POMONA — She was a cherubic grandmother whose name--Julianna Onesty--belied her presence in the defendant's chair.
Despite appearances, however, Onesty and her accomplice, Sally Ann Scarpinata, were convicted in Pomona Superior Court last week of more than a dozen counts of grand theft. The two West Covina women had been charged with operating an investment scheme involving a phony will, the disappearance of more than $1 million and a good deal of dishonesty.
After deliberating 4 1/2 days, a jury decided the two were guilty of taking an estimated $1.5 million from more than 100 people over a five-year period.
Big Profits Promised
West Covina Detective B. J. Moore explained how the scheme worked:
Onesty, 64, was the front woman and delivered the money to Scarpinata, 46. Onesty told the victims that she was the beneficiary of a secret will worth millions of dollars, but that taxes on property held by the estate, probate costs and court fees had to be paid before she could gain control of her riches. She claimed that a judge had warned her that if terms of the will were revealed, the estate could be tied up in court for several more years and might revert to the state.
Onesty promised to double investments, and, in the latter days of the operation, to increase them by 100% within a few weeks. She attracted sums ranging from about $400 to $40,000 or more, and told one $30,000 investor that he would get more than $2 million back.
"She can sell snowballs to an Eskimo," Alberta Caron, a West Covina victim, said after the trial about Onesty, her friend for several years.
Many, like Caron and her husband, Ted, contributed their entire savings to Onesty and are left without the retirement nest eggs they had worked all their lives to accumulate.
The Carons, who lost $100,000, now live on Social Security supplemented by the part-time earnings of Ted Caron, 78, who had expected to retire from his job as a gardener. They say they are unable to do many of the things they had dreamed of doing in their leisure years, such as visiting their daughters in Utah.
"We're not hungry and I don't look like a poor woman," Alberta Caron said. "I wear nice clothes because I make them. But we can't do any of the things we could do if we had our money. We worked hard for it, and now it's gone."
Even fixing their leaky roof is a financial impossibility for the couple.
"Julianna is really not a bad person," Caron said. "But she lied. I can't stand liars."
Moore said that Onesty, an Avon saleswoman, persuaded several of her customers to invest. Many of them told friends and relatives about the potential for high returns and Onesty's predicament with probate costs, he said. Onesty, Moore said, did not tell most of the victims that there were many other investors, instead allowing them to believe she was appealing directly to them in her time of need.
Deputy Dist. Atty. James Green, who prosecuted the case, said after the trial that although all probate proceedings are a matter of public record, he believes that most investors failed to question the secrecy surrounding the will because they were blinded by the promise of high returns.
"Greed and avarice is a very strong emotion," Green said.
They Dealt in IOUs
A yearlong investigation revealed that Onesty wrote IOUs to the victims, gave all the money to Scarpinata, and in return, received from Scarpinata IOUs for houses, money and valuables, Moore said.
Larry Artis, Onesty's lawyer, said in an interview that Onesty, like the investors, believed there was a will and gave $108,000 to Scarpinata. He admitted that Onesty lied to the victims about being the beneficiary of the phony will, but said she believed Scarpinata was the true beneficiary.
Scarpinata's lawyer, Nestor Michelena, contended that his client merely signed an estimated 250 to 300 blank pieces of paper as a favor to Onesty. Michelena said Onesty later wrote in IOUs over Scarpinata's signature and that his client never received any money from Onesty.
Michelena said funds for a $200,000 spending spree by Scarpinata, during which she bought 11 vehicles, including cars, trucks, motorcycles and trailers, several fur coats and $75,000 worth of jewelry, came from her father, not the victims.
Green said he argued during the trial that Scarpinata's father was financially strapped, and had no way of providing the $200,000.
Money Still Hidden
Green said no one admits knowing where the rest of the victims' money is. Unless one of the defendants reveals its whereabouts, he said he doubts police will ever recover it.
"God only knows where the heck it is," Green said.
Onesty and Scarpinata had been free on their own recognizance but were ordered into custody by Judge Thomas F. Nuss immediately after the jury's verdict was read Tuesday. Of 15 counts of grand theft filed by the prosecution against both women, the jury found Onesty guilty of 13, Scarpinata of 14. Judge Nuss set sentencing for April 21.