Keegan was “highly agitated,” especially “when the topics of guardianship or his brother were brought up.”
The hearing had been set to decide whether to make Keegan’s guardianship permanent. Another court-appointed physician had by now found “no cognitive or intellectual defects” and determined that Keegan had the capacity to do everything except drive or give away money under the influence of alcohol. The first four evaluations had been performed by experts drawn from a recurring pool in Orange County who could be appointed by judges for fees of up to $350 per assessment. But the professionals bidding to have Keegan declared incapacitated came with new evidence that would prove decisive.
They had approached one of the independent examiners from that pool — a substance abuse counselor named Risé Hannah Page — and hired her privately to perform a fifth examination of Keegan. She was paid $4,650 in four installments for her work on the case.
Page, who met with Keegan at his house, wrote that his memory seemed impaired and that he was “highly agitated,” especially “when the topics of guardianship or his brother were brought up.” She concluded that he “appears to be incapacitated and the scope of the guardianship recommended is plenary,” meaning the full removal of his rights.
Billing records show that, after examining Keegan, Page had sent Pronovost’s lawyer an unfinished draft of her findings, and Nisi made notes and wrote back. The records do not indicate what those notes said, and Page and Nisi both declined to respond to detailed questions from BuzzFeed News. Keegan was charged for the time the lawyer spent reviewing the assessment, as well as for Page’s fees.
Keegan was not present for the hearing, but he had previously emailed his lawyer instructions to mount “the most aggressive defense” possible. Thousands of pages of court documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News show that, though he occasionally consented to various other types of assistance, he consistently opposed any form of guardianship.
But Horvath and the other lawyers asked the judge to enter the new report into evidence. Then, Horvath proposed, “We may be able to dispense with testimony on the matter of the incapacity.”
The other lawyers agreed, and Judge Jose Rodriguez granted the request. “It reads like he’s a mess,” he said after reading the new report. There was time for laughter and small talk as the judge swapped memories with Horvath about a mutual friend and shared stories of his time as editor of the student newspaper at the University of Central Florida.
So it was that Keegan was stripped of all his rights and placed permanently under the control of a stranger.
Wynter’s situation felt just as bleak in the Life Skills facility in Wyoming — a for-profit provider that, according to its website, specializes in treating traumatic brain injuries and other serious cognitive disabilities.
In one late-night message, Wynter told BuzzFeed News she was so bored that she had spent the day making art in her bathroom, arranging her toilet bowl to make it look like it was “smoking” by putting an empty toilet paper roll between the seat and the lid and positioning two other rolls to look like eyes.
But she made more serious allegations, too. Some are impossible to independently corroborate, and she has experienced hallucinations in the past when she’s not on the right medications. But Jones told BuzzFeed News that he was on the phone line with Wynter when, as she alleged, staff called her a “dirty fat slut” and told her she was better off dead.
Wynter also said she was pressured to have an IUD inserted while at Life Skills and that her request to have it removed was denied. Given her history of abuse, she had declined gynecological exams whenever possible, so the procedure was especially harrowing, she said. In Wyoming, guardians are supposed to request court permission for long-term birth control, and a guardian ad litem is also required to be appointed before the court can grant that authority, but Wynter’s docket does not show any such request.
Logan Meeks, the executive director of Life Skills, said the provider would never force someone to get an IUD and denied Wynter’s other allegations against staffers. He said privacy laws prevented him from discussing the medical details of people in the company’s care.
“Unfortunately, they get to say whatever they like because they are not bound by any laws,” Meeks said. “People in those situations often are not good reporters. They make stories up; they throw mud to get people in trouble.”
Wynter was desperate for a way out. Maybe if she married Jones, she’d prove she deserved a chance at adult life, she said. They knew her guardian could try to annul any marriage she entered into under Wyoming law, so they decided to make a break for Utah.
Courtesy Jesse Jones
Arieana and Jesse’s wedding in Utah
After the wedding in a tiny Utah town and a celebratory steak dinner at Applebee’s, Wynter and Jones went back to his home, where they lived together as husband and wife for a few peaceful days. He gave her driving lessons and helped her get a job interview at a local diner, he said. It was the first taste of freedom she had ever known as an adult — and “the last time I got a good night’s rest,” she told BuzzFeed News during another late-night conversation.
