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Home health aide in Port St. Lucie faces multiple charges after Purple Heart stolen from veteran

Retired serviceman later dies after theft
Don Huddleston, Port St. Lucie veteran whose Purple Heart was stolen
Posted at 1:36 PM, Jul 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-07 17:38:27-04

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — A home health care aide in Port St. Lucie is accused of stealing property from four patients, including a former serviceman's Purple Heart, and attempting to pawn it.

Detectives said last month they obtained warrants for the arrest of 22-year-old Vanessa Smith.

Sgt. Keith Boham said they began to investigate when one of the victims, identified as Dorothy Huddleston, received a credit card bill from JCPenney for charges that she did not make.

Police said Smith was hired through Veterans Affairs to assist in the care of the victim's husband, Don Huddleston, a Vietnam War veteran and former Marine.

Stolen Purple Heart attempting to be pawned in Port St. Lucie
This still image shows the stolen Purple Heart trying to be pawned at a local shop.

After Dorothy noticed the fraudulent charges, investigators said she found other items that were missing including her husband's Purple Heart Medal, gold chain and a "Semper Fi" gold charm.

"I'm a trusting person. I never thought someone would come into my house and steal from me," Dorothy Huddleston said.

Detectives were able to recover most of the jewelry at a local pawn store, however, the Purple Heart Medal is still unaccounted for.

Police said Smith tried to sell the Purple Heart, but the pawn store would not accept it.

"Sadly, since the theft of the Purple Heart, the victim has since passed away," Asst. Chief Richard Del Toro said in a written statement. "We are hopeful that Smith still has the Purple Heart in her possession so that we may return to the victim's family."

Those close to Don said he was humble and spoke of not deserving the multiple medals he earned.

Port St. Lucie police said this case is a reminder to be careful who you allow into your home.

Asst. Chief Richard Del Toro, Port St. Lucie Police Department
Asst. Chief Richard Del Toro says to always be wary of letting strangers into your home, even if they are there to care for your loved ones.

"Just because you trust somebody to come in and care for you, doesn't mean they always have your best interest," Del Toro said. "They could be going around your house looking for cash and valuables, so you always want to keep those things locked up."

Dorothy Huddleston said beyond the sadness of losing a partner is the anger of losing a prized possession.

"This other stuff, we can replace or whatever, but to take the man's Purple Heart, that was given to him by this country," Dorothy Huddleston said.

Police said finding the medal is a priority.

"If we can't get it back, we're going to work with our local Veterans Affairs to see if we can get that replaced," Del Toro said.

Smith faces four counts of giving false ownership or identification to a second-hand dealer, four counts of dealing in stolen property, four counts of giving false information to a pawnbroker and three counts of third-degree grand theft.