Douglas Wingo once carved ice sculptures and worked as a chef opening extravagant buffets for some of Las Vegas’ trendiest hotels.
Now, the 68-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran spends much of his time alone at his Las Vegas home.
His mental capacity — which started to decline 15 years ago when he suffered a brain injury after being mugged — has only deteriorated further in recent years. He receives disability for health conditions related to agent orange exposure while a Marine. He has muscle spasms, memory loss and early dementia.
“He’s in pretty rough shape. He’s by himself all the time,” said Wingo’s sister, Patti Hamilton. “To have somebody come by and befriend him, talk to him, somebody that is pleasant, that would mean the world to him.”
But the sweet-talking brunette who visited Wingo last year wasn’t seeking friendship.
Officials say Desiree Boltos is part of a Romanian crime group that frequently targets the elderly through frauds, including contract scams, palm reading scams, sweetheart swindles, phone fraud and identity theft. Nationwide, the group is estimated to obtain $17 billion per year through such frauds.
Wingo was among her six victims.
And though Boltos was caught and ultimately sentenced in Tarrant County in November to 85 years in prison, Hamilton says the con against her brother still goes on.
“These people are still there. They’re still working it,” Hamilton said. “It’s like his house has a big red mark on his roof. They know him. They’ll be back.”
“They felt like he was ripe”
Boltos had various ways of meeting her victims.
Some she met on online dating sites. Others she “bumped” into at the post office or home repair stores or sat next to on airplanes.
Wingo was approached in 2017 by a man believed to be Paul Hill, Boltos’ common-law husband, offering to remove scratches from his car without the involvement of insurance. Hill even offered to come to Wingo’s house to do the repairs.
“When they came to work on his car one of the times, they brought Desiree,” Hamilton said. “She goes into the house because it’s so hot outside and befriends my brother. Pays all kinds of attention to him.”
Lori Varnell, who prosecuted the case against Boltos, said the auto work scam is one commonly used by men in the Romanian crime group.
“They brought her in because he was alone and unprotected and lonely,” Varnell said. “They felt like he was ripe. That’s part of their targeting.”
Varnell said Wingo was among three military veterans targeted by Boltos.
“It’s very common to target retired military because of their insurance, because they have money, they get retirement and they usually own their home, and it’s actually paid off,” Varnell said. “Their goal is to get on the will, the deed and the bank account within three weeks.”
Hamilton believes in the visits with her brother, Boltos secretly got access to Wingo’s driver’s license information, bank account and social security number. She suspects the information was accessed while Wingo napped.
Over a three-month period beginning in April 2017, three vehicles were purchased under Wingo’s name — a 2017 Chevy Camaro for more than $81,000, a 2017 Chevrolet Tahoe for more than $76,000 and a 2017 Silverado Crew Cab for more than $72,000.
Prosecutors believe Boltos deceived Wingo into buying two of the vehicles to help with her design business — a business officials say didn’t exist. They say Wingo may not have even known about the third vehicle purchased.
Hamilton said that though the dealership claimed her brother had gone in person to buy the vehicles, she suspects it wasn’t really Wingo. The signature didn’t look like his, she said, and a phone number and email listed on the paperwork doesn’t belong to Wingo.
“He doesn’t have email,” Hamilton said. “He hasn’t used the computer in 15 years.”
“The only way he would have bought a car is if she needed a signer and she was going to pay for it,” Hamilton said. “He doesn’t have the money to pay for it.”
Hamilton said insurance for the vehicles was even added to Wingo’s policy — information apparently obtained out of the man’s glove box. Though her brother was paying $600 a month for the insurance, he didn’t know it because the policies were linked to his checking account and set to auto pay.
“He was paying all this stuff, and he didn’t know anything about it until the money was gone,” Hamilton said.
Investigators would later reach out to Wingo after spotting HIll driving one of the Chevys in Tarrant County and linking it to Wingo.
Hill is accused of helping Boltos in the scams and is charged with theft of property, money laundering and theft of service.
After Boltos’ trial in November, prosecutors sought to have Hill equipped with a GPS monitor for fear he was a flight risk. But on the day he was to be ordered fitted with the device, Hill didn’t show up at court and has been on the run ever since.
