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Those doing good deeds urged to use caution

Quincy church member shares scam encounter

Scams aren’t uncommon, even in Plumas County. While most are conducted over the phone, one Quincy church group experienced fraud up close and personal.

Under the guise of being a young Italian couple with car trouble and needing to get home to Florida in a very short time, half of the duo approached the congregation at the Church of Christ on Jackson Street on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 12.

The man, who claimed to speak little English, managed to tell church members that he had a job interview in Florida and they were in need of assistance to get their van fixed so they could get back home quickly.

“We make them sit through Bible study,” said Bill Wight, a member of the congregation and a retired prison officer with more than 20 years experience. When people come to the church to ask for help that’s just standard practice, he explained.

“We don’t want to give them the third degree,” Wight said. But at the same time church members like to get to know a little something about the people they’re asked to help.

As things progressed, Wight said the young man indicated that he and his wife were in Sacramento when they realized they were having car trouble. He said he called his father in Italy for advice. The father said he supposedly had been in Quincy 20 years ago or so and this was the place to come for help.

At some point, on learning that the man’s wife was along, someone in the congregation encouraged him to introduce her. He left to go and get her. Wight’s now curious about what she was doing and where she was? Apparently, she wasn’t just out in the van.

Wight said that the men in the congregation had a second meeting and agreed to give the couple $300.

Following services, and thinking about the distance they had to travel, Wight said that the couple accompanied him to an ATM and he withdrew $700 from his own account, in part to cover the $300 agreed upon by the congregation, plus a donation of his own.

Possibly impressed that he could access cash easily, Wight said that they upped the story adding that the wife was also pregnant. According to the young man’s story, they had married two years earlier in Italy.

The young man had said their car trouble included the bearings so Wight took the couple by his home so he could take a look at the bearings on the right wheel of the van they were driving.

His stepson also looked at the bearings and found nothing wrong. Then the man changed the car trouble to something else. Again, the two Quincy residents found nothing wrong.

As part of being a man of good will, Wight still gave the couple the benefit of the doubt and took them out to lunch. While the young woman ordered a salad and French fries, the young man said, “I will order a steak.”

Wight said he took the couple to the Express for lunch. Knowing someone there who speaks Spanish as his first language, Wight asked him to come to their table and talk to the man. Wight’s reasoning was that Spanish and Italian are both romance languages and have similarities.

After a short discussion, the man at the Express took Wight aside and said that he didn’t know what language the young man was speaking, but it wasn’t Italian. The woman didn’t speak at all, because the young man said she didn’t speak English.

While Wight said he had his suspicions about this couple, he was now nearly sure that things weren’t as the young man claimed. When they finished their lunch, Wight said they went their separate ways. Or at least he pretended to do so.

Keeping well away from the couple and their van, Wight said he followed them and they eventually drove to a church in East Quincy. There they met up with another young man. He happened to be next to a red or maroon-colored van parked near the church and the van’s hood was up. Wight immediately wondered if that person was also telling the congregation that his van was broke down and he needed money.

When the young couple moved on, Wight said he again followed them. Eventually they stopped at One Stop to get gas. Wight parked in front of the Hot Spot; not in immediate view, but close enough that he could continue to observe them.

When the couple pulled up to the pumps, the young woman got out and went inside. That’s when a deputy just happened to stop at the mini mart. Wight thought that the woman must have spotted the officer’s vehicle or encountered the deputy, because she immediately returned to the van. Her story, according to what the young man explained, was that they didn’t have a restroom. They do, which made Wight even more curious.

Wight said he approached the officer and explained his concerns about what had happened.

At some point, the deputy moved his vehicle in front of the van so the couple couldn’t escape that way. Before long another deputy or deputies parked right behind the van, completely blocking their exit.

As the situation progressed, Wight explained his part in the story, with the young man giving various explanations. Wight said the deputies looked inside the van and inside the glove compartment were a variety of documents. More were discovered under the seat, according to Wight.

These documents included various driver licenses, passports and other items. Each appeared to be in a different name with a different address and with different birth dates, Wight explained.

They also discovered stacks of cash inside various pouches and bags, Wight said. He too saw everything in the van.

At some point, deputies handcuffed the young people.

Two other finds also stood out in Wight’s memory. He said the deputies found a printed sheet of paper with the names and addresses of a list of churches in Livermore. They also found a sign stating that the couple needed money to feed and house their two children.

Wight said that one of the deputies repaid him for the $700, and the cost of the lunch from a stack of bills found inside the van, but Wight believes there’s more to the situation.

Both remembering what he saw in the couple’s van and then by re-examining some of the photographs he’d taken of the evidence, Wight began to suspect that the couple is Arab, not Italian as they’d claimed and not Romanian as was brought up at the scene.

Wight said he repeatedly encouraged officers at the scene to fingerprint the couple, but that didn’t happen.

In an email received May 16, Wight said that he took his suspicions and photos to the Quincy area California Highway Patrol.

A CHP officer, after interviewing Wight, produced a two-page statement based on Wight’s involvement.

Wight said that the CHP officer saw the photo showing part of a document that also contained what appeared to be Arabic writing. That officer said that it was Arabic writing on a blue passport booklet.

Taking note of the cash the couple had inside the van and a receipt from a new Wells Fargo account they’d open in the amount of $3,556, Wight said he thought the couple had gotten their money from others who fell for their stories.

From the sheriff’s office

Following the incident, Sgt. Carson Wingfield discussed the May 12 stop with Sgt. Steve Clark, who was the shift supervisor at that time.

Wingfield said that it took three hours for officers, including Clark, to investigate the situation.

The couple did have legal documents from Romania, Wingfield said. Clark was in contact with authorities in Sacramento to make that determination. Because they are minors their names weren’t released. They were apparently 17 and 15. It is unknown if they were married.

No other documents — legal or forged — were noted in Clark’s report to Wingfield.

Wingfield didn’t deny that the scam the couple was initiating wasn’t good; but it is considered a civil misdemeanor. “Essentially there’s no bite to pursue it any further,” Wingfield said Thursday, May 16.

The handcuffed couple was released and escorted to the edge of town, Wingfield said.

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