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Artist who gave house to Mystic museum had been diagnosed with dementia

I listened to a long online Probate Court hearing this week in which Jancis Fuller, daughter of the late artist Harvey Fuller, made her case, from prison, where she has been incarcerated for more than 25 years, that her father was not of sound mind when he deeded the stately family home over to the Mystic Museum of Art.

Jancis Fuller hopes to eventually challenge the quitclaim deed Fuller made to the museum in 2013, when he was 94 years old. But Wednesday's hearing focused on the legitimacy of her father's 2014 will.

Jancis Fuller's star witness this week was Dr. Michael Feltes, a Mystic geriatrician who treated her father in 2011, after he was admitted for a period of time to a nursing home.

Under questioning from Fuller, Feltes gave very convincing testimony about Harvey Fuller's diminished mental capacity, referring not only to the time of his own treatment of him at the nursing home but to extensive medical records he has reviewed.

The stage was set, because of Fuller's cognitive deficits, confusion and dementia, for "undue influence" over the elderly man as he settled his affairs, Feltes said. Fuller also left money to his medical caretaker.

"One is at risk of manipulation," Feltes said about the mental condition Fuller was in at the time.

Indeed, manipulation of a mentally challenged elderly person with money in his estate is the nasty allegation being made here. And one of the accused is a prominent nonprofit in the community.

Certainly as Jancis Fuller tells it, with a doctor's assessment to help back her up, the Mystic museum officials did just that, promising Fuller that they would turn his gracious home on the Mystic River into a long-term retreat for artists.

They never established the program that they had promised Fuller and instead put the house on the market in 2018, not long after Fuller had died, asking $628,000. There was a subsequent contract to sell it, but the deal fell through, probably after the buyers learned of Jancis Fuller's legal maneuvers from prison.

The museum's lawyer attended the hearing Wednesday but didn't speak. The image that came to my mind was of vultures looking down from the treetops.

Attorney Eugene Cushman, who represented Harvey Fuller at the time he made his will, suggested in his cross-examination of Dr. Feltes that Fuller was competent enough to execute a will.

Cushman accused the museum, though, in a 2015 hearing in Probate Court, of intimidating his client.

"If anyone abused Harvey, it was the Mystic Art Association (since renamed the Mystic Museum of Art) who started insisting and demanding that he give them the house," Cushman told Probate Judge Mathew Greene during a 2015 competency hearing, explaining that the gift was something Fuller had talked about with art association officials for many years.

"They were incredibly rude," Cushman said about the association officials' demand for the deed at the time. "I tried to talk Harvey out of it, but he made the decision."

Since Fuller died and the museum took possession of the house, what museum officials called the largest gift in their history, they've let it deteriorate into an eyesore, to the chagrin of neighbors in the River Road area.

Worse, the museum has challenged the town's tax assessment of the property, which the town claims was never used for programming and is therefore not exempt from property taxes. That suit is still pending.

I wish Jancis Fuller well in her campaign from prison. I believe her claim that the museum took advantage of her father when museum officials convinced him, at the age of 94 and with a diagnosis of dementia, to break a trust made years earlier by him and his late wife to leave their stately home to their children.

I would also like to see Attorney General William Tong investigate.

Tong's predecessor successfully intervened when it was learned that a prominent nonprofit in the state, Connecticut Landmarks, was not following the wishes of donors who had given their properties in trust through their estates.

The Mystic museum officials never even made a pretense of following Harvey Fuller's wishes for an artists' residence to be established in his home, when he gave it to them.

Those shadows you might occasionally see on River Road in Mystic, near the beautiful 19th century Fuller family home, might just be the vultures passing overhead.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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