LOS ANGELES -- Two women in their 70s were arrested this week after they allegedly befriended two homeless men, took out 19 life insurance policies on them and filed claims worth more than $2.2 million after the transients mysteriously died in hit-and-run pedestrian accidents in Los Angeles, police said.
One of the men was hit by a car and killed in an alley in 1999, and the second victim was run down last June.
Detectives said they connected the two cases several months ago during a chance meeting between two investigators in the LAPD's West Traffic Bureau squad room.
A detective handling the death of Kenneth McDavid, 50, was talking about the peculiarity of the case when another detective interrupted him to say he had worked on a similar-sounding, unsolved hit-and-run six years ago.
Comparing notes, they realized that in both cases the bodies had been claimed by Olga Rutterschmidt, 73, of Hollywood, and Helen Golay, 75, of Santa Monica.
"It was somewhat unusual that two elderly ladies unrelated to the victim were coming in making requests for police reports ... attempting to gain custody of the body and claiming there was no one else in the world who cared about this poor soul," said Detective Dennis Kilcoyne.
Investigators said they looked into the matter further and found that the women held 19 policies on McDavid and Paul Vados, 73 - even though neither appeared to be related to the victims.
The women were arrested on suspicion of mail fraud. But detectives believe the pair "are involved in the deaths of these men," Lt. Paul Vernon said.
"Our first thought was ... they would leave the actual dirty work to someone else," Kilcoyne said. "We're not so sure about this anymore. ... This is pretty evil."
Investigators say the women befriended McDavid and Vados and provided them with apartments in exchange for signing a life insurance policy, with Rutterschmidt and Golay listed as the beneficiaries. They then allegedly duplicated both men's signatures on rubber stamps and used them to secure additional policies.
"After two years of payments, the policies" became good, Kilcoyne said. "Then bad things would happen."
Police placed the women under surveillance a few weeks ago but decided to arrest them Thursday after noticing behavior they say alarmed them.
Detectives said they saw the pair meeting with several older men and having them sign documents. Later, authorities said, they found signature stamps bearing the names of other men.
Golay arrived in court first Thursday and sat quietly with her hands in her lap, sometimes flipping through the thick criminal complaint against her. Rutterschmidt arrived shortly before the judge took the bench. When she was asked by the judge whether she understood her rights, she answered, "Yes, I'm shocked."
At the pink-stucco triplex that Golay owns in Santa Monica, her daughter, Kecia Golay, strongly denied that her mother was involved in any insurance scheme.
"That's just not what's going on," she said. "I'm too sad to talk right now. ... We have a regular life."
A neighbor described Golay as a friendly person who drove around in a Mercedes SUV with dealer plates and put her home on the market 18 months ago for $1.5 million.
"I can't believe she did anything," said Cristyne Lawson. "She seems perfectly harmless."
By contrast, Rutterschmidt lived in a modest unit of a sprawling apartment complex in the heart of Hollywood.
Authorities said she drove a greenish-blue Honda Civic, and neighbors described her as temperamental.
"If she was a sweet old lady, I'd say she was a sweet old lady," said neighbor Glenn Spinola. "But what can you do?"
Defense attorneys for both women declined to comment outside court on behalf of their clients.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason P. Gonzalez called the alleged effort to defraud insurance companies "a complex scheme" and said both women would pose a danger to the public and a flight risk.
Golay's attorney told Judge Jeffrey W. Johnson that that she had no passport, no history of violence and deep ties to the community.
But the judge ordered both women detained without bail.
Cara Mia DiMassa and Richard Winton write for the Los Angeles Times.