Elbert Shawn Rice: The Strange, Twisted Saga of a Failed Bird Scammer
Houston, we have a d-bag. (Shawn Rice, above; Michael Acosta, seated).
On June 23, Sharon Wells-Markland, who runs an exotic bird sanctuary in Montgomery County, found an uplifting e-mail in her inbox: A man contacted her about a lost macaw that Wells and three other women had rescued earlier that month.
The man was referred to Wells-Markland after spotting a picture of the bird on the Houston SPCA's found animals site. He identified himself as Shawn Rice, and he said the bird -- "Lucy" -- belonged to his mother, who was in Kentucky tending to her recently deceased mother's estate. He claimed his parents' home in Spring had been broken into, and that's how the bird got out. He said he wanted to pick up the bird, which is only worth about $500, according to one of the bird experts who got caught up in these events.
Wells-Markland had no way of knowing at the time that the man was a fugitive from Kentucky who would ultimately threaten to sue her and call the cops on her. Once Hair Balls got involved, Rice threatened to call the cops on us. He claimed to belong to a prominent, influential Houston family. He claimed to have a mutual friend who knew an executive with our parent company. The dude, it turned out, was straight-up weird. A bunch of people recently had to endure his incessant bullshit, and we would like you to do the same.
Shawn Rice is really 39-year-old Elbert Shawn Rice, who has an outstanding warrant from Perry County, Kentucky, on six counts of theft by deception. According to the indictment, he stole more than $3,000 of a man's Social Security disability payments. More on that later.
At this point, you might ask, "But Hair Balls, why should I care about a dude who tried to steal a bird?"
Fair question. Our answer is this: Although this man has an open warrant, it does not appear authorities in Kentucky want to deal with it. It's a nonviolent crime with a relatively low dollar amount, and it only involves one alleged victim. We asked officials at the Perry County Commonwealth Attorney's Office for information about Rice's charges and got nowhere. Messages left for the lead detective on that case were not returned, and the spokesman for that division of the Kentucky State Police wasn't interested in helping us. The KSP's lead communication officer told us that since the case was still open, we probably wouldn't be able to get much info, but he did tell us how to request a portion of it. (We're not sure how Rice's case can still be "open" in Kentucky -- after all, at no point did any law enforcement official ask us for Rice's number or address so they could ask local authorities to arrest him. Our messages to Detective Randy Combs, the Kentucky State Police official who testified before the grand jury in Rice's case, went unanswered. As long as the case remains open, authorities do not have to disclose details of the crime he's charged with.)
And it's not as if Rice was never on Houston authorities' radar: He was arrested in Houston in 2009 and pleaded guilty to theft of check after bailing on a cab driver. It's not clear if Houston police ran a warrant check and contacted Kentucky authorities, but the result was that, after three days in jail, Rice went on his merry way.
He is Houston's problem now. So that's why we'd like to get this on the record.
Through the Magnolia Exotic Birds Sanctuary, Wells is trying to save birds' lives. She's in the process of getting her 501(c)(3) and runs a bird-food business that supports the sanctuary.
When Rice contacted Wells about "Lucy" the macaw, he used an e-mail address with the prefix "natl.disablility," which is a misspelled version of a company Rice told us he operates, called National Disability Advocates. He told us he helps people get their benefits and insisted that one does not need to be an attorney to do such work.
He also used an e-mail address associated with the name "Sharlene Rice," who was identified as Rice's mother.
But Rice's mother, who spells her first name "Sharleen," told us the following: "He is a compulsive liar" and "He's a good scam artist." She told us that, even though she has been a victim of his schemes, "I love him, but I don't love and condone what he's doing." (On the other hand, Rice apparently believes his mother is a "sick demented person who needs help," according to a message from Rice that Sharleen shared with us.) Sharleen and her daughter -- Rice's sister -- were the only members of the Rice clan who responded to repeated requests for comment. We reached out to various family members on Facebook, and two of them promptly blocked us. We later learned that one family member alerted his relatives on Facebook that our messages were spam. "I spoke to Shawn, and he said it was spam and he has contacted the police regarding the situation," the family member warned. (This was followed up with "Another story of how you don't mess with a Rice haha.")
His sister Patience Thacker told us, "He has a way of making anyone believe whatever he wants them to. The scary thing is, I think he has lived so many lies that he starts believing them himself."
