Former Mama Mia’s owner, son get prison time in fraud scheme
Murphy – A mother and son who pleaded guilty to stealing more than a half-million dollars from a 90-year-old woman whose finances they gained control of six years ago were sentenced on June 4.
Eileen Lee – former owner of Mama Mia’s Italian Cucina, which was in front of Murphy Elementary School – pleaded guilty to a Class C felony embezzlement charge.
Judge William H. Coward sentenced her to a minimum of 73 months and maximum of 100 months. Her son, Christopher Paul Ladagana, had four Class G felonies, and Coward sentenced him to a minimum of 49 months and maximum of 97.
Lee is expected to pay $532,387.49 in restitution charges for the money that was embezzled from the elderly victim. Ladagana is required to pay back $232,274.39.
Local attorney Marguerite Eubanks Stricker was appointed guardian of the estate to look into suspicious activity and the financial accounts of Eleanor Guenin. Stricker spoke at the sentencing hearing on behalf of the victim, who is suffering from dementia in a nursing home.
Guenin’s nephew, Don Keppel, noticed the odd activity when he was unable to communicate with his aunt on a regular basis. Keppel had been Guenin’s power of attorney until Lee unduly influenced her to sign it over to her instead.
Stricker said in court that Lee used the power of attorney as a license to steal. She went on to describe the financial scheme, wherein Lee wrote multiple large checks to herself, her son Ladagana and to cash.
Lee and Ladagana were arrested in July 2017 after the conclusion of a Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office investigation. At some point during the scam, the name of the restaurant was changed from Mama Mia’s to add “Italian Cucina” as part of the paperwork allegedly in an attempt to hide the pilfered money.
Stricker thanked Cherokee County sheriff’s Detective Roger Williams for his diligent work to bring justice for Guenin. Williams investigated the money-laundering scheme, which involved Mama Mia’s restaurant and Ladagana’s DJ business in Miami, funding things like GoDaddy accounts and trips to Las Vegas.
Guenin has a veteran widow’s pension along with Social Security. Stricker said she hoped this case would serve as a loud warning to perpetrators who prey on the elderly, and for senior citizens to be cautious when they choose a power of attorney.
Stricker said the more than half-million dollars that was embezzled could have been used for Guenin’s 24-hour care in the comfort of her own home instead of being in a Medicaid-funded nursing home for the last years of her life without any money. She added that Scott Harkey, the regional financial crimes prosecutor in Raleigh, was fully prepared to take this case to a criminal jury trial.
Editor Matthew Osborne contributed to this report.