Caregiver steals half a million in woman’s will meant for DFW animal shelter, suit says

Operation Kindness is Dallas-Fort Worth’s largest and first no-kill shelter.
Operation Kindness is Dallas-Fort Worth’s largest and first no-kill shelter. Provided by Natalie Buxton

Animals were close to Victoria Harris’ heart.

She had no children or siblings — her two cats were her family. So it made sense that Harris would leave her $500,000 to $700,000 estate to Operation Kindness, Dallas-Fort Worth’s largest and first no-kill shelter.

However, a disputed will might instead leave that money to a nursing home caregiver who Operation Kindness says illegally changed Harris’ will.

Harris, who died in October at the age of 83, was a resident at Ashwood Court Assisted Living in Richland Hills.

Operation Kindness says Tammy Pannell, director of marketing at Ashwood Court, exploited Harris and changed her will before Harris died. The suit, which was filed in Tarrant County, names Pannell as a defendant and seeks to have the disputed will overruled.

“Ms. Harris had a lot of trouble getting around and needed help getting around and that allowed people to take advantage of her,” said Anna Kalinina, one of the lawyers representing Operation Kindness.

Pannell could not be reached for comment.

A woman’s will left between $500,000 to $760,000 to Operation Kindness, a no-kill shelter in DFW. The nonprofit said in a lawsuit the woman’s caregiver coerced her into changing the will, leaving herself the money instead. Operation Kindness Provided by Natalie Buxton

When Harris died, Suzan Wooten, vice president and trust officer at the American National Bank of Texas, went to Ashwood Court to make Harris’ funeral arrangements.

Pannell took Wooten into Harris’ room and mentioned several times that she “would not be surprised” if Harris had changed her will, according to the lawsuit. She also kept directing attention to the trash can, where a large brown folder was sitting on top of the can.

Wooten opened the envelope and found a a new version of Harris’ will inside. The new will left all of Harris’ money to Pannell.

Operation Kindness and its lawyers say it is unlikely Harris would have changed the will on her own and Pannell most likely influenced her to do so.

Operation Kindness is Dallas-Fort Worth’s largest and first no-kill shelter. Operation Kindness Provided by Natalie Buxton

They say others had coerced Harris into changing her will before. In 2014, Harris’ neighbors at the time convinced her to leave them all of her money.

After an attorney got involved and a medical examination of Harris was done, Harris’ will was changed back. A doctor determined Harris did not understand time or situations and had short-term memory problems.

“Our position and understanding is that Harris didn’t know what she was doing when she signed the (2018) will and that wasn’t an act she did intentionally,” Kalinina said.

Operation Kindness also says Pannell acted strangely after Harris’ death.

Pannell told Wooten she would handle all of Harris’ funeral arrangements, according to the lawsuit. However, one week later, Wooten got a call from the funeral home saying that someone needed to arrange Harris’ funeral quickly — her body was decomposing.

When confronted, Pannell told Wooten she wanted nothing to do with the funeral or Harris’ body, according to the suit.

Donations like Harris’ trust help Operation Kindness save thousands of animals each year, said Natalie Buxton, director of marketing at the nonprofit.

“Donations we receive from individuals are really important to us. They enable us to provide medical care, shelter for homeless pets in Texas,” Buxton said. “Last year, we saved more than 5,000 animals.”

The group’s lawyers said the amount of money Harris meant to leave them is significant — nearly 10 percent of the budget.

“It would only help the community in the services they can provide,” said Mark Bonin, another lawyer for Operation Kindness.

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Kaley Johnson is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. She majored in investigative reporting at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has a passion for bringing readers in-depth, complex stories that will impact their lives. Send your tips via email or Twitter.