Robert Whiteside was sitting in his yard, working on his sprinklers when the car pulled to a stop at his curb. Inside was a dark-haired woman in her mid-30s, looking for a little help finding Preston Road.
He gave her the directions, and she drew out the conversation, gathering information about him as they spoke. An 87-year old man, he lived by himself in Preston Hollow, and from his house, his dress, his manner, she could see how wealthy he was, how vulnerable. She gave him her name,Vickie Peterson, and her phone number.
He called her after a few days, and on May 28, 2004, the two met in an Albertson's parking lot and walked to Wendy's for coffee. According to police reports, he handed her a check on June 9, the first of 18 he'd write, this one for $15,000. As they became closer, Whiteside offered to write Peterson into his will, but she talked him out of it, saying she was worried what his family would think. He gave her money to pay off her debt, to cover a trip to visit her father hospitalized in Washington state. She told him she was an unemployed single mother living with her aunt; each month he would give her half his income.
She brought her three-year-old daughter to his house to visit, gave him rides to the doctor and the grocery store. Whiteside told her he could use somebody to help out around the house full-time, but she said they'd have to get married first. He proposed to her in September.
The whole time, he played it cool with his daughters. "He was being cagey," Kitty Whiteside recalls today. "He was like, 'Oh, I've been out to dinner.' Well, great, 'Who'd you go with?' He wouldn't say." Another daughter, Eileen Doehring who lives in Houston, says her father even lied and said he'd met his new friend through Highland Park United Methodist Church, where he'd been an active member and volunteer for over 60 years.
Kitty was back in Dallas that Christmas when she found a file on his computer called "Meeting A New Person." The responsible thing, she decided, was to spy. In it, he writes that she'd said she'd been married but her husband died, that she's Catholic and, like him, considers herself a Democrat. "She was very petite—less than five feet, deeply tanned, (Hispanic?) attractive," he writes. "She had been in Dallas a few months, from Seattle." He ends with a revealing expression of the bond he feels for this new woman in his life: "I would treasure her as one of my friends, but not as the friend." Kitty e-mailed herself a copy.
"To him, it was new life. It was hope. It was, 'I can be independent,'" she says. "[Peterson] really feeds that side, which you want to be the truth." Kitty says her father had already been "paranoid" about his daughters taking his car keys away, or talking him into moving into a nursing home.
While he was out with Peterson in February 2005, Whiteside's home was robbed, the first time in the more than 50 years he'd lived there. Then, in June that year, he was robbed again. His daughters told him they were suspicious Peterson was involved, but he wasn't buying it.
Kitty says she told a friend about the journal her father had written regarding this woman a half century his junior, and was surprised by the response: "'You better get on that right away. It's Gypsies,'" she recalls him telling her. "He said his friend's father in Florida had been taken over by a family of Gypsies." Kitty didn't know what to make of the generalizations she began hearing. "I was just really disappointed to learn that this was a really common thing, that some of the stereotype wasn't just a stereotype," she says.
That August, Doehring visited her father and found records of $30,000 payments to Peterson on her dad's kitchen table. To get him away from Peterson, she drove him to Houston for a few weeks and then came back to Dallas to file a police report for a loss of more than $230,000.
While they waited for the police to investigate, his daughters say the stress took a toll on him and the Parkinson's-like symptoms he'd been suffering worsened. "He just declined after that," Kitty says.
The money was gone, but Whiteside never pressed charges. His daughters say he alternated between worrying how he'd look when the story became public, and feeling sympathy for Peterson. "I'm not sure he was ever really convinced that she had done anything wrong," Doehring says. "Had he been healthy enough, I'm not sure what kind of a witness he would've been against her." Even had he been committed to pursuing the case, a prosecutor told them, it would've been tough to get a conviction.
Of course, none of that mattered. Whiteside fell and broke his hip in January 2006, and never recovered. He died later that year.
Time and again, Dallas police have heard from men who say Peterson breezed into their lives like this, friendly, assertive and mysterious, a single mom who asked for help caring for her daughter, or with some crisis in her life, always grateful as the weeks rolled on and the payouts grew. Peterson declined to return multiple interview requests, both directly and through her lawyer, Doug Mulder, but police reports and family members' recollections describe a persuasive confidence artist, a woman practiced at spotting targets at just the right point in their lives, getting close without revealing too much herself, and disappearing when families or police begin closing in.
