What started as an online romance turned into an international and very bizarre scam that stretches from California to Nigeria to right here in Mid-Michigan.
A Jackson County woman got more than she bargained for after chatting with a man on Craigslist, and the Waterloo Township Chief of Police single-handedly cracked open the case after the woman contacted him when she grew suspicious.
33-year-old Lorrie Brooks was sent a box of chocolate covered strawberries about two weeks ago, and it turned out to uncover a whole lot more.
"He said he was a model from New York looking for another romantic, someone to talk to," Brooks said.
Her chocolates from "Michael Jones" seemed innocent enough, but then she got another message that made her feel uneasy.
"He said, 'Oh it's not for you, it's for me. I'm going to give something to a charity,'" Brooks said. "So, I knew then something isn't right with this, you should have asked my permission to send me something."
That's when she got the police involved, who staked out her house to wait for the delivery.
"First of all I thought, well, maybe he's shipping her a box of drugs, and using her as a mid-point," Waterloo Township Chief of Police Tom Cottrell said.
But instead of drugs, a few days later a top-of-the-line washing machine was delivered to Lorrie's home by a contracted company the Home Depot in Jackson uses. The shipping slips were legitimate, but Cottrell discovered the washer was paid for using a man's stolen credit card in California.
"This was getting more strange by the day," Cottrell said. "So, I contacted the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department in California, and said, 'Will you follow up on this guy, I'm guessing he's got his identity stolen, and he probably doesn't even know it yet.'"
Sure enough, Lanny Sherwin became another victim, and it just gets more complicated from there. The scam artist arranged for the washer to be picked up from Brooks' house by DHL, and sent to a "Yinka Williams" in Nigeria. It was all going to be done on Western Michigan University's dime.
"I sent WMU's police the DHL papers, and they figured out that their accounts payable had been hacked, and these freight charges were getting billed to them.," Cottrell said.
A refrigerator and flat-screen television were coming next, but Cottrell canceled those in time. He said it's like chasing a ghost.
"He doesn't exist," Cottrell said. "Genius."
Brooks called it a learning experience.
"I didn't realize how easy it was to get myself caught up in that, and after a while, it was like, how do I get myself out of it?" Brooks said.
She's barely out of it though. Cottrell said he got a call Thursday morning from a woman in up-state New York asking why her credit card was being used to purchase $700 worth of shoes with a shipping address of Brooks' home.
Cottrell said he believes there could be many more victims out there. He's spoken to the FBI, and prosecution might be impossible.
He plans to keep investigating though.