On Tuesday evening, a family of four pulled up to Vicki Azvedo Perry’s home on Willits’s Main Street driving a “brand new Cadillac Escalade.” She was inside, her husband was outside tending to chores.
A man, a woman, and a boy around ten-years-old emerged from the vehicle. An older daughter remained quiet in the back seat. Their accents suggested they were possibly Middle Eastern.
Perry’s husband asked them what he could do for them and the patriarchal figure said they were interested in renting the Perry’s chickens, which they noticed because their coop is visible from the road.
Perry’s husband called her outside and before she knew it, she had agreed to let the group of strangers rent her chickens so they could “photograph them for an event” agreeing to leave a $1,000 deposit to guarantee the return of the bird.
In the chicken coop, the matriarch of the four quickly grabbed four chickens by the legs and whisked them away to the Escalade.
Before they left, Perry remembered the promised $1,000 deposit and asked for it. The man, instead, presented a gold necklace and told her it was his father’s, very valuable, and went so far as to put it on around her neck.
Perry took the necklace as the deposit and handed them a business card so they could call her when it was time to return her four chickens.
Now, four days after, Perry has realized that her chickens are gone, the necklace is a fake, and a sophisticated con family had gained her trust and then betrayed her in her own front yard.
The term “con artist” is a shortening of “confidence artist”. The word “confidence” is befitting of this unique brand of fraudster who uses sympathy, guilt, and the trust of strangers against them to bilk them of their cash or valuables.
Cathy Scott writes in a Psychology Today article entitled “The Art of the Con and Why People Fall For It”, that these flim-flam artists are masters of “preying on people’s trust and their propensity for believing what they wish to be true.”
Scott writes successful grifters often exhibit three similar characteristics: “psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism”. After a successful swindle, these fraudsters will feel little remorse or guilt. They often exude likability, extroversion, and are extremely persuasive.
Con artists will often change their identities as they travel from place to place, making it difficult for law enforcement to identify them. Scott goes on to say that low-level grifters, bilking marks out of small amounts of cash, will be overlooked by law enforcement because their actions do not rise to a criminal level, merely civil.
Chickens, Children, Trust, and Confidence
Looking back on Tuesday evening, Perry knows what happened was a result of her trusting nature. She has lived at her Willits home for just over a year growing more comfortable with her quieter, rural life.
When their car pulled into the driveway, and a strange man and woman that seemed husband and wife began to inquire about renting her chickens, the appearance of the ten-year-old boy put her at ease. “I’m a mother of two daughters,” Perry said. The presence of children lowered her guard.
The male talked fast, moved with assertiveness, and the strangeness of renting a chicken to take pictures dissipated. At one point, the male even mentioned they were also seeking turkeys and pigs.
The ten-year-old boy’s accent was more Americanized, Perry observed, and he chattered with her as the crew entered the chicken coop. The older teenage girl sat silently in the back of the SUV.
Perry said she had owned the chicken for seven months and would always pick them up softly around their feathered bodies. In contrast, Perry watched the woman of the crew snatch the chickens deftly by their claws while they hung upside down and whisk them away to the Escalade. “She knew her way around chickens,” Perry said.
After nabbing four of her six chickens, the family made moves to leave. Instead of a $1,000 deposit, the man took a gold necklace off his son’s neck, told Perry the necklace was valuable and belonged to his father, and placed it around hers so she would “take good care of it”,
Perry gave them her business card so they could call her when they were bringing back the chickens, and just like that, they drove away.
All Roads Lead to the Pawn Shop
Tom Butzow and Heidi Wyatt from Ukiah’s Craftsman Estate Jewelry & Pawn Shop told us that they have had over one hundred Mendocino County residents over the last few years come to their store after falling victim to hucksters hoping the jewelry was authentic.
Butzow and Wyatt said the victims very rarely contact law enforcement and are hoping the jewelry lives up to the con man’s promises, so they go to local pawn shops hoping their trust was not misplaced.
Pawnshops, in a way, have become society’s sole spectator of the work of these conmen. Victims are often embarrassed to tell their friends or family, they know that reporting to law enforcement will be useless, and a pawn shop can help them answer the essential question: did I really fall for this?
The stories Butzow and Wyatt have heard all have similar themes. Often at gas stations or casino parking lots from all around Mendocino and Lake Counties, strangers with darker Mediterranean skin and foreign accents approach or pull up in an SUV and pepper their marks with stories of empty gas tanks or medical emergencies, gesturing to their upset children in the car or a wife in distress. They ask for money and offer jewelry in exchange.
The described ethnicity of the crew ranged from Eastern European to Indian to Balinese to Arabic to Middle Eastern.
Butzow said of all of the victims he had spoken with, no one had successfully taken a photograph of the hustlers or their vehicle.
Some of the victims have told Butzow that the strangers will make dramatic demonstrations of proving the jewelry’s authenticity by testing it with a magnet or rubbing it on a nearby surface and showing that it does not mar the metal.
One older woman told Butzow she was at a local gas station and planned on putting $50 in her gas tank. A charming man with a Middle Eastern accent approached her and convinced her to exchange $25 for a necklace of much higher value. After being told by Butzow that the necklace was worthless, the woman was not angry at the con. She expressed happiness that she was able to help the “nice man” out.
One older couple admitted to Butzow that the grifters had bilked them for $1,800.
Being that the victims of these confidence games willingly fork over their cash, Butzow said, “They are not technically breaking the law, they’re just being really shady.”
A Lawman on Con Men
We told Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall about the Willits Chicken con job and asked him his thoughts on these scams swindling strangers of their cash.
Thinking about what could compel these fraudsters to con a woman of her chickens, Sheriff Kendall offered, “You can sell a full-grown chicken for $35 on Craigslist.”
This group of swindlers was said to be driving what appeared to be a newer model Cadillac Escalade priced between $70,000-$80,000. Sheriff Kendall suggested this con-crew was “not a one-trick-pony.” He speculated the crew travels about the county looking for opportunities to get their hands on anything marketable.
Though sympathetic to the victims of these grifts, Sheriff Kendall confirmed these actions are not criminal, but more civil in nature. These con artists can convince their victims something worthless has value. Sheriff Kendall said, “There are those people out there who can sell whale steaks to GreenPeace.”
Speaking to Mendocino County residents at large, Sheriff Kendall simply said, “if it seems like too good of a deal, don’t believe it.”
Don’t Trust a Man Who Asks to Rent Your Chicken
Heidi Wyatt of Craftsman Estate Jewelry & Pawn Shop broke the news to Perry: the necklace was a fake.
Perry is “dumbfounded” about what happened. The con is so clear to her now. She wonders what could have happened to her four birds. “Did they eat them?” she asks.
She posted about the incident on the Willits Fan Page Community on Facebook hoping one of her neighbors had seen four new chickens suddenly appear nearby. Instead, Perry was met with mockery for her gullibility. She left disappointed with the community that she had seen and tight-knit and supportive. Instead, the way Perry saw it, they reveled in her mistake.
Those eager to criticize would do well to remember…the thought that you are somehow impervious to a confidence job is what makes you the next, best mark.
Looking forward, Perry told us she has certainly learned not to trust anyone that asks to rent your chickens for a photoshoot.