Romance scams one of the oldest, cruelest tricks around
BY STEPHANIE ZIMMERMANN firstname.lastname@example.org August 24, 2012 7:00PM
THE FIXER HAS SAVED YOU
Updated: September 27, 2012 11:29AM
Dear Readers: In this column we hear about a lot of problems that are unfair and annoying, but not necessarily life-or-death situations.
Today, we bring you a story of a fraud that could happen to anyone who falls in love.
And it has an ending that can never be fixed.
The scam started innocently enough, in early 2010, at a group meeting for people overcoming addiction. Elizabeth Kelleher of Northbrook was there, having struggled with divorce and other issues. She was vulnerable, said Chicago attorney Louis D. Bernstein, who later represented her family.
Also at the meeting was a man who called himself “Joe Seppi” and said he was a wealthy construction company owner and a Harvard Law grad. “Joe” was also in his 40s and seemingly single.
Joe zeroed in on Liz.
“He apparently came across as very sincere, as all con men do,” Bernstein told The Fixer.
Joe began a friendship with Liz, and they quickly accelerated to dating and romance.
Liz didn’t know that Joe was actually John J. Sullivan, a fraud artist who had already conned numerous elderly people in a home repair scam in Chicago.
She thought she was in love.
So in May 2010, when Sullivan suggested she give him $50,000 for a down payment on a house for the two of them, Liz happily agreed. Her life was finally coming together, she thought.
A month later, her mother, Lois Stein, also agreed to help Sullivan when he said he needed two short-term loans of $375,000 and $220,000. He said he needed the money right away because of some sort of dispute with the federal government. He swore he’d pay her back in a month, when he had access to his accounts.
“They were probably in panic mode,” said Liz’s brother, Jay Stein, who pieced things together much later. “This guy was going to get in trouble and her dream of getting married to him would be ending” if they didn’t lend him the money.
All told, Sullivan talked Liz and her mom into handing over their life savings — more than $640,000 — before he said he needed to take care of some business in Arizona. After a couple months, the women began to suspect that the romance might be a lie.
Jay Stein asked Bernstein, a friend, to get involved, though both thought the case was a longshot. Romance scams are one of the oldest and cruelest tricks around. Most victims never complain for fear of embarrassment, and most never get their money back.
Meanwhile, Liz and her mom were struggling to afford the house they shared (they ended up selling it in 2011). They were depressed and drifting apart.
Then the case took a bizarre turn.
In September 2010, Sullivan’s 14-year-old son was arrested in Arizona for shooting his friend in the head and killing him. When the cops searched the residence, they found $550,000 in cash — which gave Bernstein some hope that he might be able to recover the women’s money.
Meanwhile, Sullivan and his brother, Daniel J. Sullivan, had also attracted the attention of the feds for a home repair scam targeting elderly victims on Chicago’s South and West Sides. From 2002 to 2006, the scam took in $1.2 million from homeowners who were pressured to refinance their homes to pay for costly repairs that were never completed. The brothers were indicted in October 2010 and were convicted last November.
It took more than a year and a half of civil litigation, but Louis Bernstein finally got Liz and Lois’ money back.
In June, Maricopa County authorities turned over $645,000 in seized funds to the family.
But the story doesn’t have a happy ending.
After the house sale, Lois’ health declined. She is now in a senior care facility.
In February, Elizabeth Kelleher took her own life. She was 48 and left behind three sons.
Her brother, Jay Stein, said the scam took everything out of her. “It was the final straw,” her brother said. “She went from very troubled to over the deep end.”
John Sullivan is awaiting sentencing Sept. 28 for the home repair scam. He faces 20 years on each of two counts of wire fraud, along with restitution and fines.