/National Security: A man posed as dead mom for 25 years to collect benefits. Here’s how feds catch scammers
National Security: A man posed as dead mom for 25 years to collect benefits. Here’s how feds catch scammers

National Security: A man posed as dead mom for 25 years to collect benefits. Here’s how feds catch scammers

National Security:

For more than a decade, Kendrick Gills lived off a dead man. 

He stole more than $500,000 in benefits from a deceased relative over 14 years, tricking the government into thinking the man was alive and living with him.

When the feds caught on and showed up with questions, Gills broke down crying, claimed the relative was like a “father figure” to him, then came up with a wild cover story: He found his 90-year-old relative dead in the house, but his body disappeared that same day – either left in a ditch by a cousin or buried in a well behind a farmhouse.

The stories didn’t check out. Charges followed. To this day, a body has not been found.

In a case of trickery and thievery pending in Detroit federal court, Gills is among a growing number of targets who have come under the government’s radar in recent years for what prosecutors describe as a pervasive and costly crime: the theft of dead people’s benefits. These scammers have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Last year alone, inspector general audits found that the Social Security Administration paid out more than $40 million to 500 dead people in just three states: Texas, Maryland and Michigan.

Metro Detroit was full of these scammers.

Over the last five years, the U.S. Attorney’s  Office in Detroit says it has prosecuted more deceased payee fraud cases than almost any other region in the country, charging at least 40 people with collecting dead people’s benefits and investigating another 125 cases that were flagged in a 2018 audit. That’s about one person a month getting busted for a crime that now accounts for almost half of all Social Security fraud in the country, prosecutors say. 

The Michigan defendants include: 

  • A Redford man who allegedly paid a homeless woman to pose as his dead mother when investigators came to his house to verify that his mom was still alive but bedridden – as he had claimed. David Budd Jr, 52, was indicted in May on charges he stole $97,000 in benefits meant for his late mother. His case is pending.
  • A St. Clair man who pretended to be his dead mother in phone conversations with investigators, raising the pitch of his voice to sound more convincing so that he could continue collecting her Social Security checks. Frank Johnson, 69, pleaded guilty in April to stealing $174,609 in Social Security benefits. He faces 12-18 months in prison when he is sentenced on Oct. 22. 
  • A Ferndale mother who allegedly hid her son’s death from the government for 24 years, pretending at one point that her child was in Ecuador having surgery, then claiming that he had died there. She went so far as to ask whether the Social Security Administration would send her money to bring his body back to the U.S. when he had been dead for decades. Linda Wardlow, 69, pleaded guilty in August to stealing $292,000 in benefits meant for her late son. She will be sentenced in January and faces 3-4 years in prison.
  • A Detroit man who took on his dead mom’s identity for 25 years. His name was Otis; hers was Iotis. The name similarities allowed him to sign her name on debit card slips and collect her benefits: $260,000 in total. He also used her debit card to make ATM purchases and shop at retailers. He was caught on camera and convicted by a jury of theft and lying. In 2017, at the age of 80, Otis Wilder of Detroit was sentenced to one year in prison.

She found her mother dead: Then she hid her body in a tub to collect her Social Security money, police say

These are the faces of fraud that the Department of Justice has been pursuing since 2014 when it set up a national task force to find the elusive scofflaws who have long swindled the benefits of the dead through lies and deceit. With 62 million Americans receiving Social Security benefits every month, authorities say, fraud is inevitable – and unfortunately, difficult to detect.

“It’s always been there, but it is hard for the agency to get its arms around,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said of deceased payee fraud, a crime that he boils down to one word.

“Greed,” Schneider said in a recent exclusive interview with the Free Press. “What makes these cases so egregious is they involve so many different offenses. Month after month after month, you make a decision, ‘I’m going to steal this money from the government.’ You forge your dead mother’s name. And you do it again and again and again – for decades.”

He added: “It’s a lifetime of crime.”

National Security: Making progress, catching crooks 

After years of struggling to catch Social Security fraudsters, the government believes it’s making progress on this front, largely because of some dogged investigative work involving medical records. In 2014, the government launched an initiative that involved contacting elderly Social Security beneficiaries who hadn’t used their Medicare in three years or more.

Essentially, red flags go up when investigators spot an older person getting Social Security, but not visiting a doctor in three years or more. That’s how federal agents busted Gills, the Inkster, Michigan, man who pretended his 90-year-old relative was living with him when he really died in 2005. 

