SANTA ANA – (Ventura County Star) Few knew where Heidi Muth had gone.
Not her neighbors, whom she showered with handmade holiday wreaths. Not her fellow parishioners at St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church in Tustin, where she sometimes helped arrange funerals. Not even her brother, Sam Galasso, who lived with Muth, 68, in her spacious Santa Ana area home.
Galasso, 71, said his sister never mentioned Jamaica.
But in early September that’s where Muth was found dead, on a dirt path in an upscale neighborhood of Montego Bay. She’d been stabbed several times in the head and upper body.
“She only said she was going to be gone a couple of days,” Galasso said.
“But she never came back.”
Winning the “lottery”
Telephone-driven scamming, often involving older victims, is as old as phones. The rise of the Internet has only pushed such fraud into overdrive.
There are simple phishing schemes, with criminals luring people to give over private data that then is sold to other crooks for subsequent scams. There are fake pleas for help from down-on-their luck members of African or Scandinavian royalty. There are bogus offers of cars and trips and inheritances.
But few scams are as big or as profitable or as deadly as the so-called Jamaican lottery.
Technically, versions of the lottery scam are run out of several countries, but international investigators describe Jamaica as ground zero. Data from the FBI suggests the lottery scam brings upwards of $1 billion a year to the island, roughly half the amount generated by tourism.
Most victims are 60 or older and most live in the United States, according to the FBI and others. The scammers make some 30,000 calls or emails a day and, last year, the Federal Trade Commission logged more than 141,000 complaints related to lottery scams. That last number is believed to be a fraction of the total victims, however, as many people are too embarrassed to report being tricked.
Increasingly, the scam also brings death.
Phone scammers often target the elderly and have a “who cares” mentality. Seaborn Larson, firstname.lastname@example.org
Two years ago, Jamaica had the world’s fifth highest homicide rate, according to data from the World Health Organization. Many of those killings were linked to gang wars that have escalated in recent years as criminals on the island have moved from sending pot to the United States (the quality of American weed has improved to the point that Jamaican exports have lost some value) to lottery scamming.
And the violence is surging. The homicide rate in Jamaica is up about 20 percent from a year ago, with 639 murders reported in the first six months of this year, according to Insight Crime, an organization that tracks organized crime in North America.
As improbable as it might seem, Muth, the widow from Santa Ana, might be one of the Jamaica lottery war’s first American victims.
“These scammers go to any measure and any means to maintain their criminal activity,” said Sgt. Kevin Watson, an investigator with the Jamaica Constabulary Force, which is investigating Muth’s murder.
“That includes taking the lives of (lottery) victims.”
To understand investigators’ theory on why Muth made the trek from Santa Ana to Montego Bay, you’ve got to understand the nuts and bolts of the lottery scam itself.
At its heart, the scam is a simple proposition. A criminal reaches out by phone or email to tell the victim that they’ve won some big money in a lottery. But before they can collect that super big amount, the victim is convinced to send the caller some type of up-front fee, a tax or a handling surcharge that’s just a fraction of the winnings, via Western Union or MoneyGram or some other wire service.
The winnings, of course, are never sent, and the scammer is the only one getting any money. Typically, that’s the end of the scam.
But some victims call their scammers back, angrily demanding that initial lottery prize. Sometimes, experts say, those callers fall prey again, convinced to send even more money.
In a few cases, the scam becomes a cycle, with the victim repeatedly wiring money to the scammer in a fruitless effort to land a big payout. Sometimes, that original victim is even urged to convince friends or relatives to send money, too, turning victims into accomplices, willing or otherwise. The relationships, experts say, can last years.
Jamaican investigator Watson believes Muth was caught up in just such a cycle.
Watson has investigated more than 500 lottery scam cases, encountering all manner of victims. He’s talked with veterans and nurses and educators, like Muth, who taught at Silverado and Serrano elementary schools from 1975 to 2008.
What’s more, Watson believes Muth fit at least one other part of the lottery profile. Often, scammers go after people who are potentially lonely or vulnerable or both. Muth has three adult children, but she’s been a widow since 2011.
“They take advantage of person by pretending to have relationships with them to get them cooperate, Watson said.
And there is this: Muth was on investigators’ radar long before her murder.
In 2012, Jamaican authorities identified Muth as a victim of lottery scammers. But when she was asked to cooperate with investigators, Watson said, Muth refused.
Watson suggested that Muth’s refusal to help investigators in ’12 was a sign — not conclusive proof — that she was working as a “money mule” in a lottery scheme; possibly delivering cash from American victims to Jamaican scammers.
Watson said mules have been killed by scammers for being as little as $500 short.
But if Muth was caught up as a mule, it doesn’t mean she was willingly committing a crime.
Sometimes, mules are willing accomplices, but some work under threat. The same scammer that has called and convinced a victim to write checks for a fake lottery win can be believable when he threatens to seize a victim’s assets or hurt their relatives.
Lottery scammers, Watson said, “have a wealth of information on their potential victims.”
Good money, bad money
Muth didn’t talk with neighbors or her brother about Jamaica, but she did talk to other people.
“Everyone said she was throwing good money after bad,” said Sarah Schiermeyer, a close friend of Muth’s who lives in Vermont.
Schiermeyer said Muth — who she described as “stubborn” — told her she was owed money by someone in Jamaica. Schiermeyer said the amount “was enough for her to go down there.”
Watson believes her connections in Jamaica led to her death, and that she was probably killed by somebody working for one of the 30 or so lottery-connected gangs in his area.
He also noted that Muth has been victimized, even in death.
After her body was found, a Jamaican constable was arrested on suspicion of using Muth’s credit card number to buy prepaid cell phone minutes. Police believe the officer used his phone to photograph information from Muth’s driver’s license and credit cards while he was at the murder scene.
“This is just one bad egg in the mix of things” Watson said. “It doesn’t change the murder investigation. Law enforcement was able to act quickly to make an arrest of this officer.”
Watson added: “This (incident) doesn’t represent the hard working police officers in (my department).”
These words are on a sticker that’s still on Muth’s front door:
“Protected By Angels.”
Her brother, Galasso, spends his days tending the lush roses and brightly colored pinwheels that spin in the breeze on the neatly manicured lawn.
He won’t say whether he knows if Muth was involved in a lottery scheme. But he hinted that something in her life was amiss.
“By her actions,” Galasso said, “she chose the way she died.”