‘Don’t nobody listen’: Why a disabled Mississippi veteran is fighting to buy a new home — with his own money

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

U.S. Army veteran Anthony Burkett looks out the front door of his damaged trailer in Seminary, Miss., Wednesday, October 30, 2019.

SEMINARY, Miss. — U.S. Army veteran Anthony Burkett, 53, lives in a musty trailer with sinking floors, soft walls and leaky windows off a gravel road in rural Covington County.

He has about $30,000 saved up in his bank account and receives a $3,171 monthly disability check from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, likely enough for a new home.

But Burkett can’t spend his own money. For the past 30 years, a local court has controlled his finances after the VA found him incapable of managing his own estate.

And 13th Chancery District Judge David Shoemake — who was nearly removed from office in 2016 after facing accusations he mismanaged a similar case — hasn’t approved the purchase of a new home.

“I get over $3,000 a month … And I feel like I don’t get nothing. They won’t give me the opportunity to be over my own money,” Burkett said.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

U.S. Army veteran Anthony Burkett stands in front his trailer in Seminary, Miss., Wednesday, October 30, 2019.

After graduating from Seminary High School in 1985, Burkett joined the U.S. Army as a cook stationed in Germany. Less than a year later, then 19-year-old Burkett caught a ride home from a nightclub with some fellow soldiers from their barracks. The driver of the souped-up Pontiac Firebird Trans Am hit a bend at over 100 mph, lost control of the car and hit a tree. Burkett’s friend died in the crash; he was left in a coma.

“I broke almost every bone in my body,” Burkett said.

He was in a Jackson hospital for roughly three years. At one point, Burkett’s family chose to take him off life support. He woke up from the coma on his own but was severely paralyzed, having also suffered brain damage. A year after leaving the hospital in 1989, he purchased his two bedroom trailer with financial support from the U.S. Veteran Benefits Administration, which rated him 100 percent disabled. “I thought I would get treated better than I’m treated now,” he said.

Today, Burkett wears a bald head, thin black mustache on an otherwise clean-shaven face and slightly yellow-tinted glasses. His walking is shaky and he talks as if his mouth is full. He has difficulty pronouncing words, but understands and answers questions well.

His home had been a comfortable place to live until the years wore on the trailer’s roof, windows and plumbing. The dingy walls are covered in white, black, blue, pink and green tape, where Burkett has patched holes himself. Rainwater seeps into the house through the windows. Last spring, a corroded pipe burst, exacerbating the existing water damage. Mold is growing.

In 2018 alone, Burkett spent $1,300 on nine home repairs by Jerry Mooney of Collins Housing Services.

“How can you live in a place, man, that leaks all the time?” Burkett said. “I go through my house everyday checking on that mold … That mold will do something to you.”

Burkett’s finances are managed by a conservator, an attorney named Matthew Alliston. In May,  Alliston asked Judge Shoemake for permission to use Burkett’s funds to purchase a new home. Before the county elected Shoemake judge in 2010, he was the attorney serving as Burkett’s conservator.

Shoemake requested justification for the purchase from the veterans affairs department, which sent a letter in July confirming the current trailer needed to be replaced. Shoemake has yet to set a hearing on the issue.

“I would rather be dead than going through this crap,” Burkett said. “Don’t nobody listen to you. And people think you’re stupid and stuff. That’s a bad feeling.”

In 2016, the Mississippi Supreme Court found that Shoemake had mismanaged the finances of a woman who was incapacitated by improperly signing orders that cost her $23,000 she was unable to recuperate.

The court did not take the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance’s recommendation to remove Shoemake from office, but suspended him for 30 days, made him pay fines of $2,500, court costs of nearly $6,000 and publicly reprimanded him.

“Yet you keep presenting this same case before him and there are delays,” said Burkett’s sister, Constance Ceasar. “Then you’re piddling Anthony’s money out. Anthony doesn’t know where half of this stuff is. And it’s very concerning for our family.”

In an Oct. 17 complaint Ceasar filed against Shoemake with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, she alleges the family began requesting a new home for Burkett over 10 years ago, the point at which it began to deteriorate, and has only faced logjams.

Shoemake’s office did not return calls to Mississippi Today.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Damaged walls in U.S. Army veteran Anthony Burkett’s trailer in Seminary, Miss., Wednesday, October 30, 2019.

Burkett is a tidy man, his large living room free from clutter or even furniture. He spends most of his time watching TV — old programs like the “Andy Griffith Show” or his favorite college football team, the Ohio State Buckeyes — from a tattered black swivel desk chair.

He doesn’t have a car so he only leaves the house to go to the grocery store or doctor’s office when his sister or a neighbor can drive him.

Out of his more than $3,000 monthly income, Burkett receives a personal allowance of $250 a week, which he uses to buy food and other necessities.

Alliston is responsible for paying monthly bills such as electricity ($90), water ($30), exterminator services ($30) and child support ($625). Alliston also gives roughly $200 a month to Burkett’s neighbors or family members to drive Burkett around, including the 140-mile round trip to his Jackson physician.

For his part, Alliston paid himself nearly $3,250 in fees in 2018, according to the annual accounting filed in court. In a June 2019 order signed by Judge Shoemake, he wrote that Alliston was, in fact, entitled to a fee of $2,291 in that time frame.

Alliston told Mississippi Today in a phone interview that he estimates he’s charged Burkett for half the time he’s spent on his case. “Just like this call that deals with it will never make it into the bill at the end of the year,” Alliston said, referring to an interview with Mississippi Today.

He declined to comment further on the progress or handling of Burkett’s case.

“Any time a Veteran or family member has a concern, we reach out to them directly, just as we have been doing with the Veteran in this case,” said a spokesman for the department of veteran affairs in an email to Mississippi Today.

Mooney, the home repairman who has maintained Burkett’s trailer for many years, said Alliston has discussed purchasing a new home for Burkett over the last three years, but that money wasn’t accumulating in his client’s account quickly enough.

“I don’t know why its taking so long to do something,” Mooney said.

To become a conservator, a person must secure a bond from a bank to ensure the ward is protected if the conservator misspends the funds. Ceasar attempted to take control of her brother’s estate in 2011 but was not approved for the bond, so Alliston took over.

Following cases of abuse and fraud within conservatorships across the state, the Legislature in 2019 passed the Guard and Protect (GAP) Act, which increases oversight and monitoring in these cases and standardizes the balance sheets conservators are required to file. The law takes effect Jan. 1.

“It’s no telling how many cases are out there like Anthony’s,” Ceasar said.