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Similar Scams in the News (continued)

Main page: Tina Costello Sweetheart Swindler 

Romance Swindlers Are Leaving Valley Seniors With Empty Wallets and Broken Hearts. That Is, When They Leave Them Alive. 

by John Dickerson
Scottsdale Times Publication Feature Article

Walter Nellis knows how to identify and attack an enemy target. The 82-year-old snowbird piloted bombers over Germay during World War II. Little did he know that he himself had become a target on a recent afternoon in Scottsdale. Nellis was lunching at Sweet Tomatoes, where he ordered his favorite meal and, like most meals since his wife passed away, sat down to enjoy it alone. 

Nellis had barely finished squeezing a lemon into his iced tea when he was approached by an attractive, olive-skinned woman who acted like she knew him. "How are you?" she asked. "It's been so long," she said, smiling and taking a chair at Nellis's table.

Nellis's thick eyebrows rose in surprise. "You must have me confused with someone else. I don’t believe I know you," he told the woman in his characteristically shaky voice. 

Persisting, the attractive young woman introduced herself as Rose and asked about Nellis's deceased wife. "Well, unfortunately she passed away two years ago," Nellis said. 

Rose's face filled quickly with a forced empathy as she reached out to caress Nellis's hand and express her condolences. 

Rose insisted she had met Nellis before and said that like Nellis, she too was lonely. "It would be so nice to have somebody just to go shopping with or to watch movies with," she said. 

Rose had in fact never met Nellis prior to running into him that day. She had followed him from the parking lot, where she saw him park his white Mercedes convertible. But Rose is no run-of-the-mill gold digger searching for a generous sugar daddy. She's a career con artist who travels the country conning elderly men out their valuables and occasionally their entire life savings. She currently resides in Chandler with her husband, who often plays the role of her "brother" in her elaborate ruses. 

Once she empties a retiree's coffers, she moves to another pension-rich state, like Florida or Nevada, where she changes her name and begins her search for another lonely widower. 

Rose is one of a band of con artists who have infiltrated the Southwest, perpetrating what law enforcement officials call the Sweetheart Scam, a confidence-gathering con that preys on the loneliness of elderly widowers. 

According to police, con artists like Rose are finding plenty of suckers in the Valley. 

Sweetheart scammers can make off with cars, jewelry and even life insurance payouts. Documented cases in Arizona have recorded swindlers making off with between $30,000 and $500,000. Since the swindlers are taking nothing by force, they're rarely prosecuted as criminals. In most cases, the victims' families are completely unaware of the scam or the scammers. 

"The Phoenix Police Department has several instances where the male victims lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and were left stranded in another state," Phoenix police say of Sweetheart Scams. "Most citizens are not aware that this scam is occurring, but it is actually quite popular." 

Speaking from her Colorado office, Rhoda Cook agrees. She is the founder of Citizens United to Find Fugitives (CUFF) and says she fields about 20 Sweetheart Scam reports each week from across the nation. 

Cook and Phoenix police both say the majority of Sweetheart Scams go unreported because the victims feel embarrassed and emotionally devastated. "We have dealt with so many victims, I have about lost track of the number", Cook says. 

"The gypsy perpetrator knows that elderly men are lonely. Usually the victims have been widowed for several years. The Phoenix metropolitan area is a jackpot-rich environment for finding elderly people," the Phoenix police add. 

After first meeting Walter Nellis at Sweet Tomatoes, Rose's attempt to scam the Scottsdale retiree unfolded like a page right out of the Sweetheart Scam textbook. When Nellis mentioned he might see a movie, Rose replied, "Oh, I love watching movies. I just can’t bear to go alone." 

Within two weeks, Rose had called Nellis to request his help in purchasing a car. That's when Nellis contacted The Times, wondering why a young, attractive woman would be so interested in him and his money. 

In reality, Rose hails from a family notoriously engaged in an array of mafia-like organized crimes. The family owns large estates in Nevada and, when legally charged, hires high-dollar attorneys to avoid prosecution. One of Rose's brothers is wanted for murder, while her sister is suspiciously linked to the Sweetheart Scam death of a retiree who signed over his life insurance policy before dying. 