The case involves retired postal worker Jacques Farmer, who retired in 1971 and qualified for government annuity because of his federal service. According to court records, from 1999-2018, at least $3,000 a month was electronically transferred into a bank account in Farmer’s name.

In August 2018, however, an investigation was launched into the possible theft of Farmer’s annuity funds after his name turned up on a list of retirees over the age of 90 who had no health care claims filed in 10 years.

The Office of Inspector General would eventually learn that Farmer died sometime in mid-2005, and that a relative named Kendrick Allen Gills had been signing beneficiary forms and address verification forms for Farmer for years, pretending he was living with him while collecting his benefits using a debit card and forging his signature on at least one check. The fraud lasted 14 years.

When investigators contacted Gills, records show, his story as to the whereabouts of Farmer changed several times. First, he claimed that Farmer was “not available to speak with agents” by phone because he couldn’t hear, saying he “up in age,” and “not doing real good.”

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Then Gills claimed that Farmer was living in St. Louis with grandsons. Months later, he claimed that Gills walked out on him in 2013 while he was out shopping: He came home to find Farmer gone. Then came the story about the vanishing body.

According to court documents, Gills told federal agents that after taking a shower one day, he came out to find Farmer dead. He was so upset that he went for a walk around the block. When he returned home, his body was gone, possibly taken by a cousin and left in a ditch behind the house or buried in a nearby well that was filled with cement.

Agents asked whether they could speak with this cousin. Gills said that wasn’t possible, that his cousin had died of a drug overdose. Agents later learned the cousin was alive and living in Kentucky.

Gills was indicted in May on multiple charges. He pleaded guilty on Aug. 27 to mail fraud and aggravated identity theft. He faces 51-57 months in prison when he is sentenced in December. His lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

“Years ago, we weren’t bringing these cases. They were going unpunished … people could literally get away with this,” Schneider said. 

Not anymore.

Of the 41 defendants charged in metro Detroit since 2014, 31 have been convicted and sentenced; six are awaiting sentencing; four cases are still pending. Prosecutors in Detroit have obtained $4.4 million in restitution orders and another half a million dollars in restitution to other victims.

However, to the chagrin of prosecutors, not everyone is going to prison for this crime. Of the 31 closed cases, only seven defendants got prison sentences – the longest one being three years. Schneider believes the age of the defendants is a key factor.

“By the time they’re caught, they’re in their 60s or 70s. The judges have a hard time sending older people to prison,” said Schneider, who believes people who steal dead people’s benefits belong behind bars.

“When you commit fraud that goes on for decades … this is taxpayer money, and people are stealing the money of the people,” said Schneider, who believes prison sentences – not probation – serve as a deterrent. “If they are being sentenced to prison, it’ll send a much stronger message.”

But judges don’t always agree.

Not-so-golden years?: Shielding seniors from financial fraud

Take the case of Tasha Corothers, a mother of four who pleaded guilty in August to stealing more than $350,000 in Social Security benefits intended for her late father. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Particka requested a prison sentence of 18-24 months, arguing this was not “a momentary lapse in judgment,” but a scheme that lasted 24 years.

“Corothers repeatedly chose to take money that she knew she was not entitled to: month after month, year after year, she stole from the government some 280 times,” Particka wrote in an Aug. 6 sentencing memo. “Defendant’s apparent belief that she needed the money to support her family neither excuses her conducted nor diminishes its seriousness.”

Patricka urged the judge to lock up Corothers, arguing: “Simply having to pay the money back would not be a ‘just punishment.’ “

Corothers’ lawyer disagreed, arguing her client – a 43-year-old mother of four who had survived the death of all her close family members – needed to be home to care for her children, especially a son with special needs. As for her crime, federal defender Rhonda Brazile said Corothers used her father’s Social Security benefits “to pay bills and other household expenses,” and that it was her first criminal offense. 

“She hopes the court will grant her the opportunity to repay her debt to society with a noncustodial sentence that allows her to maintain and continue to care for her children and continue her education on the path toward a new life,” Brazile wrote in a May court filing.

In the end, U.S. District Judge David Lawson showed mercy to Corothers. He sentenced her to three years probation and ordered her to pay nearly $357,000 in restitution under a payment plan.