But when she returned to Life Skills to pick up her belongings and leave, she said a staffer called the police. After that, Jones said, he was not allowed to visit Wynter.
Life Skills denied their accounts. Meeks said all residents can leave whenever they want, although the facility may be legally required to call the police; the organization added that it would never ban a client from receiving visitors. But a friend who accompanied Jones during some of his attempts corroborated his claims that he wasn’t allowed on the premises. And in one text message seen by BuzzFeed News, Wynter’s case manager reminded her that if she left her group home even briefly without her guardian’s explicit approval, “you will be reported as a runaway and the police will look for you.”
“I have a legal guardian and I want to terminate it so I can live my life and have my own family.”
The couple fought back, sending frantic pleas to experts and attorneys, attempting to get Wynter a new psychological evaluation, and writing online petitions: “I have a legal guardian and I want to terminate it so I can live my life and have my own family I need help I’m not incompetent.”
As she grew more desperate, Wynter stopped taking her medications. “Don’t split us up again,” she wrote in the caption beneath a selfie she posted on Facebook of her and Jones making silly faces. She put an American flag icon on there for good measure, hoping someone besides them would think of her constitutional rights.
Meanwhile, her guardian began investigating state laws regarding wards’ marriage rights. For her carers, Wynter’s downward spiral was at least in part a result of getting married, not the other way around. “Her behaviors began escalating,” Carlson wrote to the court. “Her staff and counselor believe this marriage is caustic for the couple.”
Soon after she was given permanent guardianship over Keegan, Pronovost had him removed from his home and placed him at Cornerstone, a lockdown facility for older patients with mental impairments. It was not meant for people in their 50s with their wits about them, and it provided no services for alcohol addiction.
Under Florida’s guardianship statutes, Keegan had the right to remain as independent as possible and to have his “preference as to place and standard of living honored.” He was entitled to privacy, appropriate treatment for his needs, visits with loved ones, and communication with others.
At first, Keegan had agreed to go. He told BuzzFeed News he had been worn down by months of misery. But when the reality of life inside the facility set in, he begged to be freed, describing in court filings how he was shut inside without access to visitors, phones, or computers and kept awake at night by the haunting screams of other residents. “I do not believe I am in a safe environment,” he wrote.
“Under your guardianship,” he wrote, “I cannot even go across the street.”
Meanwhile, Pronovost paid Horvath, Keegan’s court-appointed attorney, almost $10,000 from his estate to divorce him from Steele. In August 2015, after three months incommunicado, Keegan managed to borrow a laptop from another resident and wrote a desperate plea to his guardian. “My finances were sound before all of this happened,” he began. “I had been retired for several years and living comfortably with no debt, had full ownership of a beautiful house and car, had been married to a young, attractive, hard working woman.
“Now I am divorced and seem to be going broke,” he wrote. “Under your guardianship, I cannot even go across the street.”
There is no record of a reply from Pronovost, who did not respond to repeated and detailed requests for comment from BuzzFeed News. But emails she exchanged with his brother Kevin the following month, and later filed in court, give an insight into her opinion of Keegan. “He is extremely brilliant,” she wrote, adding that “people who do not know his history think he has it all together.” But Keegan had angry outbursts and had threatened to sue her, the judge, and the lawyers in the case. “I’m sorry to say I believe he is placed appropriately due to his delusions,” she concluded. Keegan’s brother agreed. “His will has to be broken,” he wrote. “I think that will take some time.”
Wynter’s will was far from being broken. In April 2021, she finally caught what seemed like a break.
Carlson admitted their relationship had “become strained,” and she agreed to step down. Any new guardian would have to be approved in a court hearing — so Wynter would get her chance to speak directly to a judge and explain why she deserved her freedom after nearly three years under a guardianship.
While Wynter prepared her speech, Jones researched Wyoming’s guardianship laws and read a legal study that questioned their constitutionality. The more the couple learned, the more frustrated they became. “At least a prisoner knows when they’ll get out,” Jones told BuzzFeed News. But it was becoming clear that Wynter could be stuck in a guardianship for the rest of her life. “What the hell is she supposed to do?” Jones asked. “She wants to do good. She wants to do the right thing. She only acts out when she’s not treated like a human being.”
“I don’t think the poor gal had an opportunity,” he said.
