Crimes of the Heart
Even the street-hustlers, pimps and gang members in New York’s Harlem, used to strange sights in their rough neighbourhood, couldn’t resist an askance look at what was happening on 125th street. It wasn’t just that the bridegroom was a frail 85 and his fiancée a youthful, alluring twenty-eight with doe-like brown eyes and a thick mane of dark hair. For in a classic role reversal, the bride was carrying the bridegroom up the steps to the wedding ceremony.
The Reverend Edward Bowens “a voodoo priest” presided in his store front church and the couple were wedded in a matter of minutes. No friends or family were there to throw confetti on the newly-wedded couple or indeed did their relations even know they were getting married. In fact it is a moot point whether the bridegroom knew he was getting wedded either, he was so weakened and woozy. But 83 days after the nuptials Andrew Vlasto, a kindly old man, would lie dead, killed at the hands of his new bride.
It had been a whirlwind romance – ignited in McDonalds on New York’s 23rd street just a month before in July 1993. Vlasto, a confirmed bachelor, was well known and liked in the neighbourhood where he lived in a modest $250 a month apartment. He existed well below his means and few had any idea that his estate was worth half a million dollars as he ate in local Greek taverna’s and waved and smiled at his neighbours. He met his bride-to be, Sylvia Mitchell, over a Big Mac and cup of tea. He had led a respectable life and had had successful careers in the US and Greece as a lawyer, banker, editor, publishing executive and entrepreneur. She was a Gypsy and came from one of America’s biggest clans and had four children.
After their wedding Mitchell opened a joint bank account with her new husband and transferred $70 000 to the Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City where they spent their honeymoon. On their return Vlasto disappeared from the streets around his 24th Street home on the west side of Manhattan. James Vlasto, his nephew, was contacted by relations in Greece who couldn’t get hold of Andrew because his phone was constantly engaged. James went round to the apartment to discover from a neighbour that his uncle had been hospitalised and taken away in an ambulance. When he got to Bellvue hospital he was told he couldn’t see his uncle. “I said ‘what’s going on?’ and they said, ‘His wife doesn’t want any visitors and I said, ‘What wife?’”
Andrew Vlasto died shortly after being taken into hospital a second time after an overdose of barbiturates with pneumonia complications. And so began a six year campaign by James to prove that Mitchell far from being in love with his uncle had married him to strip of all his money and assets and had poisoned him to death. “I couldn’t save his life,” says James Vlasto today, “but I could save his assets and his good name. It was plain and simple: this was murder and robbery. He was basically drugged very early on so that he would sign different things. That marriage licence became a weapon.” Mitchell had her name on many of his property deeds. It was complicated to prove that Mitchell had poisoned him and at first no-one wanted to know but James Vlasto persisted. An autopsy, which Mitchell tried to block, showed that Vlasto had digitalis in his blood. A heart drug which doctors had not prescribed for him.
In July this year Mitchell was convicted of manslaughter in the second degree and eleven counts of grand larceny, attempted grand larceny and perjury. She is now serving a 5- 15 year jail sentence for manslaughter in upstate New York. Andrew Vlasto is buried in an unmarked grave in a New Jersey cemetery and that should have been that.
But Andrew Vlasto is not alone. He is one of hundreds, probably thousands of wealthy, but old and lonely men in the US who have been targeted by Gypsy clans and stripped of their money, drugged and either killed or left to die in appalling poverty after being seduced. They are wooed by beautiful young gypsy women, trained in the art of seduction from an early age by their mothers, say investigators. The women use the promise of sex, love and marriage as well as stories of cancer, terminal illness and personal tragedy as a means of getting their victims to part with everything they own. They also have a host of aliases and disguises and travel the country to find their victims which is simply “the family business.” The crime, known as a sweetheart swindle, has gone on for centuries and until now was hidden. But investigators are finding a far bigger picture than they ever realised was possible. Says one detective wearily, “In my opinion these people are more organised and successful at getting money out of people than the mafia – just that they don’t normally kill their victims. Over the years the money taken probably amounts to billions all over the US.”
