National News

She Found Comfort in a Brooklyn Diner, Then Lost Everything

Posted May 27, 2018 12:50 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Zelma Haskell had been married to her husband, Irwin, for more than 50 years, and when he died in 2003, she was lost.

“He was everything to me,” she said in a recent interview, looking back over the years that followed his death — years of practically unfathomable loss and theft hidden behind the smile of a friend — to the place where it all began.

She was 71 years old, a lunchtime regular at the Arch Diner near her home in Canarsie, Brooklyn. The Ralph Avenue eatery was a throwback classic of the form, shot through with neon piping above the counter. She had gone with her husband, and later she often ate alone.

Around the time she became a widow, she met a waitress there named Alicia Legall. They hit it off right away, and Haskell began seeking her out when she went to the diner so she could sit at one of her tables.

“Pretty, and so sweet,” Haskell, now 85, recalled. “I liked her immediately.”

Haskell had two children, a son in New Jersey and a daughter on Staten Island. Her daughter was mentally disabled and required regular care and financial support.

“What I wanted to do with my real daughter was difficult,” she said. Legall, in her 30s, was just a little younger than her own children. “I was so happy. I had a new daughter,” she said. “She started to call me ‘Mommy.'”

Legall, from Trinidad and Tobago, had been a waitress since she was 13, she wrote on her LinkedIn page. “I love making people especially young children and elderly happy with food and a smile!” she wrote.

The two women spent more and more time together outside the diner. “She started taking me food shopping and different places,” Haskell said. “I ended up buying her a car, a very nice used car.”

Legall became a guest at family events, bringing her own young children along, and pictures of her family hung in Haskell’s home.

“At first, she brought a lot of joy into my life,” Haskell said.

But she also took. The women had visited Haskell’s HSBC Bank branch on Ralph several times, and Legall had access to Haskell’s account information. At some point several years ago, she told Haskell that she had taken money that had been in a savings account that had belonged to Irwin Haskell. She needed it to pay a debt, she said.

“It sounded like maybe she’d give it back to me,” Zelma Haskell said. “I was so naive.”

The incident had no impact on their bond. “I’m still ‘Mommy,'” Haskell said. “I saw her a lot.” The two visited nearby restaurants and took selfies that Legall posted online.

In 2013, Haskell’s last surviving sister, Marcy, died in Florida. Legall traveled with her for the funeral. “She helped me on the airplane,” Haskell recalled. “It was like a little vacation for her.”

Four more years passed this way. Then Haskell’s son, Lloyd, a physician, received a certified letter that stunned him. A bank was going to foreclose on his mother’s home because she was not paying fees related to a reverse mortgage for $424,000.

Reverse mortgage? His mother lived comfortably within her means. She didn’t travel or buy expensive clothes. A splurge for her was adding to her extensive collection of dolls. What did she need $400,000 for?

He asked her. She said she had taken out the money for Legall, who needed it to pay another debt. Lloyd Haskell, mad at himself for believing Legall was looking after his mother, went to police and was referred to financial-crimes detectives. They opened a case and discovered the scope of the fraud and loss.

The theft began immediately after the women met, police said.

Legall forged and cashed 75 checks totaling more than $200,000. She opened several credit cards and ran up an eclectic range of charges to Apple, JetBlue, Victoria’s Secret, and clubs and restaurants in Miami.

In addition, Legall bet heavily on horse races. She racked up expenses in New York Racing Authority buffets and bars, at Belmont Park, and online at betting sites like TwinSpires at Churchill Downs.

“It appears she had a gambling issue,” Detective Jackson Todd said in an interview. “She bet on horses a lot.”

Detectives arrested Legall on Oct. 17 at her home in Flatlands, Brooklyn. She denied any wrongdoing, telling police that Haskell gave her a credit card for errands and shopping, and that she repaid her for any personal purchases, according to a summary of her statements to the police.

She said the reverse mortgage had been Haskell’s idea. “She wanted to give Alicia and her family money,” police said Legall told detectives. She said she was expecting a $700,000 settlement from a civil matter and $60,000 on a “racehorse transaction.”

Legall was indicted in Brooklyn on charges of grand larceny and forgery. The indictment accused her of stealing more than $470,000 from Haskell.

“Over the course of several years, Legall became a trusted confident and gained access to the woman’s personal information, including her date of birth, Brooklyn residential address, Social Security number and bank and credit card information,” the indictment states.

On April 25, Legall pleaded guilty to grand larceny. She was sentenced this month to three to nine years in prison. She lived in the house in Flatlands with a man and two of her teenage children; they declined to comment, as did her lawyer.

The news came as a shock to her colleagues at the Arch Diner. “She was a good waitress,” said Louie Leonidou, an owner. He remembered the two women together. “Even after she quit as a waitress, she would come in as a customer, with her,” he said.

In the fallout of the reverse mortgage, Haskell lost her home of 46 years. Her family is fighting in the courts to get it back, but her future there is far from certain. She is crippled by arthritis and could not climb her own front steps. She has lived in a cramped room at a Staten Island rehabilitation center for about a year.

“My house was all paid for,” she said. “I was a mess.”

She was asked if she had a photo someplace of her and Legall together. She reached for her purse and pulled out a snapshot, wrinkled and worn, of the two women smiling at the camera. After everything that happened, why would she still carry this picture around?

She sighed and answered with a shrug: “The memories.”