Steve Snead, an ordained pastor and former Marine, agreed to take Wynter on as a volunteer guardian. Wyoming doesn’t require classes, or even a background check, to become a guardian, and Snead said he didn’t have any formal training before he started at his previous job with the Wyoming Guardianship Corporation, where he oversaw 20 wards at one time on an hourly rate. When he found out that Carlson wanted to get off Wynter’s case, he felt he was up to the challenge and that it would be a good way to “give back.” He said he hoped Wynter would regain control over her own life one day, but for now he felt she needed a father figure watching over her.
“I don’t think the poor gal had an opportunity,” he said. “Everything has been against her since before she was born.”
Ahead of the hearing, Wynter spoke on the phone with him to feel him out. BuzzFeed News obtained a recording.
“Are you supportive of me and Jones being together if you are granted guardianship?” she asked him. “Are you going to annul our marriage?”
“I’m thinking heavily about doing it,” he replied, even though he hadn’t met Jones yet. “I will be kind of like a dad, OK?”
But Wynter said at the time she didn’t want a father — she wanted her husband.
Keegan made a series of increasingly spirited escape attempts from several different lockdown facilities over three years, breaking down doors, smashing windows, and hopping fences to get home. After he used a table as a battering ram to bust through a locked door at the Grand Palms memory care facility in January 2018, Jane Pronovost resigned as his guardian. By then, his estate had been reduced by more than $300,000 in guardianship fees and expenses.
Pronovost nominated a recent graduate of her guardianship course — a real estate agent named Mark Haas who was now working a second job as a professional guardian — to step into her place.
Haas put Keegan in a new facility, where staff allowed him out during the day to use the gym and library. Haas asked the facility to confine his ward to a more restrictive memory care unit, court records show, but the director told him Keegan was “too smart” to justify holding him. The guardian instructed the Orange County Library System to ban Keegan from borrowing books or using the computers at any of its centers. Then, noting the “burn-rate”of $120,000 from his ward’s accounts in the past year alone, Haas informed the court he planned to sell Keegan’s car, house, and his belongings to ”buy a couple of years expenses.”
Hearing he was about to lose everything, Keegan walked several miles back to his house, where he broke in through a back window and retrieved his bike. Over the next few weeks, he cycled back and forth, picking up a suit for future court appearances, key documents, and a few other treasured items.
When Haas learned how his ward was getting home, he waited until Keegan was out and entered his room to confiscate the bike. Anticipating this, Keegan said he had had chained it to his bed — but Haas removed the back wheel. Records filed in court by Haas show he billed his ward for the time he spent talking to the police after Keegan reported the incident as a theft. Meanwhile, he pressed ahead with the sale of Keegan’s Hyundai Genesis and then his three-bedroom home, which went for $266,000.
Keegan kept fighting, and went on to be kicked out of the latest facility for unruly behavior. After that, no institutions would accept him, so Haas put him in an Extended Stay hotel.
From his new battlestation, Doug filed a fresh bid to restore his rights.
Living alone without supervision for the first time in years, Keegan began plotting his final bid for freedom. He had to subsist on money Haas had uploaded onto a prepaid card, court records show, which could only be spent at a handful of outlets like McDonald’s and KFC. So each morning, Keegan told BuzzFeed News, he bought a $15 gift card alongside his breakfast and then sold them online. When he’d saved up enough, he bought himself a burner phone and loaded it with credit.
Soon after, Keegan’s youngest brother tracked him down. Colm Keegan had not objected to the guardianship petition back in 2014, but he changed his mind when he learned the consequences of the family’s actions. Days later, a laptop was delivered to Keegan’s hotel room. And within six months, he had scratched together enough money to buy a 27-inch monitor to go with it.
From his new battlestation, Keegan filed a fresh bid to restore his rights — and Haas fought hard to retain control. The guardian’s lawyer, Kyle Fletcher, wrote in one court filing that Keegan had been “grifted by Nigerian women,” and that “if not for the intervention of his family, Mr. Keegan would have lost all his money.”
Fletcher told BuzzFeed News that he had mistaken Steele’s country of origin — Kenya, which is on the opposite coast of Africa from Nigeria — because he was “representing a Nigerian guy” at the time. But he said it was no mistake that Keegan belonged under guardianship. “He was about as bad a drunk as you can be without dying,” Fletcher said. “I think his frontal lobe has been fried. He’s lost all logic, and he’s psychotic. He thinks everybody in the world is out to kill him or do him in, and he also thinks everybody in the world is stupid. He thinks he’s the smartest person on the face of this earth.”