In the fast-becoming trendy area of Soma, downtown San Francisco, California is an address only known by a few. From here a non-profit making group calling itself ElderAngels operates. Run by a private eye called Fay Faron who also runs the Rat Dog Dick Detective Agency, ElderAngels now takes three to four calls a week from all over America from worried relatives who feel their loved ones are being targeted. Fay Faron a demure investigator with blonde, curly locks and a tenacious streak is credited by many in the US as discovering sweetheart swindles.
In 1993 she found that four old men in San Francisco may have been poisoned to death with digitalis (the same drug found by doctors in Andrew Vlasto) and that all were involved with a clan of gypsies called Tene Bimbo. (Investigators in New York discovered that while Sylvia Mitchell was supposedly married to Andrew Vlasto she was also living in a nearby apartment under the name Tina Goldman with the father of her children, Ephrem Tene Bimbo. ) It became known as the Foxglove case. In the wake of it she set up ElderAngels.
Says Faron, “These people are sociopaths. They look into their victims eyes, tell them that they love them and then rip their lives away. They go after the most vulnerable members of our society and it is as dirty as you can get. It is like paedophilia in reverse. They should be hanged.” Elderangels work with the police and other prosecuting agencies to present evidence and bring perpetrators to light.
“For years,” says Faron, “I was telling the cops, newspapers and the DA that this was going on but no-one thought it was a problem. They just thought at worst it was a civil case.” As such getting evidence to convict is extremely hard. Victims don’t feel they are victims so rarely tell anyone. Or if they do they are just too embarrassed to admit they have been had over. They are normally lonely old men, many with Alzheimers and other mental problems, with few friends or family. The women isolate them further and then disappear virtually untraceable with all their aliases. If police do decide to prosecute the men simply die too before the police can build a case or, if asked to give evidence are so hazy in their recollections that cases just fall apart. California and Florida are hotbeds as many old wealthy people retire there for the warmer climate.
In California the problem is now treated as so serious there are specific police officers trained in how to investigate the complex trail the women seducers leave together with specially trained district attorneys. Paul Greenwood, is the San Diego County DA and Chairman of the California elder abuse committee. “In a few years we have gone from 0 cases to 300 just here in San Diego alone,” he says. “This is huge. In five years this type of crime will overtake domestic violence in the western world. All the trends are there.”
However, some officers like Inspector Kathy Boyovich, a fierce and uncompromising detective with the district attorney’s office in Alameda County just outside San Francisco, have had remarkable successes. In her office are huge wall charts detailing the huge interconnected organised crime families, their huge array of aliases and who their victims are.
Fleecing old men is an art form for them, she says. “The ability to lie and scam is their bread and butter and how they make their living,” she says in her broad West coast accent. “When they are picking out a daughter a law for an arranged marriage they choose them on their ability to lie and scam and how much income they will bring their husband. The bigger scammer they are the bigger the dowry they will command. The men are behind these scams and they’ll work together with the women – but the women are the main breadwinners. The women just make money for them. They have absolutely no remorse at all.”
After leaving their victims to die penniless and with broken hearts they live high on the proceeds, says Inspector Boyovich. “One family I have been investigating loves to gamble and go to Las Vegas and stay in the most expensive hotels like the Mirage, Treasure Island and Flamingo. They buy gold necklaces, watches, diamonds and drive big flash cars like Lexus’s, Mercedes and SUV’s – they live well. They throw huge parties too.”
Their modus operandi is slick and polished she says. “They are chameleons too and will change their appearance, hair colour and style together with their clothes at the drop of a hat. That said they change their names like you and I change our clothes. Then they go shopping for victims like you and I go shopping for food. I have a thirteen year old girl saying on tape where and when is the best place to find victims; Lucky’s supermarket at 3pm on a Sunday. I mean what goddman chance have these men got?”
Sam Caplan, 82, a diminutive former botany university lecturer became part of the shopping list for a clan called the Loeo’s, famous for their beauty and beguiling charm. After a 42 year marriage, his wife died from a long and protracted bout of cancer through which he nursed her until the end. At her death, Sam was left devastated. Two weeks later he was approached by a woman in a car park who said she had nursed his wife in hospital. He remembers her slight build, gamine beauty and easy affection, which in his bereavement was a tonic. “They probably saw my name in the local paper’s obituaries when my wife died,” he says now. In fact, Lisa Loeoe, hadn’t been anywhere near the hospital.
