A Little More Reading With This Week's Cover: Sweetheart Swindles, Romani Culture and "Gypsy Crime" Specialists

This week's feature in the Paper Version of Unfair Park recounts the story of Victoria Peterson, a 40-year-old woman who's been accused by a handful of old men in Dallas of pretending at romance while she slowly bilked them out of their life savings.

According to court docs and police reports, she's also part of a prominent family in greater Seattle's Romani community -- folks commonly called Gypsies -- which ties her story to police specialists in "Gypsy crime" around the country, and to efforts by Romani advocates who're trying to bust Gypsy stereotypes.

A lot of these threads run pretty deep, so after the jump I figured I'd share a few links to put Peterson's story in perspective -- including one about the court battle over the estate of Clarence Peterson, the man she married in the late '90s when she was 25 ... and he was 73.

Dallas Police Detective Don Casey told me that of the six "sweetheart swindle" cases he's seen in the last decade, Peterson's been named in four of them -- which is a lot for her, but doesn't make the crime such a common one. Cops in Washington, though, said it was far more prevalent 10 to 20 years ago -- around the time Peterson's fight over her husband's estate became a well publicized cautionary tale in Seattle.

Ten or 20 years ago, though, particularly on the West Coast, these crimes took on a higher profile -- Jack Olsen's Hastened To the Grave is a pretty riveting true-crime story about the Gypsy family in San Francisco that spent the early '90s using poison to get an early payout on their elderly targets' wills. (Our sister paper SF Weekly detailed the botched police investigation that followed.)

Dateline even sicced Chris Hansen on one Romani family in California in 1987, with a pair of daughters who'd been accused of running sweetheart swindles, and for insight into the criminal Gypsy m.o. they turned to John Nicholas, described as a Gypsy detective in the Palm Beach County Sheriff's office -- a Romani thief gone straight -- who offers spooky, primetime-ready things like, "Gypsies have the ability to change their identity as many times as you would change your suit." At another sister paper of ours, the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Bob Norman covered the story of how Nicholas inflated his credentials -- turns out, he was no detective -- and shared police business around the local Romani community. Eight years later, his main source in that story was accused of double-dealing with the Gypsy community too.

The Dateline story, and all the local cautionary tales like it, are exactly why University of Texas at Austin professor Ian Hancock told me the media are Romani rights activists' worst enemy. He runs the Romani Archives and Documentation Center, and he said he's tired of seeing Romani coverage limited to crime stories. Hancock's spent years sparring with guys like retired Milwaukee Det. Dennis Marlock, who runs Fraudtech, a site meant to help spread the word about crimes by Gypsy groups.

Hancock himself is a Roma, and one of the group's most prominent rights activists. Until his death four years ago, Jimmy Marks in Seattle was another major activist -- he won a hefty settlement from the City of Spokane after suing them for an overzealous police raid. Marks makes a brief appearance in Peterson's story, incidentally, when he gives a deposition against her in the fight over Clarence Peterson's estate.

Closer to home, a rift in the Dallas-Fort Worth Gypsy community got excellent treatment in Skip Hollandsworth's 1997 story "The Curse of Romeo and Juliet" (subscription-only, but you can cheat and read the whole thing here).

Cops who work swindles and cons around Dallas -- while, like in other cities, they do keep an eye on local Gypsy and Irish Traveler communities -- say roofing and home repair scams tend to be the most common crimes targeting the elderly. In a 2006 letter to The Dallas Morning News, retired Det. Mike Haines, who worked the DPD swindle squad until 2001, complained about the Dallas County District Attorney's office's handling of elderly crime -- prompted by the story of Mary Ellen Bendtsen and "The Battle for 4949 Swiss."