Six elderly men, five of them from San Francisco, were apparently killed with the heart medication digitalis after being wooed for their money by younger women belonging to a San Francisco-based Gypsy family, authorities say.
The five San Francisco victims died between 1983 and last year. The sixth and latest was 85-year-old Andrew Vlasto, a New Yorker who died three months after marrying a 28-year-old woman who withdrew $80,000 from his bank accounts shortly before his death and later fought with the family over the remaining $170,000 estate.
A source in the Manhattan district attorney's office confirmed Friday that the deaths of all six men, each of whom died during so-called May-December romances, could be linked. No charges have been filed in any of the cases.
All of the victims apparently were killed with digitalis, which can be fatal in high doses, said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The brides are all linked to the San Francisco-based Tene-Bimbo Gypsy family, the focus of Peter Maas' best-selling book "King of the Gypsies," the source said.
In the California cases, more than $1 million in cash, real estate, jewelry and automobiles was taken by the extended family, private investigators said.
Vlasto's nephew, James, became suspicious after a friend sent him a newspaper article in June about the deaths of five elderly men between 1983 and 1994. Each victim was allegedly "slowly poisoned to death" in a bid to collect his inheritance, the paper said.
The San Francisco victims, who ranged in age from 87 to 96, were exhumed for additional autopsies.
"The mode of operation was so similar, I immediately turned the clippings over to the D.A.," Vlasto said.
He said that a month before his uncle's death in November, 1993, he tried to visit him at a hospital in Manhattan but was turned away at the request of Sylvia Mitchell, Andrew's new bride.
The source in the district attorney's office said Mitchell was tied to the Tene-Bimbo group through her boyfriend, Ephrem Bimbo.
Vlasto was surprised to hear that his uncle, a Greek immigrant and confirmed bachelor known for his frugal ways, had married just two months before his hospitalization.
"I said, 'What wife? He's 85 years old, and he's never married,' " Vlasto recalled. ' "What's going on here?' "
When the elder Vlasto died, his nephew had an autopsy over Mitchell's objections. The results showed that complications from a drug overdose had caused the death.
Attempts to reach Mitchell on Friday were unsuccessful.