As she crosses their paths, Peterson represents new life and new love, just when these men feel the old ones slipping away. She's a ticket back out in the world, driving, shopping, eating at restaurants while their friends flip channels from nursing home beds. Peterson is the bad romance their kids warned them about, the hidden friendship and the muttered name at the family Christmas. She's the irresistible fantasy that it's not too late for love, or something like it. She is the fountain of youth, and the drain out the bottom.
There's nothing new about her scheme, of course, but in the six sweetheart swindle complaints that have come through the Dallas Police Department's financial crimes unit in 10 years, Detective Donald Casey confirms Victoria Peterson is named in four.
Andthen there's the G-word. Police who investigated her in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-'90s, before she moved here, say she's one of three daughters of an ethnic Romani leader in suburban Seattle—part of a community known colloquially, and to the cops that track them, as Gypsies.
Police departments around the country are peppered with Romani specialists who develop ties within local communities that can remain remarkably insular, bound by language, tradition and social stigma from outside. Groups like the National Association of Bunco Investigators regularly feature "Gypsy Crime" seminars at conferences.
Former Dallas Police Detective Willie Hughes—who worked the department's two-man swindle squad in the '80s and '90s—lists four "unique and demonstrable characteristics" of what he considers typical Gypsy scofflaws in a handbook entitled, "Gypsy History, Culture and Criminal Activities." Crimes committed by Gypsies are, he writes, usually non-violent; often involve theft of "easily disposable" property; often include signs of superstition; and are usually team operations.
Beyond the popular image first mythologized in Victorian literature, of carefree traveling bands skimming what they need to survive, police warnings and crime stories like this are the new Romani legacy, the first time many people even hear there are "Gypsies" living in their town.
A people without a homeland, whose ancestors left India for Europe a thousand years ago, they still maintain the popular image of wanderers, and of the 20 million Romani people in the world today, about one million live in the U.S. Linguistics professor Ian Hancock at the University of Texas at Austin, a leading Romani scholar and rights activist, points out most in the U.S. aren't living the rootless life at all. Unlike in Europe, they have an easier time blending in here. "We're spread out so much in this country," he says. Even in Texas, its 20,000-strong Romani population is scattered throughout Dallas and each of the state's other big cities.
Hancock says the notion that Romani people operate with a different set of values, that they believe their heritage comes with a moral compass that points to theft, is no more correct than it is for any other ethnicity. "I'm a Gypsy and I'm offended by that assumption...Remember that Hitler tried to exterminate us because he thought criminality was a genetic characteristic of our people," he says. Historians estimate that between 500,000 and 1.5 million Romani people were executed during the Holocaust. Even in this country, as late as the mid-1990s, there were anti-Gypsy laws on the books—Texas law once charged Romani people $500 to live in the state.
The stigma of "Gypsy crime" drives an already closed community even further undercover, says Hancock, though it's no more correct than talking about Italian or Irish crime. "Read your story but substitute the word 'Jew,' and see if that would float. Most of the time an editor would say, 'No way can we say this, it's offensive.' But if it's 'Gypsy,' somehow those concerns don't apply." It's been an uphill battle getting people to use the noun "Roma" and the adjective "Romani," but he says that much would help. "'Gypsy' comes fully loaded. With 'Roma' you can start afresh."
Hancock says Romani society is built around a deep-seated notion of purity and pollution, which governs everything from how food is prepared to how the non-Romani world should be treated. It's an internal barrier, he says, that keeps Roma outside the mainstream. But police commonly point to that division as the basis of an economic system based on stealing from those outside the Romani fold.
Casey, one of two officers in the DPD swindle squad today, says crimes by members of the local Romani community account for five to 10 percent of its caseload, including complaints about fortune-telling and home repair scams. When elderly victims are involved in a case as complicated as a sweetheart swindle, he says the legal system works against them because it moves so slowly. "You reset a case or postpone it—these people are gonna get more sickly or more senile," Casey says. "Or they're going to expire."
