For years, the mystery woman had been living a life of luxury, allegedly all on someone else’s dime. She went by various names, authorities say: Maria Hendricks, Gia Hendricks, Maria Christina Gia, or Maria Hainka.
Capitalizing on her good looks, authorities alleged, the “prolific” serial fraudster lured her victims through dating websites and targeted high rollers through real estate brokers. She allegedly manipulated her way into their homes, stole their identities and their family members’ identities, and their money. She allegedly checked into ritzy hotels, opened up new credit cards and even forwarded one victim’s cellphone calls to her own number to carry out her identity takeover.
By the time Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies found the woman, whose real name is Maria Christina Johnson, staying at a luxury, beachside resort in Santa Barbara under the name of her latest alleged victim, she had already racked up charges of nearly $250,000 in that case alone, authorities said in a statement.
“She has no legitimate source of income and lists her occupation as a dog trainer, yet appeared to live the high-dollar lifestyle of the cafe society entirely off stolen identities,” the statement said.
After her years of alleged scheming, the sheriff’s department said it still does not know how many victims Johnson allegedly accrued, nor have authorities released the total amount of money she may have scammed. She was arrested at the end of April on two felony warrants and is due in court this week. Her bail was initially set at $2 million, deputies said.
Johnson, 43, has a lengthy criminal history dating to 1997, when she started committing crimes in her home state of Washington, then moved on to Oregon and eventually California, authorities said.
According to the Daily Breeze, Manhattan Beach detectives investigated Johnson in 2011 when someone she encountered in a Hermosa Beach bar and who took her home realized later she allegedly had charged $10,000 on his American Express card. She then went on a spending spree that included $1,000 for two bottles of liquor at a Manhattan Beach bar, giving $200 and $300 tips, and buying an $800 bicycle.
Operating under various aliases, Johnson was convicted of several felonies in Washington state and Oregon between 1997 and 2008, authorities said.
In California, Johnson served prison time on 11 felony counts of identity theft, grand theft and credit-card fraud after she was arrested in 2011.
Johnson was investigated by Manhattan Beach police after she posed as a wealthy owner of a modeling agency and a member of the Hendrick Motorsports Racing Team dynasty, KTLA-TV reported in 2011.
“It’s her charm,” Chris Hainka, Johnson’s husband, told the TV station. “She can get anything she wants.”
Hainka claimed he was among her victims, leaving her after a few short months of marriage when she allegedly stole thousands of dollars from him and his friends, KTLA-TV reported.
When the Southern California High Tech Task Force Identity Theft Detail started looking into Johnson again at the end of March, authorities learned that she had shifted her game to dating and home-rental websites, according to the sheriff’s office. She would con her way into her victims’ homes, then search for and take personal identifying information to open lines of credit without their knowledge. Johnson would change the mailing addresses of her victims’, authorities said, and pretend to be them.
From that point, she allegedly would make the family members and friends of her victims her next target.
“After assuming an identity without permission, suspect Johnson moved into high-end hotels and charged up thousands of dollars worth of goods and services,” the sheriff’s department said.
When prowling for victims, Johnson would make appointments with real estate brokers to tour expensive homes, authorities said. In one case, she stole the identity of the broker.
“Investigation revealed suspect Johnson’s elevated sense of entitlement compelled her to go to great lengths in aggressively assuming identities,” the sheriff’s department said. “No one was immune from being exploited.”
CBS Los Angeles quoted Stephanie Younger, who said the woman she knew as Gia Hendricks fooled her by wearing designer clothes and said she was looking for an assistant to attend Hollywood events for her modeling agency. “She had a couple of designers that she was wearing,” Younger told the station. “Anyone would have been fooled.”
Younger said she accepted the job and provided the woman with bank account information for payroll purposes. “Hendricks issued Younger paychecks and asked her to withdraw surplus amounts. The checks bounced, and Hendricks disappeared,” the station reported.
“After finding information posted online by other victims, Younger created a Facebook profile and set up her own sting operation to help cops bust Hendricks.”
Authorities ask anyone who may have been a victim or has information about Johnson to call the task force at (818) 576-8884.
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