Longform

A Dallas woman romances elderly men, digs deep into their pockets and calls it love. The police have a different name for it: Sweetheart Swindle

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.

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Patrick Michels
Contact: Patrick Michels