A few weeks ago a young man in Dallas decided to watch a little television. After casually flipping around stations, he came across a program on the Discovery Channel called Cracking the Con Game. The show detailed different swindles and frauds perpetrated by scam artists across the country. One classic ruse involved a young girl warming up to an older man, then confiding to him that she needed money to start a sewing business. Only it turned out the girl didn't even know how to thread a needle -- and the older man lost a lot of cash.
The young man got nervous. It sounded familiar. Too familiar. His father in Houston had been mentioning a friend to him recently -- a young, blond, female friend --who wanted to open her own business, a sewing company. She explained that she'd landed a contract with a big hotel chain in Houston to make curtains for all of their rooms. She was that good of a seamstress -- honest. But she needed money. Just a little cash to get it off the ground.
When the young television viewer heard that, he jumped up and telephoned his father. "Turn on the television!" he said. "The Discovery Channel!" Dad watched the program, dumbfounded. Then he hung up on his son and made a call of his own -- to the cops.
HPD officers arranged to be with the man for his next meeting with the woman a few days later, on October 10. Police quickly arrested the young blond female, Gina Mitchell. Investigators accuse her of bilking five older men for more than $90,000 since July 1999.
Mitchell, whose attorney denies the allegations against her, hardly looked like a stereotypical, shifty-eyed swindler in a brief court appearance. Dressed in a cream-colored pantsuit with a small black purse slung over her left shoulder, the doe-eyed 23-year-old barely managed audible answers as state District Judge Susan Brown chided her for arriving late. But police and prosecutors say it was that very deer-in-the-headlights look that made her so beguiling to the older men.
"She did that whole "Oh, woe is me, I need help, I'm trying to start a sewing business, nah, nah, nah,' " says prosecuting Assistant District Attorney Harry Lawrence.
Lawrence and Houston police officer Mike Garrett say Mitchell --who comes from a Gypsy family -- worked the "sweetheart swindle." Garrett, of HPD's major offenders unit, says Mitchell kept a sharp eye out for men who wore gold and drove nice cars. She built relationships by approaching them in the parking lots of Randalls and Walgreens and offering to help carry their purchases. After gaining their trust, she took money from them for over a year. Although she is married, Mitchell often tag-teamed the men with the help of her mother-in-law, who posed as Mitchell's sister, Garrett alleges. The mother-in-law is not accused of any wrongdoing, police say. According to Garrett, the slow-building "sweetheart swindle" is a popular tradition among some Gypsies. Females may be trained from as young as 13 in the art of scamming older, unsuspecting men. Their bride price -- money given to the young woman's family by the groom -- is often based on how successful she can be as a "sweetheart." Some girls will even use their heritage as an excuse to try to score more money from their victims.
"One of the common ploys used is the girl will expose her breasts," says Garrett. "But there's no touching, no groping. It's just a visual image." After explaining that her ethnic customs require her to marry now that she has been "intimate," the older men -- often stunned at what they have just seen -- feel guilty enough to give away large amounts of money. After the final swindle, the sweetheart dissolves the relationship.
"These are men of honor," Garrett says. "Psychologically they think now they are involved. They feel compelled to take care of the young lady. You know, "She showed me, and now I'm obliged.' "
But police and prosecutors say Mitchell apparently was more discerning about who saw her ta-tas. Garrett and Lawrence say none of the complaining men reported the flash-for-cash scheme. However, that didn't prevent her from getting close to the men and allegedly bilking them on a regular basis. After asking for small amounts of money to help with the rent or to pay for lunch, Mitchell allegedly pulled out the sewing business story. The men then began to give Mitchell money in earnest, thousands of dollars. She's accused of telling one man that she needed him as a co-signer on a car loan for a new BMW sport utility vehicle. When creditors came after him, the guy realized Mitchell had stopped making SUV payments and he was the sole borrower. The man had to pay the dealership $6,000 to take back the car.
Catching sweetheart swindlers is rare, says Garrett, primarily because the victims are often too humiliated to come forward. Many are afraid their children will see their behavior as a signal that they are no longer lucid enough to live alone and manage their own finances. And most victims are somewhat surprised that they have been duped.
"People of that generation think of a con artist as a man in a dark coat with a handlebar mustache," says Lawrence, "not some sweet little thing."
Mitchell denied several requests to be interviewed. Her attorney, Mike Monks, sharply disputes the allegations as unfair.
"First, I don't like to say anything until we have all the facts," Monks says. "They're saying my lady is a known scam artist. Well, she has never been in trouble with the law before. That is not an accurate statement."
In fact, at first glance it might appear that not much separates the sad-eyed Mitchell from the likes of Houston's favorite media darling, Anna Nicole Smith, who is clawing in a court case for a share of her late husband's estate. During her relationships, Mitchell even had her locks dyed a butter-yellow blond, much like the hair color that Smith is famous for. But while both women made inroads into the affections of much older, wealthier males, Lawrence says it was Mitchell's alleged scamming of several men that made her a suspect.
"There was a series of these happenings, always the same hard-luck scenario, a pattern of deception," Lawrence argues. "But there was no sewing business. There was no sewing machine."
Garrett, who spends much of his time trying to crack scams, warns older people to be cautious of anyone asking for companionship and cash at the same time.
And then there's just common sense.
"You know, when you've got a 24-year-old girl trying to land the true love of an 80-year-old man, well, forget it," says Garrett.
But what about dear Anna Nicole? If a bare-breast shot obligated men into marriage, wouldn't half the country have to haul the former Playboy Playmate to the altar?
Garrett acknowledges that if Smith hadn't been wise enough to marry J. Howard Marshall II, her short-lived relationship with the octogenarian could have been considered a classic sweetheart swindle, but he's not staying up nights wishing he had the famous widow in custody.
"She just makes me laugh," acknowledges Garrett with a grunt. "True love, my ass."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.