Police Report: Truckee senior loses $17K in lottery scam | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Police Report: Truckee senior loses $17K in lottery scam

TRUCKEE – An elderly woman who lives at the Truckee Senior Center fell victim last week to a telephone fraud that conned her out of nearly $17,000, authorities said. A man contacted the woman, who is in her 80s, and informed her that she won $500,000 in a lottery. She was told that in order to receive her winnings, she had to send multiple payments via moneygram to Bulgaria for customs clearance and tax purposes, according to a Truckee Police news release. “Very little can be done for cases like this,” Truckee Police Sgt. Dan Johnston said in a phone interview. “This is a booming business and a booming problem.” Police did not identify the victim of the telephone fraud. After receiving phone calls for a week from the scammer, the victim contacted local police, who discovered that the phone number was a routing number and the concept was fraud, Johnston said in the release. “This victim has no hope of ever recovering her money,” Johnston said. “When you start crossing international boundaries, the difficulty in tracing the suspect is enormous, because there is no cooperative law enforcement in certain countries.” Adult Protective Services in Truckee said they talk to elderly individuals on a regular basis about financial fraud prevention. “In this particular situation, we had no notice,” said supervisor Jeree Waller. “What we usually recommend to seniors is if they’re getting unwanted phone calls, invest in Caller ID so they don’t pick up unrecognizable numbers.” While it is common for con artists to target the elderly, the majority of victims in Truckee are not seniors, Johnston said. Another common scam is a buyer in Truckee attempting to purchase a vehicle over the Internet and being told to send money overseas in order for the vehicle to be shipped, Johnston said in the release. “The vehicle never arrives, and the victims are usually out several thousand dollars,” he said. Authorities advise Truckee residents to simply “hang up on these calls.” “If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is,” Johnston said in the report. “There is no way to get your money back … and the likelihood of prosecution is very slim to none.” — Fire investigators on Tuesday still were seeking the cause of a blaze early Sunday morning that destroyed most of the Chateau Inn & Suites in South Lake Tahoe. “Evidence is going out to labs to get tested,” said South Lake Tahoe Fire Marshal Ray Zachau. “We’re trying to find the cause and origin in this.” Zachau said that arson had not been ruled out. The fire destroyed all three levels of the main building, where the inn’s rooms were housed, according to Brad Piazzo, South Lake Tahoe Fire Department division chief. Three-quarters of the rooms were occupied at the time of the fire, which broke out around 3 a.m. at the motel at Park and Manzanita avenues. Firefighters fought the blaze for four hours before containing it. No major injuries or deaths were reported, although there were two minor injuries. – Jennie Tezak

Should green become law?

With Truckee’s development code update underway, area experts are debating whether or not green building practices should be required or remain voluntary. The development code, which sets policy into enforceable ordinances, is being updated by the town on the heals of the general plan update, which created new policy. Some new policies in the General Plan discuss green building, raising the question; should that policy be translated into law? In a public forum hosted by the Contractors Association of Truckee Tahoe and the Sierra Green Building Association on Wednesday, proponents of both mandatory green building standards and voluntary incentives for green building argued their cases. For mandatory green building “Climate change will affect Truckee especially with projections of a reduction of 75 percent in snow pack in the next 50 years,” said Bob Johnston, an emeritus professor of environmental science and policy at UC Davis, and current chair of the Truckee Planning Commission. Johnston said the general plan also supports mandatory green building by requiring development to meet community goals. “Who benefits from a strong mandate? Developers and builders get a higher selling price, tenants get lower energy costs, owners get higher rents, workers get better health, and then there are our children and grandchildren,” Johnston said. On the fiscal side of the equation, using Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, Johnston said the cost of a large project only goes up by one to two percent. Stephen Witek, president of Sustainable Environment Engineered Design, pointed out the cost of not going green in a mountain environment. Describing the Squaw Valley Fire Station, Witek said many of the systems meant to conserve energy were improperly designed, or malfunctioning, costing the station thousands of dollars a year. “They commissioned us at $20,000, but now they’ll be getting back $10,000 a year. Using green building techniques, you are going to get your money back,” Witek said. For voluntary green building Truckee’s unique environment does not allow for a one-size-fits-all standard, nor does the constantly changing field of green building lend itself to a hard-and-fast mandate, said Michael Bernard, owner and designer with MHD Studio. “What is green today may not be green tomorrow,” Bernard said. Mike Rodarte, a partner in The Rock Garden and TNT Materials, said in reality Truckee building is already green, using techniques like covered entries, insulated foundations, passive solar, and insulated windows. “We cannot expect the town to know all, we should allow businesses to know their business,” Rodarte said. Requirements for green building have often been political, rather than scientific, said Ted Owens, a contractor and current Nevada County Supervisor. “The question is, do we need to make for more regulation and spending?” Owens said. “The council will have to make more decision which means more money spent, spending the town can ill afford after the recent layoffs in the departments that would have to enforce this.” Owens said that the fast-moving industry of green building is market-driven, not caused by regulations. “Going green is big industry, it’s demanded by the market place,” Owens said.