National Security: How fraud happens

When a person dies, their Social Security benefits are supposed to die with them. According to the Social Security Administration, it’s typically the funeral home, family or a state agency that reports the death to the agency. SSA also urges families to make sure deaths are reported as soon as possible.

But sometimes, the dead slip through the cracks.

Whether out of desperation or greed, relatives have managed to hide the deaths of their loved ones so that they can collect their benefits. Some have gone to extremes. 

In Wisconsin, a woman was charged in September with hiding her mother’s corpse in a tub for months so that she could continue collecting her Social Security checks and dividends.

In Arizona, a man was charged in May with burying his 97-year-old mom in the backyard to hide her death and collect her government benefits – a scheme that lasted for about five months.

Michigan, meanwhile, has seen cases where the fraud lasted for decades.

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Take the case of Detroiter Walter Terrell Sr., a former social worker for the Detroit Board of Education, who hid his mother’s death for 37 years while cashing in on her Social Security benefits: $285,000 in total. Prosecutors said the 76-year-old man, who has a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, forged his mother’s signature on about 375 checks and told many lies to cover up his crime: He claimed she was on vacation when investigators called, arranged for someone to impersonate her during another phone call with the agency, then claimed that she was visiting family out of state.

In November, Terrell pleaded guilty to stealing government funds. Under the terms of his plea deal, he faced 18-24 months in prison.

Prosecutors urged the judge to lock Terrell up for 21 months. 

“For more than 35 years, defendant Walter Terrell repeatedly and continually stole money from the United States,” prosecutors argued in court records. “Only when confronted with her death certificate – on which he is the informant – did he confess. This is a remarkably egregious fraud.”

Terrell’s lawyer, however, asked the judge to spare his client a prison sentence and give him probation instead. In making this request, defense attorney Roman Ficaj took a shot at the government for – as he saw it – taking so long to catch the fraud.

“What is most troubling, aside from (Terrell’s) conduct, is that the SSA did not investigate the matter until Oct. 7, 2014, 33 years following the death of (his) mother,” Ficaj argued in a sentencing memo. “The SSA missed the fact that (Terrell’s) mother had passed away in 1981 and continued to issue the checks.”

In the end, Terrell got a break. In March, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh sentenced Terrell to six months in prison – significantly less than the 21 months prosecutors sought. He also ordered him to pay full restitution to the government. 

Johnnie Christopher Jr. got a similar break for his crime. The former Chase bank employee pleaded guilty in 2016 to stealing nearly $450,000 in benefits from two late account holders. 

Prosecutors argued that Christopher abused his job to line his own pockets when he should have known better: He was a well-educated professional earning a significant salary and had no mortgage.

“The circumstances of the offense are extremely troubling,” prosecutors wrote in court documents, stressing, “His decision to steal was a calculated choice motivated not by need, but by greed.”

Prosecutors also argued that Christopher took extra steps outside his work to verify that the bank customers whose accounts he liquidated were in fact dead. He “went so far as to pay a private service to obtain information about one target,” they wrote, and created a shell company in an attempt to hide his scheme from his employer.

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After confirming the account holders were dead, prosecutors said, Christopher ordered replacement ATM cards and checks for the customers and cleaned them out.

“This was a perhaps as sophisticated a scheme as one could concoct under the circumstances,” wrote prosecutors, who pushed for a four-year prison sentence.

Christopher’s lawyer asked for less and urged the judge to show mercy.

Defense lawyer Vincent Toussaint portrayed his client as a hardworking family man with an “outstanding reputation in the community” who “has shown true remorse and genuine acceptance for his actions.” He called Christopher’s crime “the worst mistake of his life,” saying he stole from the government to pay off old gambling debts.

“Mr. Christopher became heavily involved in “street gambling” with some individuals he had grown up with,” Toussaint wrote. “He had a steady income from J.P. Morgan Chase and would play craps, poker and wager on sporting events. He became addicted to the lifestyle and excitement, however, it spiraled out of control.”

On March 11, 2016, U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain sentenced Christopher to three years in federal prison, one year less than what prosecutors wanted.

Less than a year later, Christopher asked whether he could be moved to a halfway house.

The government objected, saying he had already been given a break.

The judge denied his request.

If you are aware of someone committing Social Security fraud, you can report it online at oig.ssa.gov/report, or call 800-269-0271.

Follow Tresa Baldas on Twitter: @TBaldas

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