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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
FILE - Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott waits to meet with the Salt Lake County Council in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. The legal battle between Ott's family and his girlfriend and former employee will be open to the public, a judge has ruled.

WEST JORDAN — Though questions have swirled for nearly two years about Gary Ott's declining health, exactly what ailment the former Salt Lake County recorder has suffered, and when it all started, have remained unclear.

That is, until now.

Two of his former top staff members, who have been accused of attempting to hide Ott's health issues to keep their jobs, often attributed his struggles to shingles or an old hand injury, while also insisting he was still in charge of his office, but just wasn't a "detail leader."

But during court testimony Thursday, it was revealed that Ott has been diagnosed with "not just Alzheimer's, but stage 4 Alzheimer's," said Mary Corporon, an attorney representing Ott's siblings in a legal battle with the former recorder's girlfriend and former employee, Karmen Sanone.

There are seven stages of Alzheimer's, with patients in stage 7 "nearing death," according to alzheimers.net.

Additionally, Ott was showing signs of mental impairment as early as 2012, long before his last re-election campaign in 2014, according to sworn testimony Thursday from friends and medical experts.

Sanone and Julie Dole, Ott's former chief deputy recorder, ran Ott's 2014 campaign and spoke on his behalf during campaign events.

A key issue in the legal fight between Ott's siblings and Sanone, who has been identified as Ott's girlfriend, fiancee or caretaker, is whether Ott was competent when he signed an advance health care directive in January 2015 nominating Sanone to make medical decisions for him.

Sanone and her attorney, Aaron Bergman, argue she should be his guardian because she has been the one caring for him over the past several years, not his family.

But witnesses called by Corporon Thursday testified Ott had already declined beyond being able to make decisions for himself when he signed that document.

"He would sign whatever you told him to sign" in 2013, testified Tonya Keller, who was Ott's longtime chief deputy before Dole.

The new details of the turmoil surrounding Ott came to light for the first time publicly on Thursday during the legal battle between Ott's family and Sanone, shortly after 3rd District Judge Bruce Lubeck decided the case would be open to the public.

Lubeck's order — in favor of a motion filed by the Deseret News, Salt Lake Tribune, KTVX Ch. 4 and the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists — paves the way for an expected two days of under-oath testimony from multiple county employees and elected officials subpoenaed in the case.

Ott's Alzheimer's diagnosis was the reason he was excused from court Thursday, even though Lubeck said last month that he wanted to hear from Ott before proceeding.

A 'puppet'

Neurologist Trevor Squire said he had determined Ott had some form of progressive dementia back in October 2013.

At the time, Squire said Ott scored a 7 out of 30 in a cognitive test. A score under 26 is typically considered "possibly abnormal" and the lower the score the more likely there is "cognitive impairment."

Ott, a Republican who now resides at an unspecified medical facility, last campaigned for office in 2014 and was elected that November to serve a six-year term beginning in January 2015.

Ott's family's attorney alleged that hundreds of documents — including three boxes of mail and old unpaid bills since 2013 — show a "consistent pattern of financial neglect of Mr Ott" by Sanone who "claimed" she was taking care of Ott.

Sanone's attorney argued those documents don't prove Sanone neglected Ott and that Sanone "vehemently denies" those accusations.

Corporon argued the unpaid bills, combined with witness testimony and police reports detailing welfare checks on Ott in Weber County showing Ott "wandering," "unattended" and "disoriented" while he was apparently in Sanone's care calls into question whether Sanone is "fit" to be his guardian.

Even further, Corporon said testimony shows Ott was "essentially a puppet" in the 2014 campaign so Dole and Sanone could keep him in office and thus keep their jobs.

"That's a degree of manipulation of this person that's extraordinary, you're honor," Corporon said. "It's material from which this court could infer deliberate elder abuse of this individual."

Dole and Sanone have been accused of taking advantage of Ott to stay in their high-paying, appointed positions in the county recorder's office. Both women have denied those accusations.

Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill has said his office is continuing to investigate such accusations.

For nearly two years, questions about Ott's health have played out publicly after a Deseret News investigation into a bizarre incident in January 2016, when Ott was found stranded and wandering alone on a rural Tooele County road. Still, he remained in his elected office.

County officials grappled with how to address the situation because state law provides no mechanism to remove an elected official unless he or she commits certain crimes.

Last year, Ott collected nearly $190,000 in taxpayer-paid salary and benefits.

Ott eventually resigned in August after his family sought temporary emergency guardianship of him and struck a deal with Salt Lake County leaders that was later approved by Lubeck.

Testimony

Squire's diagnosis in 2013 backed the suspicion that another doctor, Charles Richardson, Ott's physician, had earlier that year — that Ott was probably experiencing a form of progressing dementia after he complained of headaches and trouble concentrating.

Before Ott was sworn into office for a fifth time in 2015, Richardson said Ott likely couldn't read "complex documents" and had difficulty remembering words. And when Ott visited Richardson about a dozen times between August 2013 to January 2016, he said he would often be accompanied by Sanone.

Before his family was granted temporary guardianship of him, Ott was living with Sanone on her rural property in Weber County, according to testimony from Tonya Keller and her husband, Eric Keller.

The Kellers — who called themselves longtime friends of Ott — said they noted hints of Ott's decline as early as 2011, before Ott announced he would run for Salt Lake County mayor in 2012.

"I could tell he was deteriorating," Eric Keller said. "No question in my mind."

The Kellers told of how Ott began having trouble in his daily life and in his office. They told of how, even though he had been to their house "hundreds of times," he eventually couldn't remember how to get there. Ott even started having trouble reading and went from being a "micromanager' in his office to uninvolved.

"He couldn't drive, he couldn't read, he couldn't find his way home some days," Tonya Keller testified.

She said she was fired soon after she became "very vocal" about her intentions not to help him run for another term and after she made multiple suggestions to Ott that perhaps he should retire.

Eric Keller recounted a day in September 2014 when he ran into Ott at a restaurant, where Ott was with Sanone and Dole, who were at the time running his re-election campaign.

He said Sanone, when she saw him approach Ott, "grabbed (Ott) by the arm and pulled him away."

Ott's sister, Kristine Williams, said she was aware Ott lived with Sanone and that they were a couple for several years, but in 2016 she started getting phone calls that suggested Ott didn't want to be with Sanone anymore.

"He began calling us ... upset that Karmen was being mean to him, that he needed to get out of there, would we please help him," she said.

Ott's nephew, Jonathon Williams, also testified his uncle didn't recognize him when he saw him in 2012 during a caucus night, when Ott was running for county mayor.

"I told him who I was, but he still didn't recognize me. He shook my hand and asked for my vote," Jonathon Williams said.

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Then in 2015, Jonathon Williams recalled how his mother called him asking if he would go help Ott because he was "upset and disoriented" at his house.

Jonathon Williams said when he arrived, he found Ott "shaky and crying," his kitchen in disarray with tools scattered all over the counter, and his house devoid of food. When he took his uncle to a restaurant, he said Ott was "ravenous."

Most of Thursday's court hearing was consumed by witnesses called by Ott's family attorney. Sanone's attorney is expected to call more witnesses during Friday's proceeding, after which Lubeck will determine who will be Ott's permanent guardian.