Sleuthing the truth: Tiny Truckee Police Department has investigative capabilities of a much larger department

TRUCKEE – When the first call came into the police department last month about a woman’s body stuffed into a duffle bag, officers immediately prepared for their first homicide investigation since the department was formed in 2001. Though homicide and other deadly crimes are relatively rare in Truckee, many of the officers on the town’s police force came from cities where murder investigations occur on a daily basis – and that experience has proven invaluable in instances like the duffel bag case. “At least 50 percent of the department came from places where death investigations are much more common,” said Lt. Dan Johnston, incident commander of the Tahoe Donner body-dumping case. “If we run into a situation like we had with the bag in the parking lot, we would consider that to be a homicide right away because of the nature of the situation and what we see when we get there,” said Lt. Jeff Nichols, head of the department’s investigations unit. “So what that means is we’re going to do everything we can up front to decide or determine what happened.” Although there have not been any official homicide investigations in Truckee since the Truckee Police Department was founded, Truckee officers did assist officers from the Fremont Police Department as they used cadaver dogs to sniff around the Tahoe Donner home of former priest and convicted child molester Stephen Kiesle in 2002. In addition to the cadaver dogs, ground penetrating sonar, which is capable of identifying ground that has been disturbed in the past, was used to give a digital profile of the ground around Kiesle’s vacation home. Timeline When the responding officers arrived at the Northwoods Clubhouse parking lot and called in what they found to Johnston and Police Chief Scott Berry, eight other officers were immediately mobilized to do everything from protecting the crime scene to beginning the investigation into the woman’s death. Almost every member of the Truckee police force has some level of crime scene investigation training, Nichols said, but in a small department like Truckee’s, there are officers who specialize in different things. Detective Martin Schoenberg, for example, was immediately called to use his photography skills to document the crime scene. Other officers were sent to Reno to investigate leads once the woman’s body was identified as that of 54-year-old Cynthia Erler, a known transient last seen on Fourth Street in Reno the day before her body was found. An investigation like the one for the duffel bag case quickly stretches the department’s resources, according to Johnston, because calls need to be made to other agencies for information, to the Nevada County coroner to arrange for an autopsy, or to the Truckee Fire Department to request the use of their HazMat van as a mobile command center and more. But while big investigations such as this can put a strain on the department, one advantage the Truckee department has over one in a bigger city is the amount of time they have to investigate a case. “We generally would have more time to look at the scene, more time to do detail work … because we don’t have as much activity here as either one of us did in our previous agencies,” Nichols said, referring to his time on the Sacramento force and Lt. Johnston’s time in Fairfax. “In Sacramento, I just talked to my son who still works there, and the other night they had three of them – three homicides. So you’ve got 100 people working, but they’re all tied up and they’re just going 100 different ways,” Nichols said. A team of experts Had the investigation into Erler’s death required more technical analysis of DNA evidence or something the Truckee police couldn’t handle in house, the California Department of Justice crime lab in Sacramento would likely be called upon. According to Nichols, the crime lab employs hundreds of specialists in all fields related to crime scene investigations. The DOJ is a great resource for small departments such as Truckee’s. In addition to the California Department of Justice, the Placer and Nevada County sheriff’s offices, the Nevada County district attorney’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigations would all typically offer their assistance if needed. “We have the ability to make a phone call and pull in anything we need (for an investigation),” Johnston said. “And our imaginations are pretty big of what might be needed, and it’s unbelievable what little tiny equipment can make or break a case.” “If this had stayed as a ‘who dunnit’ homicide, we probably would have got together a core of eight or 10 investigators and started it up as a taskforce. They would have worked on it full time,” Johnston said. Wrapping up the case The Reno police have, for the most part, taken over the investigation into Erler’s death at this point. However, Truckee police are still following the case and will continue to provide any assistance they can, according to Johnston. At press time, autopsy reports had not revealed what killed Erler and officers do not know if they are still dealing with a homicide or just a case of illegal body dumping. But both Johnston and Nichols seemed happy with the way the investigation has gone and how the officers on the Truckee police force responded to the incident. “Everything you do on a major case like this has to be done for court,” Johnston said. “And it has to be done perfectly, or as perfectly as possible because they’ll take you on over every little thing they think they can.”

