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Prisoners Con the Lonely With Huge Pen Pal Scams

January 18, 1990|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Paul Hammer was a prisoner at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester a few years ago when he bragged to a reporter for an alternative magazine that he had received at least $176,000 from 1,500 to 2,000 people he had duped into sending him money.

"The trick is making them fall in love with you through letters and on the phone," Hammer told the Los Angeles-based magazine, the Advocate. "And I mean people who are lonely are so willing and vulnerable because they're reaching out and they're wanting something."

Across the country, prisoners' ploys to acquire and psychologically manipulate pen pals--frequently homosexual men--have resulted in the loss of millions of dollars and countless broken dreams over the past 15 years, authorities say.

But now, the stakes have risen as pen pal scams have figured in the murders of four gay men, three in Mississippi and one in New York, who had been writing to the murder suspects when they were behind bars.

On Sunday in San Clemente, former Indiana inmate Keith Eugene Goodman and two associates were arrested in separate SWAT team raids on suspicion of stalking Goodman's prison pen pals and killing them after committing robberies.

Goodman, 30, walked out of state prison with thousands of dollars from pen pals whom he had apparently persuaded to send money, said New York State Police investigator Richard J. Kadien.

One of Goodman's suspected victims, Harold Williams, 60, found shot to death Dec. 17 in his Upstate New York home, had apparently paid a $500 phone bill accumulated answering collect calls from Goodman. He had also sent Goodman a total of $300 while they wrote each other.

For long-term, maximum security inmates with time on their hands and nothing to lose, "scamming" outsiders is probably the most popular and lucrative of all prison "businesses," including the sale of illegal drugs, said Annette Viator, chief legal counsel for the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

Investigators have conservatively estimated that 10% of the 5,500 inmates at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, with or without outside contacts, have taken in more than $1 million in a recent three-year period.

Homosexuals, sometimes vulnerable to blackmail and unlikely to file complaints, are the primary target of such scams, she said, followed by religious people who want to help the less fortunate, and lonely subscribers to singles magazines carrying personal ads.

Some inmates also subscribe to metropolitan newspapers to contact people listed in divorce or real estate transactions. "Inmates who are truly looking to scam a large number of people leave no stone unturned for a source," Viator said.

Typical victims include a 67-year-old Orange County widow who spent $3,000 and sold her home to bankroll a prisoner who said he needed to pay off legal fees, according to Viator. In Canada, a homosexual high-ranking aide to a Canadian Parliament official lost $30,000 to pen pals who blackmailed him, then informed his boss about his homosexuality anyway.

Viator said that many people are surprised to learn that the dupes are often intelligent professionals. "They're not stupid. They're just very trusting."

The cons are "chameleons," she said. "It's amazing how they know how to fit their identify to a person who needs them. If you're a homosexual, they'll say, 'So am I.' If you're a lonely old man, they'll say, 'I'm a young girl who never had a family.' "

For example, an ad reading "Be My Summer Lover," placed last year in the Advocate, was signed only "Eddie." An established Santa Cruz professional, just jilted by his gay lover, picked up the magazine and replied. It resulted, he said, in an emotional and financial nightmare.

As the man found out later, after voluntarily sending "Eddie" $17,200, his pen pal was not the "cuddly, shy" 23-year-old Texan he claimed to be. Instead he was a 43-year-old convicted murderer, spending his time in a Louisiana prison bilking money from emotionally vulnerable people.

"Often minorities feel we're all in this together," said the 55-year-old Santa Cruz man who asked not to be identified. "Here was this gay young man. I'm gay. When (one feels) the majority is out to get you, minorities protect one another. I adopted a father or protector role.

"I started out sending him money to get out of trouble, to get him out here to California, then to post bonds as he kept getting in 'trouble.'

"By the time I realized I had no more money, I had borrowed up to the hilt."

A lawyer he had contacted to help "Eddie" instead made him realize that he had been duped. After the initial embarrassment, he said, he was relieved. "What I could not handle was thinking that this kid is going to go to prison and get raped because I couldn't help him anymore."

The man now has a civil suit pending against "Eddie."

Viator says the scams are difficult to stop, partly because overburdened and under-funded prosecutors are unwilling to spend time and money to charge and try prisoners already serving life sentences.

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