07/05/05 — Retired teachers help foil scam artist

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Retired teachers help foil scam artist

By Turner Walston
Published in News on July 5, 2005 1:45 PM

The story was only a few paragraphs in the public record section of the June 21 newspaper.

The headline read "Man charged in phone scam."

But the real story was how two retired teachers helped foil a suspected scam artist.

About 3 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, June 18, Martha Mills received a telephone call. She let the answering machine pick it up the first time, but the caller didn't leave a message. The second time the phone rang, she answered.

The caller claimed to be her nephew, but she didn't recognize the voice. The caller said he had a cold.

"It sounded just like somebody that was really sick," Mrs. Mills said.

She hadn't heard her nephew's voice in several years, so she assumed it was him.

The caller said he was stranded on the highway between Goldsboro and Selma and needed for her to take $75 to a tow truck driver named Tony Johnson. She could meet him at a restaurant on U.S. 70, he said.

She drove to the restaurant and met "Tony," who had called earlier to confirm their meeting.

He asked for the money and she replied that she had four $20 bills.

No problem, "Tony" said, her nephew could give her change.

No, she said, and told him he could go inside the restaurant to get the bill changed.

"That was the only smart move I made that night," Mrs. Mills said.

She became suspicious when the man walked away and didn't get into a car or a truck.

"I thought 'I'm going to drive around (the motel) and see if I see a tow truck.'"

When she didn't see one, "It dawned on me that I had probably been ripped off."

When she got home, Mrs. Mills called her friend Mary Bailey, who suggested she try to call her nephew, who lives in Apex.

Her fears were confirmed. She had been scammed.

After Mrs. Mills called the police to report the incident, she decided not to stop with merely reporting it. She drove back to the restaurant and adjacent motel. Driving through the parking lot, she wrote down a description of every vehicle. She then drove to the police station and gave the descriptions to officers before meeting Mrs. Bailey and another friend, Larry Butts, for coffee.

Mrs. Bailey suggested they check the motel surveillance camera to see if "Tony" was on its tape.

The motel clerk said there was no tape available but did note that there was a guest that seemed suspicious.

The man had complained about air conditioning in one room, the clerk said. When the clerk went to give him another room, she discovered the first one was a mess. The clerk also told them that a third party had paid the man's bill for the past three nights.

The clerk told the women to return at 11 a.m., the motel's check-out time, to try and identify the man.

"She said 'If he doesn't check out, I've got the right to go into his room,'" Mrs. Mills said.

Butts called the police while they waited. Officer Karen Powers arrived and said she recognized the scam. A similar incident had been reported a few weeks earlier.

At 11 a.m., the clerk knocked on the door of the suspect's room. After getting no answer, she telephoned the room's number. When no one picked up, she decided to enter the room.

"She opened the door and walked in, and came right out," Mrs. Mills says. The clerk told them that a mattress had been propped up at an angle, facing the door.

When police entered the room, they saw a man's feet beneath the mattress. Mrs. Mills identified the man as the same that had taken her money. The waitress from restaurant confirmed his identity.

Goldsboro Police found drug paraphernalia and stolen goods in the room. The man told police that there was another man involved in the scame.

Investigators eventually charged Philip Wayne Coley with four felony counts of obtaining property by false pretense.

Mrs. Mills said her experience is a lesson for other people who feel they have been the victims of a crime.

"The public needs to know, don't give up so easily," she said.