The crew preyed on a 94-year-old man living alone. “Their crimes robbed my dad not only of his money, but his trust in his own judgment,” his daughter wrote.
They targeted an 82-year-old woman, who also lived by herself. The fraud “was devastating,” her daughter stated.
And they scammed an 84-year-old woman, who was left to fear strangers. “This entire episode,” she wrote, “has caused me to be nervous and anxious whenever anyone comes to the door.”
The three Maryland residents — defrauded of more than $100,000 — were victims of swindlers known to police in the Washington region as “woodchucks.”
Police say there are more than 100 such crews in the area. They target the growing number of people living longer and alone, knocking on doors with what initially can be a reasonably priced offer to trim trees. From there, police say, scammers recommend more tree work and home improvement jobs — charging elderly victims for services barely performed or never performed.
“I can really think of no crime — or very few crimes — that rise to the level of what occurred to these three elderly people in this case. These people were preyed upon,” Montgomery County Circuit Judge Robert Greenberg said Wednesday as he sentenced two members of a crew.
Days earlier at the sentencing of a different member, Greenberg said the groups take advantage of victims who are too trusting or confused from dementia — or both. “People who just don’t know what they’re doing,” the judge said.
The judge said that on some level he could comprehend how someone might rob a younger person, but scheming against the elderly, given how many people watch their parents age and become vulnerable, left him struggling for words.
“What would possess somebody to take advantage of an 80- or 90-year-old person is just beyond me,” Greenberg told one defendant, Ryan Butler, 26.
He sentenced Butler to seven years in prison, the most he could under an earlier plea agreement with prosecutors. He sentenced Steve Frazier, 62, to five years, following terms of a plea deal. Greenberg sentenced a third associate, Kim Butler, 50, to three years of probation and no jail time, saying she was less culpable.
The cases against Ryan Butler, Kim Butler, Steve Frazier, and a fourth suspect, Steve Butler, who is jailed on charges in Virginia, date to 2015 and involve an operation that used two business names on its cards: “Our Family Tree Service” and “Our Family Home Improvement.”
In February 2015, according to Montgomery County police reports, the daughter of the 94-year-old man called police to her father’s home in the Colesville area. Detectives reviewed the victim’s checking account records and the maintenance work that was purportedly done.
Around that time, a similar call to police was made by the daughter of the 82-year-old woman, according to court records. Detectives determined that over four months starting in November 2014, the victim had paid more than $80,000 in the trimming and repair scheme, according to police records.
Montgomery County Assistant State’s Attorney Jessica Hall told the judge that, at one point, one of the victims was charged $2,300 for insulation that was valued at no more than $100. “The victims are, each and every one of the three of them, either vulnerable in a physical sense or vulnerable in a cognitive and mental sense,” she said.
The effects on the three elderly victims were detailed in statements to the sentencing judge.
Suspects in such cases “are well-known among fraud investigators throughout the region as ‘woodchucks,’ ” Montgomery Police Lt. Mike Hartnett wrote in a report about the case. He said the frauds capitalized on well-intentioned efforts of other Virginia-based crews to offer tree service after storms.
“Over the last three years, there has been a prolific increase in cases — not associated with weather events — that have drawn ‘woodchucks’ to the region primarily to defraud elderly victims, using the tree business as cover,” Hartnett wrote.
The disreputable crews, the officer wrote, “then migrate toward home improvement fraud by alluding that other issues were found while doing the tree work such as chimney repair, missing roof shingles, leaky attics, damaged insulation, rotting wood or perceived ‘emergency’ roof repairs. Very rarely were any of those cases legitimate.”
In Arlington County, Detective Kevin White first saw woodchuck scammers 17 years ago when he joined the county’s financial crimes unit: “From that point forward, I’ve never seemed to be able to get away from them.”
He said many of the fraudsters pass their trade on to their offspring. “Fathers teach the kids how to do it,” he said.
Fifteen years ago he said, woodchucks mainly were motivated to get money for prescription drugs. Now, he said, they appear to need money more for heroin or to get themselves out of legal jams and restitution orders from previous arrests. “They’ve got to hustle every day to support their habits or pay their attorneys,” White said.
He estimated there are hundreds of woodchuck crews in the Washington region, some with as many as 15 members, and that crews are aggressive in their targeting. “They’re relentless predators of the elderly,” White said.
In the Montgomery case, Ryan Butler and Steve Frazier had pleaded guilty to three counts of conspiracy to exploit money from vulnerable adults.
Ryan Butler’s attorney, Melanie Creedon, spoke in court Friday about his rough childhood and his early drug use — using marijuana by age 12, crack cocaine by age 14 and heroin by age 17.
Butler also spoke briefly in court.
“I do apologize for the crimes I committed. I know it doesn’t make it right,” he told the judge, saying he intended to repay the victims. “I just ask that you have a little bit of mercy. I’m just trying to get home to my daughter.”
Greenberg responded, “I can’t give you any mercy.”
In court Wednesday, Frazier sought to cast blame on Ryan Butler and others.
“I’d like to apologize for what they have done to me and what they have done to the victims,” he said.
“Sir, you pleaded guilty,” Greenberg noted.