Thacker also told us that Rice was "estranged" from the family, and she hasn't spoken to him in over two years.
"In November 2011, he was harassing me via phone and text message, and I had to call the local police and have my phone number changed. It caused a great amount of stress on my family, and I was afraid....To my knowledge, he makes his living from frauding [sic] other people, mainly by getting others' disability and social security checks."
Tim Stidham told us that's exactly what his father, Teddy, said happened to him. We had trouble reaching Teddy, who Tim said didn't have a phone or e-mail access. Tim said his father had gone to an attorney's office for assistance in getting his Social Security disability payments. He said his father suffered a head injury in a workplace accident and was unable to work.
According to Tim, Rice identified himself as the "attorney's assistant," and said he could help the elder Stidham.
Tim said Rice "cashed [Teddy's] check and just ran with it, and he never gave my dad his money back." According to the indictment, Rice absconded with money earmarked for Teddy's child support obligations to Tim as well as his disability benefits. His bond had been set for $30,000.
That's one of the reasons Rice's sister shields her immediate family from her brother.
"My children do not even know they have an uncle named Shawn," Thacker told us. "That sounds really cold, but it is the best."
We're sort of jealous of those children, because knowing Rice can be a gigantic pain in the neck.
That's what Wells-Markland quickly learned, and it was also a lesson imparted to a woman named Mary Hardcastle, who runs Mary's About Birds, where the macaw is currently housed.
After Wells-Markland and Hardcastle were both contacted by Rice (who also posed as his mother, and, at one point, his cousin), they asked for identification and some sort of proof that the bird was Rice's mother's -- like perhaps a photo. Rice said he didn't have a photo, and he couldn't get into his mother's house to grab one. Along those lines, he copied Wells-Markland and Hardcastle on an e-mail to "Sharlene," which stated: "Mom, you and dad never gave me a set of new Keys after replacing the locks and installing the security system after the break in. I cannot get into the house."
After lobbing a few more lame excuses, Rice threatened the women with legal action from their attorney, "Marcus Smithers." There is no one by that name listed with the Texas State Bar. (Rice also CC'd the fake email address "email@example.com" in one of his threats to Wells-Markland and Hardcastle).
As "Sharlene," Rice told Hardcastle in an e-mail: "Lets pay our attorneys to hash this out and the looser will pay the prevailing parties attorney fees [sic]."
Rice assured Markland-Wells in an e-mail that "I come from a very prominent family in Houston, our last name alone stands out in the community. My parents run a very successful business and buying a Macaw would be such an easy thing to do instead of fighting with some strange lady who from the beginning seemed as if she didn't want to let the bird go."
Eventually, Rice grew more belligerent and threatening with all three women. He accused Hardcastle in an e-mail of harassing him and "Sharlene," and also wrote that Hardcastle had severely underestimated the Rice clan's sophistication and intelligence: "...we are not BIRD BRAINS LIKE YOU," he wrote.
He later wrote: "Hope you are not to [sic] disappointed when the authorities show up to secure Lucy."
The women were spooked, and they felt they had been the victims of an attempted scam. They asked us to look into it. We asked Markland-Wells for the phone number Rice had used when he called her. We called the number and reached a man who identified himself as Shawn Rice. He told us the bird "belongs to my mother, and my mother is out of town." Then -- before we were even aware of the existence of Mary Hardcastle -- Rice told us: "If crazy Mary wants to call a reporter, we know people at the Houston Chronicle....My family's a very prominent family here in Houston."
Rice didn't reply to subsequent voice-mail messages. But he did respond to us via e-mail after we messaged him on Facebook. In his e-mails, Rice claimed not to know anything about a bird. When we told him the phone number that was used by the person who spoke with Wells and Hardcastle -- the same number we called days earlier when we spoke with a man identifying himself as Shawn Rice -- he wrote: "Well that explains everything. That is our line, it's one of my extra cell phones that I loaned to a friend of mine that lives in the Cypress area. They have been having money problems and he just had a newborn....Whats [sic] funny is he called me 2 maybe 3 days ago and said his buddy had a bird for sale. I love parrots and he knows this."