Casey says that when he gives presentations about sweetheart cons, inevitably someone in the crowd suggests a comparison with Anna Nicole Smith, who married a rich oil tycoon 62 years older than her, prompting a court battle over his estate when he died. "And that's when we have to correct them and say, 'No, it's not the same thing.' She may have been a gold-digger, but it's different from what Victoria Peterson does or a Gypsy or other sweetheart swindlers do," Casey says. "There's never any intention to have sex, never any intention to have a serious relationship or marriage." And yet there is really no absolute that makes a sweetheart swindle. "It's the culmination of all these elements and a pattern over a period of time."
Because of these pitfalls, it often makes good sense for the victim to cut a deal to get some money back and drop the charges, but that hides a paper trail that might otherwise show a pattern of criminal conduct that could put the perpetrator behind bars. "I've been frustrated on my end, and the D.A.'s just not used to prosecuting Gypsy-type cases," Casey says.
At least one specialized unit in the district attorney's office, though, has been getting more experience. Dallas County's elder abuse prosecutor since 2009, Assistant District Attorney Amy Croft has been assigned to each of the last two complaints filed against Peterson, and while she won't discuss pending cases, she says prosecuting elderly exploitation cases comes with its own special skill set. "It's not against the law for someone to want to give away their money—we just have to do a really thorough investigation and determine that it's not something they would've wanted to do had they known the truth."
Peterson had avoided facing charges each time—that is, until last July, when a Dallas County Grand Jury indicted her for theft, for allegedly deceiving 78-year-old Wylie Cathey into buying her a mattress and a big-screen TV.
Which really isn't much at all, next to the inheritance she received from her last marriage.
Lester Peterson remembers the day in the mid-1990s when his dad called up and told him there was somebody special he wanted his son to meet. They got together at a suburban Seattle restaurant—Lester, his 73-year-old father Clarence Peterson and his dad's girlfriend Victoria Steve. "We went to dinner and lo and behold, it was this woman who's about 20 years old. You just knew it was totally wrong."
Lester says his mother had passed away a few years before, and he knew his father was still broken up over the loss. "We just thought, 'You know what, this'll pass.' And he said, 'I'm gonna marry her,'" Lester recalls. Clarence married the new Mrs. Peterson in June 1995, and soon after moved out of his house and into a one-bedroom apartment near his 25-year-old bride's family. "Once I knew what was happening, it was too late. Once he was married he was basically sequestered. We really didn't have contact with him."
Lester says his dad basically lived alone in that apartment, though neighbors told him Victoria stopped by once a week or so, spending most of her time with her family half a mile away. But Lester wasn't sure how hard to push his father. "It's that Romeo and Juliet thing," he says. "As soon as you say anything negative, it drove a wedge. It was really embarrassing for the family."
Lester says his father died alone in the apartment in October 1997, where Victoria found the body. "It almost looks like he died in poverty. Whatever money he had, it looks like it was never used on him," Lester says. The funeral was just the third time he'd even seen his father's new wife. "I think I had lasers in my eyes. I just wanted to burn holes in her," he says.
In the legal battle that followed over Clarence's estate, court documents say the elder Peterson had been involved with Victoria's aunt, Lisa Steve, and for a time had even written the elder woman into his will for $100,000, before he met his future wife.
Jimmy Marks, a well-known advocate for Romani rights and the patriarch of another Romani family around Seattle, contacted Lester's lawyer and related in a deposition that Victoria Peterson had once been part of his family, had been married to his son in an unofficial Romani ceremony, and how, in Clarence Peterson, she "bragged she had hooked 'a whale.'"
Lester says he and his half-sister poured $80,000 into contesting the will, but their complaint was dismissed because by the time Marks came forward, the four-month period for filing their complaint to contest the will had passed. In 1998, Victoria Peterson got half her husband's estate—upwards of $1 million, Lester says—plus his Army pension.
"Literally, they brainwash these poor people," Lester says. "Why don't they use the RICO statute? This is organized crime...I think as this whole demographic shifts to the elderly, obviously it's a growth industry for the Gypsies."
In the media maelstrom that surrounded the court case in Seattle, Peterson was cast as a gold-digging Gypsy predator. Not surprisingly, she left Seattle shortly thereafter, but not without a criminal record. In 1996, she pleaded guilty to theft charges and was sentenced to a year's probation for an unrelated crime. She had befriended a 73-year-old man—using an alias, Samantha Perry—and eventually took $1,500 from him, along with his 1991 GMC Jimmy.
