How a mom's guardianship blindsided her son and landed a retired sheriff in jail

Juliette Fairley

When Stewart Handte was a state trooper with the Nevada Highway Patrol and president of their union some 20 years ago, he allegedly stumbled upon improper conduct and reported it. As a result, the highest officer in the state at the time lost his job, according to Handte’s friend.

Since last week, however, the law enforcement officer-turned-whistleblower has been locked up in Elko County.

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Retired Sheriff Handte and Sheriff Richard Mack in April 2021, founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers AssociationPhoto by Roger Hillygus

“He’s being retaliated against,” said Handte’s friend Roger Hillygus.

As previously reported, Handte was once the Reno Sparks Indian Colony police chief and served as a Mineral County Sheriff. His stunning fall from grace began after he agreed to help his friend, Hillygus, relocate his elderly mother, Mrs. Susan Hillygus, from an assisted living facility in Reno to an apartment in Bellflower, California where her family was waiting.

“It was a locked facility,” Hillygus said in an interview. “My mother couldn’t leave but she wanted to leave. Every time I went to visit her, she wanted to leave with me. She wanted me to take her home.”

Although Mrs. Hillygus was under a guardianship ordered by the probate court, no one stopped her from walking out of the facility with her son and Mr. Handte on that fateful day in August 2019.

“I took her to see her only living brother” Hillygus told Newsbreak. “We were with her nieces, nephews, her brother and cousins. All Stewart Handte did was accompany me as a witness to see that everything was done legally and law enforcement at the scene never said I couldn’t take custody of my mother. They said it was a civil matter and that I needed to talk to the facility’s management, which I did.”

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Hillygus and Sheriff Richard Mack in April 2021, founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers AssociationPhoto by Stewart Handte

Handte and Hillygus were subsequently arrested for kidnapping Mrs. Hillygus after a stand-off with police, according to media reports. Both have been out on bail for some 2.5 years waiting to resolve the charges in court. Mrs Hillygus died in October 2019.

Her son alleges foul play in the traffic stop that lead Handte into police custody on Jan. 13.

“There was a bench warrant for his arrest because he refused to wear a GPS monitor,” said Hillygus who was in the car with Handte at the time. “He believes it’s a violation of his rights and he’s in fear for his life because he filed internal affairs investigation complaints. He talked to the county commissioners, the Reno police, and he filed complaints with the Commission on Judicial Discipline and all of the ways that you can file complaints against people who are violating your constitutional rights.”

The scenario of losing rights promised Americans by the U.S. Constitution is all too familiar for adult children of elderly parents who have been guardianized nationwide, according to Dr. Sheila Owens Collins, a pediatrician whose elderly mother, Mrs. Hattie Owens, died while under a court appointed guardianship in Texas three years ago. The late Mrs. Owens’ nephew is Republican Utah Congressman Burgess Owens.

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Owens Collins at a 2021 Free Britney rally in LAAngelique Fawcett

“What surprises me about court-appointed guardianship is that this is permitted to continue by the courts, the FBI, the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies,” Owens Collins previously told Dallas Express. “More and more adult children whose elderly mom or dad has a guardian, whether court appointed or a family member, are crying out for help with allegations of abuse and yet nothing is done about it. Countless numbers of other adult children have sued and are currently suing and yet the courts dismiss them.”

While pop star Britney Spears’ guardianship, known as a conservatorship in California, raised awareness of the abuses that can allegedly occur as a result of court-appointed guardianships, more work needs to be done according to Florida Congressman Charlie Crist who introduced Guardians Aren’t Above Prosecution (GAAP) Act in December 2021. South Carolina Congresswoman Nancy Mace co-sponsored.

In the meantime, retired Sheriff Handte’s future remains in limbo with bail set at $100,000 cash only.

“Nevada authorities want to shut him up,” Hillygus said. “He’s a peaceful person. He follows the law. He’s a 30-year law guy. He believes in the law but he’s frustrated that the authorities are not wanting the truth.”

The accusations that Handte is facing are allegedly exaggerated, according to Hillygus.

They include the following:

Handte made troubling threats on social media.

“Stewart was threatened on his private social media account and, in response to that threat, he quoted Ted Nugent,” Hillygus said. “It wasn’t anything to be taken seriously. It was just a quote from a rock and roll singer.”

Handte showed up at investigator workplaces and intimidated people who were evaluating the case.

“Stewart went to the FBI because he wanted to ask them the procedure for filing a Department of Justice complaint against cops who filed false documents in the case and perjured themselves on the stand,” Hillygus said. “When he was asked to leave, he left. How is that intimidating?”

Handte made statements in a gun store about people on this case ‘will pay.’

“Stewart wasn’t trying to buy a gun,” Hillygus said. “He was trying to get back the gun he’d loaned out and the store wouldn’t give his gun back because they said he was under indictment, which isn’t true. He was never convicted or under indictment. So, he was not a prohibited person and they claimed he was a prohibited person. He voluntarily agreed to surrender his gun to make everybody happy but he did nothing wrong there either. He has no guns.”

The Washoe County District Attorney’s office wants Handte to have a mental health evaluation based on previous counseling.

“The prosecutor claimed that Stewart’s attorney has a deposition, which the prosecutor gave him where Stewart is supposedly claiming that he was receiving counseling with a psychologist many years earlier,” Hillygus added. “We don’t know where he got that and why he gave it to Stewart’s attorney. Stewart’s never seen this. Stewart objected because that’s a HIPAA violation.”

Washoe County Judge Barry Breslow declined to comment.

“The Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct expressly prohibits judicial officers from commenting on pending matters,” Attorney Alicia L. Lerud, court administrator and clerk of court of Washoe County, said in an email. “Pursuant to the Code, Judge Breslow is unable to participate in an interview regarding the Stewart Handte matter.”

The Washoe District Attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment and the Elko County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Jamie Bessert stated in an email, “Our agency is just the booking agency we wouldn’t have any information about the case. You will need to contact Reno Police Department."

The Reno Police Department has yet to respond to requests for comment.

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Juliette Fairley is a legal and financial investigative reporter who writes about politics, law, corruption, and many other topics. She is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Chicago City Wire, Legal Newsline, Southern California Record, St. Louis Record, New York Daily News, Dallas Express, Dallas City Wire, the Lone Star Standard, The Epoch Times, Newsmax, and many other publications.

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