“I’ve told Doug that he’s fled,” Hamilton said. “It concerns me because I testified (against Boltos). I’m afraid of him and his group.”
A state of confusion
Varnell, the prosecutor, said the Tarrant County district attorney’s elder financial fraud unit is aware of 20 ongoing sweetheart swindles totaling more than $4 million.
“Sweetheart swindles are very difficult to prove without a pattern,” Varnell said. “In addition, the victims won’t always admit they are victims. They’ve put so much money into the scam, they are in a place of denial that they could be fooled. Plus, the sweetheart continues to pour on the emotion keeping them confused and in a state of constant need to rescue them.”
Hamilton said it was only this past summer that her brother called her, saying “something is going on, things are missing.”
“He sounded very confused,” Hamilton said. “He said, ‘I need you to come and help me.’ ”
Hamilton arrived at Wingo’s Las Vegas home to find bill after bill stacked up on his desk.
“He had just basically stopped opening them,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton did open them and was shocked by what she saw.
“Did you buy a Chevy Tahoe?,” she asked her brother, who responded no.
Hamilton soon discovered that in addition to buying vehicles, someone had opened about 20 credit cards in her brother’s name. On a regular basis, the bills revealed, someone was taking Lyft rides to a cafe for breakfast, then out shopping for things such as expensive purses, jewelry and cookware, then out to dinner or a casino.
There were also thousands of dollars paid to a plastic surgeon.
“Then I’m seeing stuff from collection agencies,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said she immediately closed Wingo’s checking account and opened him a new one. She gave her brother cash to buy groceries and advised him not to pay anyone anything.
But in no time, someone had gotten ahold of Wingo’s new checkbook and was cashing checks around Las Vegas, forcing her to close the second account as well.
Hamilton said it was while dealing with the mess that Tarrant County officials called her brother, and she learned of their investigation of Boltos.
Prosecutors say Boltos, with help from Hill, stole $1.6 million in cash alone from her six victims.
If you included the vehicles, a $500,000 house and credit card expenditures that she also conned out of her victims, “it would be at least three million,” Varnell said.
Hamilton is still trying to clean up the mess that Boltos and others have made of her brother’s life.
Inside her Minnesota home, she keeps two large wicker baskets filled with her brother’s bills and collection notices that still need handling.
“He gives everybody my number. All his mail comes to my house. I’m dealing with all of them,” Hamilton said. “Creditors are still calling. I’ve made settlements with some of them. I’ve gotten some of them to close his accounts.”
Hamilton said the impact on her brother has been devastating.
In a six-month period, his credit score plunged from the “very good” range to “poor.”
“Now I’ve got a tag on his credit so if anybody runs his credit, I get an alert,” Hamilton said. “I check his bank every day to see if any checks have been cashed.”
It can feel like a full-time job for Hamilton but she doesn’t mind.
“Doug would do anything for me. Anything,” Hamilton said. “I just want to make his life easier and make sure he has enough money for food, his bills are paid.”
Boltos declined an interview with the Star-Telegram while still in the Tarrant County Jail awaiting transfer to prison.
Her latest attorney has filed a motion for a new trial for her, arguing that the verdict was “contrary to the law and the facts” and that the evidence was “insufficient to sustain a finding of guilt.”
While glad Boltos is now behind bars, Hamilton said she still worries for her brother.
Varnell says it’s common for these groups to pass information around so that new scams can be played.
“He’s on a list,” Varnell said. “He’s marked. They pass his name along in their community as being a mark. They truly target these people.”
As recently as a few weeks ago, Hamilton said, a man returned to her brother’s house and tried to talk him into buying a life insurance policy so that he could leave Hamilton a gift for all of her help. All he needed, the man told Wingo, was his bank account number.
When Wingo called his sister to get the account number, she ordered her brother’s visitor to get out of his house.
“Desiree being convicted and in jail is awesome,” Hamilton said. “I am so happy that Tarrant County has decided to take these matters seriously.
“However, there’s a lot more of them out there, and there’s a lot more that she has worked with because they still come out after my brother. And that’s what scares me.”