In June 2003—a year before Peterson met Robert Whiteside and told him she had just arrived in Dallas—Emil Mancell was walking home through the Tom Thumb parking lot at Mockingbird Lane and Abrams Road, when a young woman stopped him to chat.
Mancell's nephew, Larry Petr, recalls how his uncle, 90 years old at the time, told the story: She walked right up to him and said, "I couldn't help but notice you. You're the kind of man I've been looking for all my life."
"Which is probably true," Petr muses, "but not in the way he thought."
Even today, Petr wonders how Peterson spotted his uncle as a wealthy mark. "He wore shirts that were probably 30 years old, worn so thin you could see right through them," Petr says. "He needed a cane, but what he used was a broom handle, sawed off."
Mancell had been a disc jockey in Dallas before World War II, fought through Europe and returned to a long career as an accountant for the city. He and his wife Mary never had kids, and he'd been alone at home over the decade since she died.
Whether she knew it at the time, Peterson had found herself a new whale. Three days after meeting her, Mancell wrote Peterson a $3,000 check, followed by $10,000 the next day, this time to buy the Toyota SUV she wanted. She gave him an engagement ring.
Mancell bragged to his sister-in-law, Petr's mother, about the new lady friend he'd found, and she grew suspicious. Petr agreed to drop in on Mancell one Sunday afternoon when Peterson was there. At the door, Petr met his uncle, who yelled upstairs for Peterson to come down. Petr says she stalled for several minutes before the 33-year-old woman left the bedroom—"Obviously a much younger woman than I was expecting," Petr says. "When he said he had a girlfriend, I had no idea."
Petr says she threw a few words at them both and left. "She just kinda breezed on by." He followed her outside and asked to see her ID, but Peterson said that she'd left her license at home. Back inside, Petr asked his uncle what the deal was. "He said, 'Well, that's my girlfriend. She tells me she loves me,'" Petr recalls. "I said, 'OK, what do you do when she comes over?' He said, 'We go back in the bedroom and take our clothes off.'"
Convinced something wasn't right, Petr and his mother—who had joint access to Mancell's Bank of America account—checked online to see if any money was missing. Petr went to the police about the $10,000 check, and returned several days later, after he learned on July 18, 2003, that Mancell had withdrawn $400,000 from the account. "Look, now we're talking huge money. This is his life savings."
Mancell told his nephew Peterson was planning to return to Washington soon for a family reunion, and Petr got nervous. He reached Casey in the swindle squad, and insisted that police take some action soon. The detective suggested Petr stake out Mancell's home and call 911 when Peterson turned up. Then they'd dispatch officers to question her.
The next day Petr and his wife waited in their car two blocks from Mancell's home, watching the door with a pair of binoculars. Sure enough, after an hour and a half, Peterson pulled up in her silver Sequoia. They called 911.
"She stayed in the house about 10 minutes," Petr says. "No police had shown up yet, so I followed the car." Petr's wife stayed put, waiting for police, while she listened to him narrate the low-speed chase on his cell phone.
Petr tailed Peterson up Central Expressway to LBJ Freeway, relaying his whereabouts to his wife and his suspicion that Peterson knew she was being followed. She eventually parked at a Walmart and went inside, and Petr parked beside her. It wasn't until she returned to her SUV that three squad cars arrived. "I jumped out of my car and say, 'Yeah, that's the girl we're talking about right here,'" he recalls. Petr says when police questioned her in the parking lot, she told them that Mancell had simply given her the money.
Police later told him they spent two hours interrogating her before she was released. A report filed by Detective Casey from July 25 notes that Peterson claimed to have lived in Texas for four years at that point, though she didn't have a Texas driver's license.
The report also details that Casey learned about the Peterson family suit from police in Washington, and relates a brief conversation at Peterson's home, in a palm reader's shop along LBJ Freeway, with a man named Dino Stevenson. "Stevenson said that the suspect was his cousin, although a local Gypsy informant advised Det that the suspect was in fact, Mr. Stevenson's wife."
