In June of 2017, Bethany Beach Police Department Sgt. Brandon Elliott was dispatched to investigate a report of home-improvement fraud.
The daughter of a 93-year-old man living in town had reported that a group of individuals posing as contractors were scamming her father out of money.
“They had been milking this man for money,” said Elliott, noting that the suspects had allegedly stolen $30,000 from the one victim alone.
Elliott said the criminals are drifters who travel from place to place, using the same scam, oftentimes getting thousands of dollars out of unsuspecting homeowners.
“They go out to different homes and sell this scam. It’s been going on forever. Apparently, in Pennsylvania and western Maryland, this happens a lot,” he explained. “They were going door-to-door, selling this scam that they were asphalt contractors for the Town of Bethany that were going to redo the roadway out front of their house, and when they redid the roadway, there was going to be a drop-off from their driveway to the road,” he said of the story the scammers told homeowners.
“They told them, since they’d be in the area anyway, that they could pave their driveways for them for a cheaper fee because of the fact they were already going to be there. Then they would throw out a number that was ridiculously low for an asphalt driveway, but required payment up front.”
The group would begin work, but once the money was received would feign an excuse “to get more supplies” and go immediately to the victims’ banks, cash their checks and never returned to the home.
“All they did was take a black tar — what you recondition blacktop with — they were taking that and spraying it on top of the blue-chip stones, and then they rolled it out and left. Basically, they sprayed this product, completely ruined their driveway.”
Elliott said similar crimes have occurred in South Bethany, Dagsboro, Ocean Pines, Carol County, Md., and Virginia.
In South Bethany,” he said, “the man had agreed to do it because his wife had fallen and broken her hip, and the stones made it hard for her to get in and out of the house. It just so happened they showed up around the same time, and he thought he was going to get this blacktop driveway done so he could push her wheelchair across it… They literally sprayed around the car. They’re pretty crappy criminals.”
Unfortunately, by the time the crimes had been reported to Elliott, the checks had already been cashed. However, he was able to work with the Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Unit, as well as banks and other law-enforcement agencies, to identify one of the suspects cashing the checks.
“They had to use an I.D. to cash the checks, and they had to make the name out to the same I.D. It just so happens that one of the guys used his real I.D. I got video footage of him there,” he said.
Elliott worked with law-enforcement in West Virginia, where that suspect, Levi Clark was on parole for various crimes, including burglary, to identify him through his distinctive tattoos.
“He had already done a few years and got put out on parole. He wasn’t allowed to leave the state of West Virginia. As soon as I called them and said I had warrants, they snatched him up. The day I was supposed to go get him to bring him back to Delaware, they were like, ‘Nope. He’s staying here.’”
Elliott said Clark will have been in jail on West Virginia’s charges for a year in August, when he is up for a parole hearing.
“If he doesn’t get paroled, they’re going to hold him for 10 years. I don’t know if I’m ever going to get him down here.”
Elliott was also able to identify another suspect who had allegedly cashed two of the big checks — one for $10,000 and another for $8,900. Originally indicted on home-improvement fraud charges, the suspect has now also been indicted on charges of Crimes Against a Vulnerable Adult, which is a higher-class felony.
“The problem is the two guys are just the people that took the money to the bank. The man we really need is the man who sells the job, who’s a different guy,” said Elliott.
Getting that far in a scam investigation is considered an achievement, as many victims don’t report the crimes, which are difficult to investigate.
“These guys are hard to get. Usually, they move in and out and you don’t get any identification on them. What we did get out of it was really good.”
Elliott said they hope to recover some of the victims’ money; however, he said it will be difficult, given the amount.
“I think a lot of people think elderly people around here have a lot of money, but sometimes they’re on fixed incomes. Not everybody that lives here is a multi-millionaire. Sometimes some of them have been here for years and years and years, prior to when that big boom happened.”
Warming others of the dangers of scammers, Elliott said to be wary of anyone coming to the door offering services.
“Nobody comes door-to-door to sell things anymore. So, you should be suspicious if someone comes to sell you something, especially if it seems too good to be true,” he said. “If you watch any home-improvement show on DIY Network or talk to Marnie [Ousler],” he added of the local contractor who has her own TV show, “or talk to anybody — they’ll tell you you need to research your contractor before you hire them, and you don’t give them money up front.
“Usually, with a contractor, you give half the money, they finish the job and if it’s satisfactory, you pay the rest of it. If they require money up front to do the entire job, then there’s probably a problem.”
If someone tries to sell something to a home owner at a home, Elliott said not to give them money, be sure to take their name and information, and then call the police.
“If it’s too good to be true, it’s probably not true,” he said. “Scammers, in general, try to target elderly people, because they aren’t up-to-date on what’s going on and they usually have significant funds… They are also sometimes very trusting.”
While some people coming door-to-door may be legitimate, he said — offering as an example kids offering to shovel snow out of driveways for money — Elliott said people still need to be wary.
“Most of the time, it doesn’t happen, and if it does happen, check them out. Ninety percent of the time, it’s probably going to be a scammer,” he said. “They were in and out of here within a week with that kind of money. These are only the people who reported it. You got to think some of these people may not report it, too... Imagine if they had had more time.”
BBPD Valor Award pick for 2018
For his work on the investigation, Elliott was nominated for a Joshua M. Freeman Valor Award by Chief Michael Redmon. Elliott previously received the award in 2011, when he pursued and detained a suspect who was wanted for first-degree murder by Baltimore City Police.
“They had put out an intelligence report, and it was posted up on our board, and I saw it when I came into work. I saw it… It was a Mustang or something. He bobs right by past me,” recalled Elliott. “It goes from 0 to 100 in 30 seconds. It’s fast. You could be doing nothing and nobody could be out there, and then something screwy goes down.”
Elliott, an Indian River High School graduate, went into law enforcement first in 2002, working as a parking officer in Dewey Beach, but eventually made his way down to Bethany Beach.
“What brought me down to Bethany — I had a job in Dewey, but it didn’t have benefits. I grew up down here. I actually had two academy classmates working here at the time, and they told me about the job here and I jumped at it, got hired — and the rest is history.”
Bethany is a unique place to work, said Elliott, noting a “night-and-day” difference between it and his first town of employ.
“We handle a lot of complaints in the summertime. That’s the main bulk of the work,” he said, adding that he handles most of the in-depth investigations in the department “I have a lot of the criminal work. These long-term investigations are what I enjoy. I was fortunate that when I was hired here, because I had an interest in it, Chief was supportive of sending me to extra trainings and letting me do things.
“He was getting me involved in things that those first-, second-, third-year officers weren’t getting into. Usually, around here, you’re on the road, handling your complaints, doing DUIs and things like that. My first three years on, I’m doing drug-recovery investigations, sexual assaults… He had a lot of trust in me, because I took a big interest in doing that kind of work.”
Elliott, who has been working in law enforcement full-time for approximately 12 years, said he loves his job and the people for whom he works.
“I’ve grown up in a family of law-enforcement. It was something I was always around. My uncle was a captain with the state police; my dad was a police officer for 32 years, retired as a chief. I kind of fell into it… and now I’m here,” he said. “I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”