Duped friends, neighbors, pastor out of more than $1 million
BROOKSVILLE, Fla. — This was the trip that would bring them the jackpot.
Doris Siegel and a friend boarded a plane to Amsterdam in August 2008 for a $1 million payout, money that would finally prove that the Nigerian lottery she'd told friends and neighbors about was no scam.
Siegel and her friend met with five men who called themselves Nigerian businessmen, authorities said. They were taken to the basement of a building and told they would need another $10,000 to see the big money.
When Siegel's friend gave them the cash, they were taken to another room and shown a stack of $100 bills. The men gave them one of those bills, with promises of more to come. The women returned home empty-handed.
In the months that followed, Siegel's luck turned from bad to worse, culminating in her arrest last week on organized fraud charges. Brooksville police have accused the 78-year-old retiree of duping friends, neighbors and even her pastor out of more than $1 million.
As investigators unravel this complicated web, they are left wondering this:
Is Siegel a victim so taken in by a ubiquitous Internet lottery scam that she stole from friends to feed her unrealized dreams of instant wealth?
Or is she a copycat scam artist who used the painful lessons she learned from the so-called Nigerian businessmen to rip off those closest to her, even inventing a fake Dutch lottery and a Guatemalan mission to siphon money from friends?
"She turned from a victim to a perpetrator when she started lying to other folks," Brooksville police Chief George Turner said. "She knew in no uncertain terms that it was a scam. And then she went to other folks and got them to put money up, with the promise of doubling their contributions."
Siegel remains at the Hernando County Jail with bail set at $50,000. But when police took her into custody last week, Turner said, Siegel pleaded with them to place her on house arrest so she could be home to answer a call she just knew was coming from one of her Nigerian business partners.
On Monday, detectives continued to interview possible victims and comb through Siegel's records and computer to get a sense of how much money she collected and where it might have gone. Police also have subpoenaed her bank records.
But Turner said it's doubtful any of the victims would recover their money.
Across the street from Siegel's tidy mobile home in the Hometown Clover Leaf Forest RV Park live Don and Eileen Gabriele, neighbors and friends for the past few years. Police have told them they may have been victims of the scam.
This was not much of a surprise to the Gabrieles. They said Siegel's stories never really added up: She said Scotland Yard was involved in the search for a payout. She repeatedly gave them the names of fictitious banks. And she was always asking for more money.
The couple estimate they have given more than $10,000 to Siegel since September 2007.
"We were really stupid," Don Gabriele said. "We don't know if she's scamming us or grasping for straws."
The Gabrieles finally confronted Siegel in December, when they noticed all the paperwork she had been showing them appeared to come from the same e-mail account. There was no letterhead, the formats of the e-mails were the same and there were a number of misspelled words.
"That's how they spell things in England," Eileen Gabriele said Siegel told them.
Other victims included friends and neighbors, a local businessman and her pastor at the Brooksville Seventh-day Adventist Church. Two of the alleged victims, including the woman who traveled to Amsterdam with her, are thought to have given Siegel at least $330,000 each.
Records show Siegel has had a Hernando County address since the mid 1980s but didn't move into the RV park until 2001. She doesn't appear to have many close family members. She shared her mobile home with a friend until the woman's death in 2001.
Siegel was president of a local travel agency, Around The Earth Travel Inc., until July. Neighbors said she told them that she lived off her Social Security check and meager savings.
"We just felt really bad for her," Don Gabriele said. "But who knows what to believe?"
In 2004, Siegel was apparently duped by the Nigerian lottery scam. She went to police, who told her that she had likely been victimized based on the correspondence she had received.
Siegel then used that information and deception, police said, to fraudulently obtain money from other people. Inside her home, police said, they found reams of paperwork detailing how to operate a lottery scam.
According to police, Siegel approached several victims from January 2008 through this month and asked for money, claiming she had won a lottery in Holland.
Siegel was captured on surveillance tape lying to several of the victims, police said, adding that she later admitted she lied to the victims to obtain their money.
Lottery scams take several forms, usually asking victims to put up their money in return for a piece of the lottery winnings.
Siegel also got contributions by claiming to have started a Guatemalan mission that does not exist, according to the police.
"There's lots of folks to this day who don't know they're victims," Turner said. "If it sounds like free money, then it's probably a scam."
Police are asking anyone who had dealings with Siegel or believes they were victimized to contact the department's Criminal Investigation Division.
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