Police had Peterson's Bank of America account frozen, and his family tried to convince a disbelieving Mancell he had been taken. With news clippings about Peterson's marriage in Washington, Mancell finally caved, telling them, "She's a bitch. Let's get her." He agreed to record a phone call with her and hand it over to the police. In it, Petr says, Peterson told his uncle she was going out of town, and she'd see him when she got back. On the tape, Mancell asked her if she loved him and she said yes. Like Whiteside, though, Mancell waffled between recognizing he'd been conned, and missing her company.
Casey thought Mancell had a good case. "I clearly had documented this girl was doing the same thing in Washington," he says. But Peterson's criminal defense attorney—Doug Mulder, who had been second in command under former District Attorney Henry Wade, offered prosecutors a deal: Drop the charges and his client would return the $400,000. Petr says a prosecutor convinced him Mulder could drag the case out so long it wouldn't be worth fighting. "Then you say, OK, best to recover than to try and be a hero."
Petr says they didn't hear anything about Peterson until late 2005, when police told him they were building a new case against her based on the Robert Whiteside complaint. "When this other case [Whiteside's] came up and they came to see if [my uncle] could be a qualified witness against her, he acted like he didn't remember hardly any of it," Petr says. Mancell died in April 2009.
"It makes for an interesting story, but it was a scary few weeks in our life," Petr says.
It's a Gypsy story Ian Hancock knows all too well, one he's tired of reading.
The UT linguistics professor says he knows all about sweetheart swindles, and wonders why "Gypsy crime" remains so popular in the press. "The Romani people are not, by birth, predisposed to any crime," he reiterates, "so to identify the population by ethnicity is a little biased."
He draws a distinction between the Romani people generally, and a subgroup called the Vlax, descended from former slaves in Romania, many of whom came to the U.S. after they were freed. Swindlers and scammers in the Romani community tend to come from this group, he says, which is about half the Romani population in the U.S. "The idea that the non-Gypsy world is there to be exploited is a legacy from slavery. If you've been enslaved for so long, everything's come from the outside, everything's been gained by currying favor, by deception, stealing—that is a legacy."
Willie Hughes, writing in his Gypsy handbook for police, is critical of academics' soft touch in their work on Gypsies. "Most are outrageously sympathetic in their treatment of Gypsy economics and, with few exceptions, totally disregard the impact of Gypsy criminal activity in the America community."
"While sociologists and cultural-anthropologists may be preoccupied with justifying criminal behavior," Hughes writes, "law enforcement officers must insist that there is no excuse for criminal behavior by Gypsies or by any other group."
Hancock has dueled for years with prominent Gypsy specialists in law enforcement, complaining that their generalizations are racist, and worst of all, that the stereotypes about "Gypsy crime" stifle real progress for the Romani community. "We know it's a horrible way to make a living," Hancock says. "But these people are locked into something and it gets us all a bad name."
Casey says there's simply a different way you have to talk when you're not in a law enforcement context. "Within the law enforcement community, we all say what it is, so we're all on the same page," he says. "But when I'm dealing with the public...I remind them, OK, we're talking about the criminal element within the Gypsy community. Being in the police department, we seem to deal only with the criminal element."
At age 97, after surviving a tour of duty through the European Theater and making a killing in Dallas real estate, Conner Russell today is a man of drawstring pants and simple tastes. For take-out, he prefers KFC, but he's loyal to his neighborhood Luby's on Mockingbird near Abrams. That's where he was, in the summer of 2006, when a woman came by his table complaining of a toothache.
Oddly enough, she already knew his name.
She introduced him to her daughter and her aunt, and he drove Victoria Peterson to his dentist, where he paid $169 for her care.
"From there, it went from $169 to half a million," says Russell's nephew Don Martin, who's been helping his uncle put his savings back in order.
During the war, Russell drove a car for General Patton through London, and he held his own on the streets of Dallas for another 60 years. But by the time he met Peterson, he'd given up driving, and she began coming by his East Dallas house about once a week to take him shopping or to sit and visit. According to the guest register Russell keeps by his front door, Victoria Peterson and her daughter first dropped in on July 1, 2006.