But when a psychiatrist was appointed to conduct a new evaluation, Keegan got a perfect score. The examiner concluded that he was “fully capable” of “exercising all rights that had been taken away from him.” For the first time in years, freedom appeared to be within reach.
Between the surgical mask and the beanie pulled low over her long brown hair, Wynter’s face was barely visible as she took her seat in court on April 20, 2021. She had no attorney or guardian ad litem to assist her. She nervously swung her legs and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. Jones signed in virtually to watch.
Wynter told the judge she had a letter to read. “I feel like I didn’t get a first chance in my life,” she began, holding back tears.
“All I want is to be a productive citizen,” she went on. “I want to get my story out there for others that are going through the same situation as me.”
She explained that she had agreed to a guardianship back in 2018 only because she didn’t know what else to do. But now she had a place to live, and a person to be with. She acknowledged that she had struggled to manage her anger in the past, but said any past aggression was in self-defense.
Jones had shown her “what love is,” she said, and without him she “wouldn’t be here right now on this earth.”
“Is it fair that I’m alone?” she asked the court. “Is it fair that other people keep me locked away?”
“Is it fair that I’m alone? Is it fair that other people keep me locked away?”
“I don’t want to be the ward of the state,” she concluded. “Please find it in your heart and let me be a productive member of society.”
The courtroom was silent for a moment. Then the judge explained that terminating Wynter’s guardianship wasn’t an option that day. The only question was who would oversee it, her former guardian or the proposed new one.
“I don’t want a guardian,” Wynter said again, softly. “I was kind of bombarded by it. I was confused.”
The judge did not respond to detailed requests for comment. Two lawyers who reviewed Wynter’s case for BuzzFeed News argued that if you consent to a guardianship, you should be able to withdraw your consent, and that the letter Wynter read to the court could have counted as her formal request to do so.
Snead later told BuzzFeed News that he thought it would have been appropriate for her to have a guardian ad litem that day.
Wynter said she realized that she had had no real choice, so she chose Snead.
Keegan, too, had his day in court this April. As a person who’d been declared incapacitated, he couldn’t be sworn in, but the judge told him she would hear whatever he had to say. “Well, I believe my rights should be restored. I don’t believe they ever should have been taken away,” he said. “It was a fraud. And it’s not paranoia, and it’s not saying the world’s against you.” She asked why he was living at the Extended Stay hotel. “Because my house was stolen,” he replied.
“The ability to make decisions, even spectacularly bad ones, means one is not incapacitated for purposes of guardianship.”
The judge retired to consider the evidence. Three days later, she delivered her verdict. “The Ward does have the capacity to make decisions and manage his affairs,” she ruled. “Florida law does not permit a guardianship to be based on or to be continued for the sole purpose of preventing the consumption of alcohol,” she elaborated in a subsequent ruling. “The ability to make decisions, even spectacularly bad ones, means one is not incapacitated for purposes of guardianship.” Keegan was released immediately, and Haas was ordered to return his remaining money. After seven long years, Keegan was a free man.
As spring turned to summer in Rock Springs, Wyoming, Wynter began to spiral.
“I’m tired of people dictating where I live, how I should live my life,” she told BuzzFeed News.
She had a reason to be optimistic in May, when Snead gave her permission to see Jones. The couple said they hadn’t seen each other in nearly nine months. Wynter straightened her hair and put on a hot pink dress with a sparkly belt. Jones wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. The two of them took selfies kissing and grinning as Life Skills staffers looked on from a nearby table at Burger King. Before Wynter had to go back, she climbed into Jones’s vehicle in hopes of stealing a few minutes alone with her husband, but the staffers dragged her out, Wynter and Jones said.
Both Snead and Life Skills said that did not happen. “The reason two staff were present was for the safety of staff, as Arieana had made it a habit to make accusations,” Snead said.
“I’m tired of people dictating where I live, how I should live my life.”
Afterward Wynter refused to take her medications and became increasingly distressed, repeatedly asking Snead if she could move elsewhere.