She asked Sam round for dinner that night at her house. Sam lonely and distraught, needed company. A man at her house was introduced as her brother Sam and her two young children, she claimed, were from a husband she had divorced. Yet her brother Sam was really her gypsy husband.
“Gypsies don’t get married like we do with a licence. There is just a big ceremony and that is it,” says Kathy Boyovich. “They can then marry their victims and we can’t get them on bigamy charges. A gypsy woman also becomes unclean and is ostracised from the clan if she touches a non-gypsy man so sex is promised but never gone through with. I had one victim who told me that his relationship would be consummated as soon as he give her $40 000 for her to have a hip replacement. But the most I have ever heard a victim get in the way of sex is a brief kiss on the lips.”
Sam remembers how over the next few months when his relationship seemingly flourished, Lisa would say that she loved him and wanted to marry him. “It became a manta,” he remembers. “We spoke about marriage and if she had wanted to I would have married her. She said she couldn’t have sex until we were engaged and I was under no illusions. I thought well if that is your religion that is OK by me.”
Soon enough the requests for money started. She offered him stories that she needed money for a haberdashery business and Sam duly gave her $45 000 for material and $20 000 for sewing machines. “I just thought I was helping her out,” he says. “ I think in hindsight I was just playing the part of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.” She promised to pay the money back but sometime later asked for a further $25 000 for a deposit on a house which, she said, had a basement for her to put her sewing machines. But Sam got suspicious and when he found the house didn’t have a basement he raised his concerns with Lisa. She disappeared with $94 000. “I was just very lonely,” is how Sam explains it all as he sits on his own in the Berkely home he once shared with his wife. And for once his gentle demeanour collapses to rage. “She should spend the rest of her life in jail.”
Yet Sam escaped relatively unscathed. Not so Anthony Brusca, 82, a retired telecommunications engineer and devout Catholic who lost his entire life savings, some quarter of a million dollars to a woman calling herself Venus Milo, who was in fact Lisa’s sister. Her other aliases include Daffy Boys, Valerie Demitro and a range of others all used on fraudulent California State driving licences.
Anthony met her at the Horizon Resort Casino in South Lake Tahoe, north of San Francisco when she tapped him on the shoulder. “She was the most beautiful woman I ever saw,” says Brusca, smiling fondly even now. Venus, is a beguiling and slender woman in her late twenties with huge eyes and modelling aspirations. Over several months she befriended Tony constantly telling him that she loved him and that she wanted to marry him. On one occasion she even went to mass with him and received Holy Communion. “I was really impressed by that,” he says. “She seemed such a nice young woman.”
She asked for $21 000 to finish an interior decorating project in Hawaii. Anthony gave her the money and received a postcard from her in Hawaii with a lipstick imprint. The interior design business was a lie, but the falsehoods were to get worse.
Around the time he met Venus she introduced him to a woman called Doris and a man called Steve who she said were her mother and brother. They were in fact her husband and mother-in-law. Kathy Boyovich explains: “When they get hold of a victim and realise he has money they get others involved. It becomes like a piranha feeding frenzy as they all fight over the victim. All victims say the women have young children and when the perpetrators speak to the victim they speak English but at the same time they are telling the young children in Romany to get up on the victims lap and hug the victims. It’s a way of training them.”
Brusca received a call from Doris saying that Venus was coming back from Hawaii badly needing a life-saving operation. At Steve’s urging he rented her a flat in south Lake Tahoe as Steve and Doris told him that Venus loved him and wanted to be nearer to him. Anthony was told Venus needed the operation at University of California, Los Angeles and so he immediately flew their with $118 583 in cash from stocks he cashed in. “I just thought I was helping someone like the good lord told us to, ” says Anthony. “I like family life and come from a large family myself. I live alone and have most of my life,” he says crestfallen. “All those things like having a new car mean nothing unless you share them with somebody.” Although he denies he was ever in love with Venus.