Other Valley residents haven't been as lucky as Walter Nellis. Scottsdale retiree Bob Stickel lived just miles from Nellis. He was swindled out of more than $300,000 before dying a what his family calls a suspicious death at age 72. 

When Stickel first met the woman who introduced herself as Tatjana, he was grieving the death of his wife of 50 years. Stickel's adult children say they were suspicious of Tatjana from day one, but didn’t want to step on their grieving father's toes. Daughter Sandy Chrisman remembers the first time she met Tatjana, during a dinner at Houston's on Scottsdale Road. 

Tatjana didn’t fit the slim, attractive stereotype of most sweetheart scammers. "She was a large woman and looked like she used to be a guy," Chrisman says. But Tatjana was friendly and affectionate. She quickly became the aging widower's best friend, accompanying him to doctor's appointments, garage sales and religious meetings. 

"She’s gonna take his money and kill him," Sandy's husband Jeff Chrisman said as they drove away from Houston's that first night. Now he wishes he'd been wrong. 

Bob Stickel was a simple, pleasant grandfather of a man, an Illinois farm boy who had moved to Scottsdale to raise his four children. He spent his career working as a maintenance man for Scottsdale Public Schools. Stickel awoke at 5:30 each morning in his Scottsdale townhouse. He prepared his own concoction of "zoup" in the kitchen and read his Bible, taking notes and drinking green tea. 

Shortly after he met Tatjana, Stickel suddenly and uncharacteristically sold the working farm that had been in the family for eight generations. Over the course of the following year, Stickel would ask Tatjana to marry him twice. Tatjana never took his hand in marriage, but she did take plenty of his money. 

Two years later, Bob Stickel was dead, and the family couldn't find more than a few thousand dollars of the $500,000 from the farm he had sold. 

Sitting today at the Old Town Scottsdale Village Inn where her dad used to eat, Stickel’s daughter Debby holds a sheaf of papers. The contents document the nearly $500,000 Stickel paid out in the year after he sold the farm. 

The bundle of receipts and bank records includes one check for $148,000 written to Transnation Title. The money was a down payment on a house somewhere, but Transnation Title won't say what home or where because Stickel isn't listed as a buyer or seller. He simply wrote the check for $148,000. The stack of statements is full of such unsolved mysteries. 

Debby says the thing that bothered her most was Tatjana's apparent effort to mimic Stickel's deceased wife. "After she saw pictures of mom, she changed her hair to look like mom's," Debby says. "When we talked about mom loving garage sales, Tatjana suddenly started taking dad to garage sales." 

Unlike most Sweetheart Scam victims, the Stickel family has won a $300,000 civil suit against Tatjana, who has been difficult to track down. They have yet to collect on it and say justice is still far from being served. Stickel's other children agree; it's too odd a coincidence that Tatjana was the last person in Bob Stickel's bedroom the day he died unexpectedly. 

"Dad always slept on his back," Debby says. "When we found him that morning he was laying on his stomach with his arms out like he'd been trying to push himself up." The Stickels did not request an autopsy, and didn't learn that their father's money was gone until after the funeral. Scottsdale authorities have since denied requests to exhume the body. 

"She had seen Bob and targeted him for money," Sandy says of Tatjana, who was most recently spotted in Oklahoma. "People in her life tend to die mysteriously. Her mom got sick with E. coli and died. These people that Tatjana hangs around with, their associates have been known to die quite suddenly." 

Unfortunately, the family's suspicions will probably never be substantiated. Tatjana will likely never face criminal charges because Stickel willingly gave his savings away. 

"He was lonely, and us kids could only keep him so busy," Debby says. "He was used to giving to mom. She moved right into that spot after mom died. He got taken." 

The Stickel family’s civil judgment against Tatjana is extremely rare. Few sweetheart scammers see any penalty for their actions. 

"There is much more to this epidemic than just the victims' tragedies," CUFF founder Rhoda Cook says. "The heart of this matter is the criminal justice system's perspective on these frauds. It is one of the reasons why it is so easy and productive these days to use love as a lure for profit." 