Rice claimed this friend was "Zachary Blevins. He lives in Cypress off 1960. I don't know the name of the apartment complex." (Rice at one point said he had e-mails from the phantom Zach, proving his involvement in the scheme, and that he would send us a map showing the location of Zach's apartment complex, but he recanted both offers. We could not locate a Zach Blevins in Cypress, but found a Zach Blevins in Kentucky who was a friend of Rice's cousin. We messaged that Zach Blevins multiple times, but he did not respond.)
Shortly before Rice claimed to be hopping a flight "to St. Martins with some friends," he wrote, "I am calling Zachary now to let him know I know whats up. I am going to give him 1 hr to take my phone to the nearest At&t store or I am having him arrested for this whole mess."
In a later email, he wrote "I hope you embarrass the hell out of Zachary."
Our subsequent questions about Zachary Blevins, and about Rice's e-mails in general, were met with threats from Rice -- he threatened to report us to an executive at Voice Media Group with whom he claimed to have a mutual friend named Debbie. He also told us in an e-mail, "I have also reached out to a couple of friends that purchase ad space with you're [sic] little paper to let them know what type of people they are associating their business with. You do not seem at all interested in the truth but more interested in throwing you're [sic] weight around in an attempt to harass for what purpose I'm not sure."
Throughout this whole ordeal, Rice kept the phone number he claimed had been hijacked by Blevins. The number is registered to a man named Michael Acosta. Further research identified Acosta as an acquaintance of Rice. While we could not reach Acosta, we reached out to his sister and mother for help in locating him to find out what involvement, if any, he had in this dumb scheme to capture a bird. His sister did not initially respond to requests, but eventually said she would relay our contact information.
His mother, Constance K. Acosta, an attorney at Ross, Banks, May, Cron & Cavin, and formerly a division chief for the City of Houston's legal department, also did not respond to our initial requests.
Instead, Houston Press Editor Margaret Downing received a call from Rice and a woman who identified herself as Acosta. Rice told Downing that one of her reporters set up a Google Voice phone number in Oregon and repeatedly texted Rice with, among other things, an offer to sell some birds. It is among the weirdest accusations we have ever received.
Over the phone, Rice told us, "We have nothing to do with this stupid bird...Mrs. Acosta is an attorney, okay." The woman on the line stated her name was indeed Connie Acosta, and she told us, "I have no information on anything."
Rice also threatened to call the authorities if we continued with our efforts to get to the bottom of this scheme.
Unfortunately, our efforts to get to the bottom included verifying whether the woman on the other line with Rice was really Acosta. Although Rice took umbrage at our repeated attempts to give a person we were writing about the opportunity to comment, Acosta did eventually confirm for us via e-mail that she was the person we spoke with earlier. Since we also mentioned to Acosta that we were writing about Rice because of his Kentucky charge, Acosta asked for information about that. She declined further comment.
And when Wells e-mailed Acosta in her attempt to find out what was going on, she received an e-mail not from Acosta, but from Rice.
"Hello, I am responding to an e-mail you sent to Connie Acosta regarding an apparent communication between you and I," Rice wrote. "I have never spoken with you a bird [sic]. A friend of mine named Zachary was using my phone last week and apparently did so....We have already contacted the Police about this."
Despite the fact that he no longer lives in Kentucky, a status hearing in Rice's criminal case has been scheduled for this November in Perry County Circuit Court.
"The judge puts a court date every year so he sure won't forget this dude," a woman at the Circuit Court Clerk's Office told us.
Yet contrary to court records and confirmation by the Perry County Commonwealth Attorney's Office and the Perry County Circuit Clerk, Rice insisted to us in a text that his outstanding warrant is "a civil matter being dropped. Not at all concerned about that. Like I said it's being dropped." (Of course, the number he texted from was supposedly in the clutches of "Zachary Blevins.")
He also texted us to say, "I'm excited to see this story....Please hurry and print it."
Markland-Wells tried to file a complaint with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, but she said the officer she spoke with couldn't do anything since no property was stolen. She also told us she called the Houston Police Department to report her unfortunate run-in with a man with an open warrant, but they didn't seem interested either.
Sure, it's not the crime of the century, but Rice apparently will continue to annoy, harass and threaten other people in his feeble attempts to make a buck or two. And, with the exception of his mom and sis, his family in Kentucky doesn't seem to care, nor do the Kentucky authorities. So be on the lookout. You've been warned.
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