The deception that follows next beggars belief. “I was driving with Steve in the car to the hospital and he was crying and in an awful state about his sister,” recalls Anthony. “He said she would die if I didn’t help. When we got there he said I couldn’t go on the wards and see her but that she would come out.” Venus had been waiting inside and went into the hospital, found a wheelchair and a white shroud and was pushed outside by Steve. A few words were exchanged, Venus feigning a death mask, and Anthony duly handed over the money.
But that wasn’t all. Some months later Venus said she needed a further $73 325 for another operation. “I went round to her apartment and it was like she was dying. She was covered up in bed and when I asked to see the doctors notes and the bill I had paid for the previous operation she looked up and said, “I am coughing up blood. Do you want to see the blood?” Anthony “lost control” and went straight round to his stockbroker to cash in his stocks for money.
The following day it dawned on Anthony that it had been a fraud when Venus asked him to notarise a note saying the money he had given her had been a gift. Venus promptly disappeared, Doris saying she had gone to live with a lesbian. Anthony was heartbroken and kept calling to see where she might be. When Doris introduced him to Lisa, Anthony began to realise he had been conned and was about to be duped again.
Venus was brought to justice when Anthony went to the police. She was given a one year suspended prison sentence and ordered to repay $81 908. Judges were not fooled by her plea of insanity or the gypsy curse her mother placed on the court at the time of sentencing.
“You’d think I would be suspicious,” says Anthony now, his lived-in face frowning. “But I came from an era where this,” he gets up to shake my hand, “was your bond. She was fun to be with though. There was no love-making not even holding hands. I thought if she doesn’t want to I don’t either. But she never even thanked me for what I did. ”
In the aftermath Tony has been left to live on a small state pension and his health has been affected. “It’s a terrible thing to do to people,” he says. “They know we are vulnerable This has put all this stress on me and affected my health terribly. They are mean and cruel. They have no heart.” He adds with a steely glare extending his forefinger and pointing: “She put two men in the cemetery and she wanted three. But she ain’t having me.”
Indeed, before she went Anthony Venus had befriended two other old men, Harry Champion and Charles Hunt. Both now lie dead after being stripped of their homes, money and spending their last days in cheap nursing homes. Hunt parted with $22 000 for kidney surgery for Venus, who called herself Margaret then. When she disappeared two days later her mother Ana, appeared talked him into spending $12 000 on credit cards she had made him get. He had to file for bankruptcy soon after and died while court proceedings were taking place. “This is a story of loneliness and fear,” he is reported to have told a local newspaper at the time. After he met Margaret on exactly the second anniversary of his long time companion’s death he said: “I was lonely as lonely as a man can be. That was when I met Margaret. But I should have paid attention to that adage, ‘If it’s too good to be true it probably is.” Ana was caught and pleaded guilty to obtaining property under false pretences.
Harry Champion was desperately lonely after the death of his wife and met Venus sometime in 1995. Over five years he fell in love with her and handed over the deeds to his house and even his beloved car a beloved 1953 Chevy with the numberplate Gracie, his ex-wife’s name was transferred into one of her aliases, Venus Demitro and the house into the name of Valerie Demitro. He gave her hundreds of thousands of dollars on the pretext of kidney operations and credit cards she had told him to take out. By the time he was placed into a nursing home his home had been stripped of almost everything he owned and he was left with $30 a month to spend, not even being able to afford his own medication. He died two years after Venus left him, Harry still trying to track her down with proclamations of love.
Santa Rita jail stands at the very end of the Bay Area Rapid Transport line in Pleasanton. Here one of the biggest gypsy matriarchs is incarcerated for scamming 14 old men together with her husband, George, son and daughter in law, second son and daughter in law and her daughter, Ruby, aged 16. The losses are around $2m.
In sweetheart scams the investigators job is further made harder because the women will call their victims when the police are close, ask them to sign notes saying the money was a gift and harass them until they drop charges. Says Kathy Boyovich who has spent years investigating these cases, “The victims have all been approached and the women tell them they will pay them say $5000 not to testify or co-operate with the police – they put them under constant pressure saying their children will be taken away – anything to get them not to testify.” Anthony Brusca bought a $4000 camcorder for Venus on a trip to Reno when she threatened to kill herself if he didn’t. He relented and Venus, Steve and Doris then gave him a script to read to say he loved Venus which they duly filmed. It was a ham-fisted attempt to show the money he had given her was a gift if the authorities ever caught up with them. Often in court too, if one member of a clan is caught huge brown paper bags of money will mysteriously arrive and are used to pay for restitution so that the suspect escapes jail.