In her years following Sweetheart Scams, Cook has seen only one swindler serve jail time—a con woman who scammed a California man out of $400,000 is currently serving four years for the crime. 

"Right now we have a lot of people who realize how easy it is to lie to somebody to get their money," Cook says. "We want to get the public mad enough to motivate law enforcement to do something." 

Cook says many Valley retirees are specifically being targeted, not only at casinos and shopping centers but also through Internet dating sites. "A lot of older people in Scottsdale are finding other people on Web sites. People are getting conned on almost every senior site," Cook says. 

"Our whole purpose is that we recognize that fraud is not being investigated. Police need to be educated as to what it is and get these con artists off the streets," Cook adds. 

The Phoenix Police Department, one of the few to target Sweetheart Scams, agrees that sweetheart scammers are slippery. 

"Prosecution is often difficult because the victim is reluctant to assist, or his memory is so poor that he makes a bad witness," Phoenix Police Organized Crime experts say. 

Cook says the scammers know they won't go to jail and confidently move from one scam to another. If they’re ever caught, the scammers simply say they were befriending the victim and then give the gifts back. 

In 1944, while Walter Nellis was parachuting into Germany, another World War II veteran, Al Dobelstein, was also fighting for the Allied Forces. Three years ago, Dobelstein was approached by a sweetheart scammer who coincidentally used the same name, Rose. 

Rose used many of the same tactics employed just weeks ago on Nellis in the Valley. Only for Dobelstein, the setting wasn't a Sweet Tomatoes but a horse track near Tacoma, Washington. By the time Dobelstein's daughter Candice met Rose, her father was already paying Rose's phone bills and her mortgage. 

"My dad would complain about her doing things with other guys," Candice Dobelstein says. "Now I know it's because Rose was actually married the whole time." 

The textbook Sweetheart Scam involves the scammer's husband, who poses as a brother or uncle. In Dobelstein’s case, as with Nellis in Scottsdale, Rose introduced her tall, intimidating husband as her brother. 

It wasn't until after her father's death that Candice learned he had bought a house for Rose as well as a brand-new Ford Mustang convertible. Dobelstein had also cashed out three separate $100,000 life insurance policies for the sweet-talking temptress. 

"She had him so manipulated he just couldn't see what was going on. These scammers got a lot of money. They moved on. Nothing was done," Dobelstein says. "It's amazing how many people have come to me, having been taken by these women," she says. 

"These women are professional. Gypsy scammers are groomed for this from an early age, and there are a whole lot more non-gypsy scammers out there using the same Sweetheart Scam tactics," Dobelstein adds. 

Dobelstein says she thinks about her dad's scam every day, not just because the perpetrators took his life savings, but because the authorities haven't pressed any charges in his suspicious death. 

Al Dobelstein was discovered naked on the floor of his home, wearing only a sock. When he was taken to the intensive care unit of an area hospital, Candice discovered Rose had obtained her father's power of attorney. "I actually had to win guardianship of my own father in court," she says. 

It was then that Dobelstein learned Rose had a social security number with her father's last name and was receiving his pension payments. 

"Too often the police act like these old men were going to die anyway," Dobelstein says. "These crimes won't stop until laws are enforced. These are a low priority to law enforcement. That’s what many victims have been told." 

To their credit, detectives in Dobelstein's case did interview Rose about the assets she acquired before Al Dobelstein's death. Rose maintained the assets were all gifts. Candice Dobelstein says that's hard to believe. When her dad lay dying and unconscious in the hospital, Rose snuck in and slipped his gold watch off his wrist, replacing it with a Timex. 

Today, another victim's daughter calls from Las Vegas. Her father has already been scammed out of $40,000 and a brand-new Ford Thunderbird, but he's so emotionally roped in that she has to monitor his phone calls. 

The Vegas scammer has been interviewed by detectives, but she still telephones the widower, asking for money. Las Vegas detectives say the con artist is not alone in the Southwest. She has a sister named Rose. 

CREDIT: Scottsdale Times, John Dickerson, 4/2007 Feature Article

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