ROCHESTER – The Rochester couple lived modestly, making do with linoleum kitchen floors, old countertops, a spotless but ’70s love seat.
Little did they know that their next-door neighbor, Carolyn J. Cassar, was adding “hardwood floors, marble countertops, skylights, custom cabinetry and new roofing,” a court filing said.
She paid for it all — plus a European vacation — with the couple’s life savings.
Cassar admitted to a judge that she befriended and then bilked her elderly next-door neighbors out of more than $800,000 with elaborate lies involving a dead daughter in Washington, D.C., and an ex-husband being accused overseas of killing her sister.
She pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in Minneapolis to wire fraud in a scheme that spanned more than six years, funded international trips and financed her unrealized dream of a multimillion-dollar Italian-style villa that she envisioned on an expansive piece of land in Rochester.
In all, Cassar, 61, collected $840,000 in 375 transactions with the couple, who are in their early 90s and who “despite modest education and jobs … accumulated a life savings of nearly $1 million through their diligence and frugality,” according to a court filing.
The husband, who asked that his name not be used, worked in maintenance for nearly four decades, reinvesting every cent of interest, “like the old-timers taught me,” he said. “We saved so we wouldn’t be a burden to our children.”
After a lifetime of scrimping, “to lose all you’ve got at the tail end,” he said, sitting Friday afternoon in the living room of the house they’ve owned since 1946. “It’s hard to accept. It’s damn hard to accept.”
The couple got to know Cassar “over the fence,” he said. He’d often be in the back yard, carving willow into walking sticks or harvesting tomatoes in the garden. They’d invite Cassar for coffee on their patio, just as they do other neighbors walking up the alley.
“If we’re going to be neighbors, we’ve gotta know each other,” said his wife of 71 years.
Wearing a crisp blue shirt and suspenders, he lowered his eyes and straightened his thick fingers when asked about Cassar’s stories and why they believed them. That, he said, he doesn’t want to talk about.
“Certain things, you have to mull them over quite a while,” he said. It’s similar to serving in the military, the World War II veteran continued. “When you first get out, you don’t have much you want to say.”
Cassar answered the doorbell at her small, well-landscaped home Friday. “Oh, I’m not interested in talking,” she said, quickly shutting the door. Her attorney, Reynaldo Aligada, also declined to comment.
From May 2006 through September 2012, Cassar coaxed the couple into giving her money for travel to Washington, D.C., so she could attend to the affairs of her daughter’s death in a car crash, including buying a dress for her burial, according to court documents.
The couple also gave Cassar money to travel to Italy to help bring to justice a former business associate who had defrauded her.
The stories were all lies.
Cassar assured the couple that they would be repaid once she collected an inheritance from her father’s estate, money that the former business associate had stolen. But there was no inheritance. Over the entire time of the scheme, Cassar paid back $1,300 to the couple.
To back up some of her yarns, Cassar showed the couple airline itineraries for her flights to Italy.
Cassar spent the money to take a vacation in Europe with her son and others; to take Rochester-area homebuilder Les Radcliffe and famed Florida architect John Henry — and their spouses — to Italy to study architecture in preparation for designing a home; and to pay for interior design services from Danielle Loven of Vivid Interior of Minneapolis.
Loven said Friday that she’s out more than $100,000 because Cassar paid for furnishings with a cashier’s check that bounced.
Loven, who also was invited to Italy but couldn’t go, said Cassar had these “major blueprints” for the villa in Rochester that would be worth $10 million and have other homes around it valued at several million each.
“At first, I thought she was crazy,” said Loven, who helped prosecutors with the case and was ready to testify next week in a trial that never got started. “You check everything out, and it matched. … Sometimes you get eccentric clients.”
Henry said Friday that he had “no idea” that his client was a thief, adding, “It is not unusual for a well-heeled client to take a design team [on trips] to see period-style houses they wish to emulate.”
Before turning the first shovel of dirt on her villa project, Cassar used some of her ill-gotten gains to make home improvements on her home nestled along 10th Street NW. “[She] purchased over $100,000 in furnishings for her bedroom, living room, dining room and den, at times spending upward of $500 on a single pillow,” court documents said. “Money was no object because, of course, it wasn’t hers.”
The siphoning of the couple’s money finally came to a halt once two associates at Home Federal Savings Bank became suspicious of the elderly husband’s large withdrawals and spoke up.
The employees took their worries for their longtime customers to police, who set up a phone tap of a conversation between the wife and Cassar. During the call, Cassar made further promises of repayment.
With her Thursday court date in Minneapolis looming, Cassar told the judge she didn’t have enough money to get herself from Rochester to the courthouse 85 or so miles away. Her contention that she is an “indigent defendant” was accepted, and the U.S. Marshals Service arranged for her travel to the Twin Cities for the 25-minute hearing.
Now Cassar remains free on bond pending sentencing, which has yet to be scheduled. She faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
‘We’re a compassionate family’
Jamie Cassar, who took the trip to Italy in 2011 with his mother, said Friday that he’s glad his mother pleaded guilty and it “tears me up inside” just thinking about what happened to the elderly neighbors. The couple even drove him, his mother and his girlfriend to the airport for their Italian excursion, where they spent much of their time taking in the charms of Venice.
The older couple has never been. They splurged on one big trip, in 1984 after he retired from the Rochester School District, driving to Alaska in a secondhand motor home.
Otherwise, they rely on their 2004 Dodge minivan to run errands, visit the grandkids and great-grandkids, and see their doctors.
Each year, there are roughly 2.1 million elderly Americans who are victims of abuse, neglect or exploitation, according to the Administration on Aging, an agency of the Administration for Community Living.
Since he was chosen to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new Office of Older Americans, Hubert Humphrey III has traveled from California to Maine looking for ways to protect the interests of senior citizens. That has taken in everything from lobbying for large-print pamphlets to urging law enforcement to crack down harder on criminals who prey on seniors.
Older Americans lost nearly $3 billion to financial exploitation in 2010 alone, according to a study by insurance company MetLife Inc. With the nation’s senior population at 50 million and growing, the problem will only get worse.
Jamie Cassar, 37, said he tried to press his mother for where she was getting the money for the lavish home project, but was told it was none of his business.
“My mom spins lots of tales and tells lots of lies. I didn’t know it was to this degree. My mom has always told crazy, crazy stories that you always knew were … totally nuts, wacko.”
There was “many a time” when the couple wondered whether Cassar’s pleadings for money were legitimate, but “she said that this was the end and then she’d come up with another bad story,” the wife said. “If you have any heart in you, you’re going to want to help.”
Pictures of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are tucked into frames of paintings around their house. Other snapshots stick out of the edges of their stately dining room hutch.
Their three sons are upset, the husband said, looking across the room at his wife.
“We tried to raise a good family, and we did,” he said. “We’re a compassionate family that looked out for one another.”
Though they lost their life savings, they believe they’ll be OK.
“We started out with nothing way back in ’42,” she said. “And we survived. We went through a war. We survived that.
“We’ll make it.”