But this time Sylvia Yonko and her family have been caught. She is related to the Loeo’s and is known to have at least twenty one aliases. As she emerges to a prison visiting booth, separated from me by a glass panel, we communicate using a phone. In a prison mustard-coloured prison jumpsuit she is a woman in early fifties and answers questions reluctantly.
“It is not violent, murder is it?” she asks imploringly. “They say I was scamming old men, some I know some I don’t.” Her most recent victim who can’t be named for legal reasons she says she was in love with. “He is a very weird old man and very confused,” she says. “He lent me $40 000 and I wanted to give the money back but he wouldn’t let me. We were in love, we were going to get married and elope.”
Even though she still lived with her husband George? “My husband and I are not legally married. He understands if I see other people and we are only together for the children.”
Yet it isn’t it rather old that she has so many male friends who are all in their late seventies to late eighties? “American people don’t take care of their elderly. They wind up senile after being given all this junk food and are put in convalescent homes. But gypsy women are different – we take care of the old. These old men’s sons and daughters play with their minds and say bad things about us.”
“A complete pack of lies,” says Kathy Boyovich producing evidence to the contrary. A tape was found at Sylvia Yonko’s house when it was raided. The conversation is with her sister in law and describes how when having a family meal at a diner she spotted a lonely old man talking to himself. “I go over and say hi I knew him,” says Sylvia on the tape. “He smells like shit but I don’t care. He used to own a chain of supermarkets, never been married and never had nobody right. Perfect right?” She goes on: “He’s the type of guy you could tell his imaginary friend to go to the bank and take out $10 000 and he would.”
Yet while California realises the huge scale of the problem and is hurriedly changing laws to deal with it (since 1999 victims can now be videoed before giving evidence in court in case they die during court proceedings) many prosecutors involved the problem is world-wide. “I have no doubt this is going on all the world,” says Kathy Boyovich. “It is just we are the first to hear of it. We will never know the full scale of the problem though – it is huge.”
According to Venus though, her days of scamming are over. In the Sacramento county jail where she is serving a sentence for not sending one of her daughters to school, she bats her eyelashes and tosses her hair back like a true coquette. And while the other prisoners shuffle up from the wing to see loved ones and their lawyers, Venus skips up the stairs to the glass windows smiling broadly.
Even in her orange prison jump-suit with ‘prisoner’ written down the left leg in thick black letters, she looks glamorous and you realise just how little chance any of her victims would have had. She has a thick head of shoulder-length dark hair which falls over her left eye whimsically and a broad, beguiling smile. She is catwalk-model thin.
“I knew the Lord would send me someone like you,” she says, grinning at me. And as each word is peppered with the Lord and God, the cynical might say she is trying to convince the media and her probation officers she has undergone a religious conversion. “I go to church every day here,” she says, batting her eyelids furiously again. “I had a dream about the Golden Gate bridge and the Lord was crying – that was when I decided to be different. I want to run a flower stall when I get out. I want to be a model too but I’m 29 now. I had some test shots done though. The Lord has shown me that things like palm reading and the other bad things I have done are wrong, but praise the lord, he has shown me what I was doing wrong and that has all changed now.”
She sees her string of convictions as police racism. “They keep calling us gypsies,” she says and then casts her eyes around the other inmates and visitors nervously. “But that is like, excuse me,” her voice goes sotto voce, “calling us niggers. We are not gypsies we are Rom.”
But what of victims like Anthony Brusca who has lost his entire life savings which have taken thirty years or more to work for? “The other people involved made me do it,” she says. “I got no money from it.” But did she ever love him and all he did unquestioningly for her? She pauses for a few seconds and then fixes me with a direct look. “Well as a human being… yes. He is kind of like if I bought a little dog and looked after it…”
Update: Since this story appeared Ana Loeo’s sister, Sylvia, and her husband George Yonko were both sentenced to 10 years state prison in Alameda County for multiple sweetheart swindles and disability frauds. Their adult children were also convicted but received lighter sentences because Sylvia and George took responsibility.