In May, she texted her guardian a photo of Jones and a dog she was fond of. “These 2 are the only reasons I’m still alive,” she wrote. Without them, she said, “I would have died a long time ago.”
Shortly thereafter, she overdosed on a stash of medications.
“I’m in so much damn pain and life skills and me being locked up isn’t helping the fact,” she texted BuzzFeed News when she returned to the facility after recovering in the hospital. “I’m getting worse and worse every day.”
Jonathan Martinis, a lawyer who became aware of Wynter’s case after an inquiry from BuzzFeed News, was so horrified by her circumstances that he filed complaints with the Protection & Advocacy System, a state agency that has federal authority to advocate for people with disabilities.
“It is not a leap to say that the rights Arieana lost are consistent with the rights prisoners lose,” said Martinis, who is also the senior director for law and policy at a center for disability rights at Syracuse University. “Except people accused of even the most horrific crimes have the right to a trial first.”
Have you experienced America’s guardianship system? You can email email@example.com. To learn how to reach us securely, go to tips.buzzfeed.com.
The agency’s findings were damning. Investigators noted that Life Skills didn’t report Wynter’s suicide attempt to all the proper authorities; they also said it was “extremely concerning” she was able to obtain enough medication to overdose and showed a ”serious failure” to care for her in the face of “such a well-known and dangerous risk.” The report also found Life Skills had violated Wynter’s privacy on another occasion.
The inquiry substantiated both abuse and neglect in those regards. It said the state Department of Health should monitor the facility’s incident reporting and told Life Skills to retrain staff members.
Life Skills said it couldn’t comment on the findings due to privacy laws. But by the time the investigation had concluded in June, Wynter was no longer there.
Jones had heard she had an altercation with a staffer and then went to a psychiatric facility out of state, but eventually her guardian stopped returning his calls. Her cellphone was disabled, and she didn’t log in to her Facebook.
As soon as he got access to what was left of his money, Keegan headed to the store and filled a basket with English muffins, pork chops, fresh milk, apples, and bananas. He said he got the keys to the storage facility where the last of his belongings were stashed after the fire sale and found the back wheel of the bike that Haas had confiscated three years earlier.
The guardianship has left Keegan alone and without his home. It dwindled his retirement savings by more than $400,000, and deprived him of almost everything he once owned, from his furniture to his photo albums. Sometimes, he said, he finds himself overcome with rage when he reflects on all that he has lost. In May, he fired off a furious email to Fletcher, the lawyer representing his former guardian, and wound up being charged with making written threats.
“I loved her. We never really said goodbye.”
“As I predicted, without a guardian he would be a danger to himself,” Fletcher wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News, adding in a phone call that Keegan is a “loner” and lives “like a pig.”
In July, the lawyer filed a petition demanding an additional $22,000 from Keegan’s accounts. This time, the judge’s response was dismissive. “A Ward may not be billed for actions that do not advance his cause,” she ruled, adding that the requested fees “grossly exceed any reasonable or necessary work” on the case. She agreed that Fletcher could be paid just $3,500.
Keegan still struggles with his drinking. “If I had a wife and kids,” he said, “I don’t think I would drink. I really don’t. Plus, I would also have the companionship.” He said he tries to stay positive and keep a “strong mind,” but his resolve falters when his thoughts turn to Steele.
”I loved her,” he told BuzzFeed News. “We never really said goodbye.”
Wynter resurfaced in late July. She said she still didn’t have access to her phone or a private computer, but she was able to video chat with BuzzFeed News via Facebook. A lot had changed in the past few months. Steve Snead, her guardian, moved her into a new facility, and the people there feel like the loving parents she’s never had, she said. They taught her to drive, helped her get a job at a hair salon, and let her watch over a labradoodle named Jelly Bean. She said she is happy there.
She had resigned herself to a life that she does not control. “I am letting the state take over the rest of the way,” she said.
Snead told BuzzFeed News that Wynter finally had the stability she had always needed. “If you look at what she was saying — ‘I want to be with Jesse, I want to be with Jesse, I want to be with Jesse’ — she wanted a family,” he explained. Her husband was just a “convenient” stand-in for those needs.
In August, Wynter called Jones and told him she had decided to annul their marriage. She said they could not speak again.
“It’s Steve’s thing, it’s not mine,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I’m just allowing him to do whatever he wants now.” ●