Russell had been living in the house since the early '60s, and he'd been on his own there since his girlfriend Thelma died in 1998. He says Peterson asked to marry him, but he wasn't interested. "Once you get your independence, you don't give that up," he says, from a wheelchair parked at his kitchen table one night last December.
"I think she was trying to do the romance thing, and he wasn't really into that," Martin adds. But Peterson asked Russell for help starting a business, a limo service to help seniors to get to the store and the doctor's office. Russell says his uncle grew attached to Peterson's daughter, six or seven years old by then, whom he called his "little billy goat." He kept a bag of teddy bears in a bedroom so he could give her one when she came over.
Martin says he learned about Peterson when a family member told him Russell was helping a young woman start a business, but didn't want anyone to worry about her being in his life.
"He didn't really get the picture till we found him after three or four days in the bathroom," Martin says. Another relative had discovered him days after he fell out of his wheelchair and couldn't get back in. "He was dehydrated, incoherent...It took him two to three weeks to finally get his mind clear, and he kept saying, 'Well, I've got to talk to Victoria.'" Martin says. "Well, I found a $30,000 check in his billfold written out to her. I told him, 'I think you've been rooked.'"
Martin looked up Peterson online, discovered the fight over Clarence Peterson's estate, and went to the police. The police report filed in March 2010 puts Russell's losses at $330,000, but Martin says he keeps uncovering more checks and bank transfers paid out to Peterson. Piecing together Russell's finances, Martin says he found records from a trip Peterson and Russell took to Sears, where Russell opened five credit card accounts and maxed them out buying gift cards.
He puts the number at $490,000 today—the largest reported loss to Peterson since she inherited half of Clarence Peterson's estate.
"He didn't know that he'd given her that much money," Martin says. It took a meeting with detectives to change Russell's mind. "She just took everything in her grand sweep of things, and she just stole everything she could," Russell says today.
Martin says he discovered a notarized letter typed on Russell's stationery and signed by him, proclaiming his genuine affection and best wishes for Peterson and her daughter. "When we got into it with the police department, they said that right there would probably just about stop us," Martin says. "We felt like it would've been a losing battle, so the big thing was just to stop her and recoup where we were."
"The trouble with Conner's case is that there were so many checks over so long a period of time," Casey recalls. "For him to be on a witness stand, where he would be bombarded with questions from a defense attorney, he would be torn up."
In early 2009, Peterson bought a gated five-bedroom house on Abrams Road worth around $600,000. Martin says he's sure much of it's money Russell gave her. "It's not about money, it's about principle," Martin says. "And as long as he's taken care of the rest of his life, that's all I care about."
Russell says Peterson quit trying to get in touch with him around the time of his fall, but then he started getting strange phone calls almost daily—silence on the end of the line. His live-in caretaker, John Pendergrass, is convinced it's Peterson calling to see if Russell is still alive, because of a certificate of deposit Russell once signed over to her in the event of his death. Pendergrass keeps a notepad by the phone, where he records the date and time of the calls; and he always picks up the phone himself now and answers with, "Good afternoon, Mr. Russell is home."
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The 3rd degree felony theft charge Victoria Peterson faces today stems from a trip to Conn's in late May 2010, where 78-year-old Wylie Cathey bought her a 55-inch TV and a mattress, and gave her $1,100 in cash, the police report says, purportedly "to help out with her little girl." Though Peterson was charged last summer, records show there have been multiple delays for preliminary court appearances.
Although the police report says Peterson and Cathey had met "only days earlier" at a CVS pharmacy on Coit Road near Cathey's home, a police check of Peterson's cell phone records revealed Peterson called Cathey 78 times from May 23 to June 28. Interviewed by police at his home, the report says Cathey told them "the suspect told him numerous times that she loved him."
A man who said he was Cathey's caretaker says he doubts Cathey would be able to discuss the case (Cathey didn't return the call), and according to the police report, Cathey was unable to pick Peterson out of a photo lineup last July. A store employee, though, didn't have the same problem, and the report says Peterson's signature is on the delivery ticket for the TV.
Detective Casey's report goes on to reference each of the other complaints against Peterson—Mancell, Whiteside and Russell—and just how similar they were. "In each case, the suspect claimed to be a single mother living with her aunt, had huge debt, and needed financial help for her daughter," he writes. "This is a classic sweetheart swindle case."