Trust Betrayed

Disabled Hopkins Groundskeeper Loses Savings To Fraud By Helping A Couple

July 20, 2009|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,

Thomas cannot read or write. He lives with his mother in a two-story house in Hamilton, purchased with rolled change and savings from working as a groundskeeper at the Johns Hopkins University.

He has longed to escape Baltimore and buy a ranch house in the country with a fenced yard and a room large enough for a pool table.

Now, Thomas, 43, knows he'll never get that - because two people he trusted stole his entire life savings.

Two weeks ago, Joseph L. Moody, a groundskeeper who worked with Thomas for a decade, and Moody's girlfriend Janet Gilmore pleaded guilty to stealing more than $150,000 from Thomas. Starting in 2006, they duped and later intimidated him into giving them "loans" to pay legal fees for a fictitious lead paint lawsuit.

As part of the plea deal, Gilmore, 47, and Moody, 60, were put on probation and ordered to pay Thomas a combined $700 per month, or else face years in prison. Baltimore prosecutor Tracy Varda, a former special education teacher, said she negotiated the deal to spare Thomas from testifying.

"Thomas is very gullible and can be easily led by someone's sob story," Joan Price said of her son.

"And he doesn't like to upset people," added his stepmother, Jeanne Price, who sat at her kitchen table in Parkville across from Joan, discussing the case.

The Baltimore Sun is not printing Thomas' full name or his photo at the request of his family, who fears for his safety.

Though Thomas' learning disability isn't visible, it's apparent the moment he speaks. He has difficulty completing sentences - to the point that his ideas are sometimes incomprehensible, his mother said. He slowly draws, rather than glides through, his signature, Jeanne Price said.

And since the theft, he has become withdrawn and no longer talks about his dream home in the country. His "Wal-Mart greeter" personality has vanished, said his boss, Mark Selivan.

"It actually disgusts me that this took place," Selivan said. "It's morally egregious on levels I can't even speak of."

According to prosecutors, Moody or Gilmore repeatedly brought Thomas to an M&T Bank branch near the Hopkins campus. With their coaching, he received two $25,000 home-equity loans and cashed in his entire $90,000 inheritance from his grandmother.

Moody told Thomas not to tell anyone about the money. So Thomas hid the unopened bank statements under his mattress. His mother caught the fraud after finding a statement amid the mail on the kitchen table.

Jeanne Price said people have questioned why the family didn't have safeguards in place, but until February 2006, when Thomas received his inheritance, he didn't have much worth stealing. The family also didn't want to take away his independence. They knew he could count and had never mismanaged his money in his nearly 20 years of working full-time at Hopkins.

"He's like a miser," his mother said. "The only thing he may spend money on is a new pool stick. He runs his trucks for 10 to 12 years. He rolls all of his coins."

As Jeanne Price put it, the family is just like any other victim of fraud: They never "dreamed it would happen."

Once Thomas' mother caught on to the theft, Jeanne Price notified Hopkins, which conducted its own investigation and fired Moody in February 2008, university spokesman Dennis O'Shea said. Jeanne Price also contacted the state's Adult Protective Services agency, which quickly referred the case to Baltimore prosecutors.

During a long interview with Thomas, Varda and Elizabeth Ritter, chief of the economic crimes unit of the state's attorney's office, learned that Moody had promised to pay Thomas back with the settlement from a lead paint lawsuit. The two would often go to the bank on their lunch break. Moody would fill out the withdrawal slips, or Thomas would repeat Moody's instructions to a teller.

In January 2007, Gilmore joined the lead-paint scheme.

That month, Thomas borrowed $7,000 from the Johns Hopkins Federal Credit Union to pay Gilmore's fictitious legal fees, and Moody told Thomas to apply for a home-equity loan. An employee, who frequently assisted Thomas and Moody at the bank, typed the answers to the loan application questions into a computer. When Thomas couldn't answer one, Moody would do it for him.

When he got the first $25,000 loan, Moody wrote out three checks to either his own name or cash. Thomas signed them and then turned over all of the money.

Next, they took Thomas to Big Boyz Bail Bonds, where Thomas charged $1,000 to his credit card to bail out a man he didn't know. Thomas believed Big Boyz was the law office handling the lead paint lawsuit.

By September 2007, however, Thomas began to have doubts that he would be repaid. On Labor Day weekend, he refused for the first time to give Moody money, according to his family. And early the next day, while in front of his house, he was grabbed, taken inside, robbed, tied up and beaten with a wrench, said Varda, the prosecutor.

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