Pilot suspected of growing pot

TRUCKEE — A commercial airline pilot and Tahoe Donner resident is a suspect in a marijuana-cultivation operation, according to police. Aaron White, a pilot for SkyWest Airlines, agreed to turn himself in to local authorities when he returns to the area next week, according to Truckee police reports. “We’ve also contacted his employer and I’m sure they are taking the situation very seriously,” said Cmdr. Scott Berry of the Truckee Police Department. Police said they discovered the small hydroponic growing operation in a newly built garage on Norse Avenue on Monday. White and Christopher Peterson, 31, who was arrested on suspicion of felony marijuana cultivation Monday, had been renting the home for three weeks. Peterson posted $7,500 bail Tuesday. According to SkyWest spokesman Philip Gee no formal action has been taken, but the airline said White is not currently working. “As no charges have been filed, anything we could say at this point would be purely speculation,” Gee said. “We have a strict zero-tolerance policy.” According to the SkyWest Web site, pilots must pass a pre-employment drug test prior to hiring. Eight, 3-foot-tall plants were first discovered by the property owner and a town building inspector, who were conducting a final inspection of the garage. “We arrived at the house to find that the garage had been locked so we couldn’t get in,” said the homeowner, who wished to remain anonymous. “Luckily, my husband has a work shed in the back with a separate entrance that we were able to get in through.” Once inside, they discovered that a part of the garage had been converted into a marijuana cultivation operation and that’s when they called the police, said Sgt. Dan Johnston of the Truckee Police Department. “It was a low-level grow, but still fairly elaborate with CO2 dispensers and grow lights,” Johnston said. “It was also a hydroponic grow, using water instead of dirt.” He said a later search warrant revealed eight or nine additional starter plants inside the residence. “From the evidence recovered, it appears that the operation was for personal use only and not intended for sale,” Johnston said.

Search scaled back for body of drowned teen at Donner Lake

TRUCKEE – Police here have scaled back their search for the body of the 15-year-old Sacramento teen who drowned in Donner Lake last Saturday. Authorities have used divers, helicopters, sonar equipment and underwater cameras to search for the body of Mohit Prasad. Prasad reportedly jumped off of a pontoon boat that his family had rented at the lake, attempting to recover his hat which had fallen into the water. He was unable to swim back to the boat, and his 23-year-old cousin was unable to rescue him. He drowned in the early afternoon on Saturday, according to police. The search for the body, which authorities say is nearly 180 feet below the surface, now relies on an underwater camera donated by a professor from the University of Nevada, Reno. A specialized sonar boat from Yuba County has returned home because of other search commitments. The camera operators have investigated five objects that the sonar boat showed may have been the body of Prasad. Law enforcement found a plastic Christmas tree, several buckets filled with concrete and a sunken buoy, but no body, said Truckee police Lt. Dan Johnston. Police plan to use the camera several more times next week to look for the body. But the camera, which has a range of view of only about 2 feet, is meant to work in conjunction with sonar, not on its own. “Trying to search hundreds of acres with a 2-foot field of view is possible, but it will take weeks,” Johnston said. The search is further hampered by the fact that the camera boat can only operate in the stillness of night. “The specific camera can only be operated at night because you cannot have any waves,” Johnston said. Officials have regularly used the camera until 3 a.m. in the four days of searching. If, after several more camera dives scheduled for next week, the body does not turn up, police will likely end the search. “It’s a hard thing to tell the family that we will have to stop (searching),” said Johnston, who met with Prasad’s family on Wednesday. The depth of the lake bottom, and the temperature of the water make it impossible to dive for the body without specialized equipment, Johnston said. These factors make it unlikely that the body will ever come to the surface on its own, he said. The Truckee Police Department will not bear the full costs for the regional law enforcement that responded to Donner Lake for the search. Truckee police will cover lodging, food and fuel expenses for the effort, but the other costs, like salaries, will be reimbursed by the state under the California Office of Emergency Services department, said Johnston.

Body found is likely that of teen drowning victim

TRUCKEE – Officials believe they have located the body of Justin Garrick, who is believed to have drowned in a boating accident at Boca Reservoir on June 26. Meanwhile, authorities continued searching Donner Lake on Monday for the body of a 15-year-old Sacramento boy who is presumed dead. Just before noon on Monday, a boater found a body floating in the reservoir and called the sheriff’s department. While the identity of the body has not been determined, the physical description and clothing match 17-year-old Garrick, according to the Nevada County Sheriff’s Department. The boaters put a flotation device on the body to keep it afloat until the Truckee Fire Department arrived at the reservoir with a boat and recovered the body. Nevada County sheriff’s deputies arrived later and took over the recovery operation. The body showed signs of an impact, according to the sheriff’s department, which may affirm eyewitness reports that Garrick was struck by the side of the wakeboard boat before drowning. The county coroner will determine the identity and cause of death. Garrick’s family, who had assembled their own search efforts since he disappeared, was at the scene. Tambara Garrick, Justin’s cousin, said his body was found near a buoy that marked the area where he had disappeared. Although the discovery of the body was tough on the family, they are glad to have a sense of closure in the accident, said Tambara Garrick. Justin Garrick had just finished wakeboarding with a group of his friends on June 26, and was seated at the front of the boat when the craft took a hard left turn and hit a wake at the same time. Garrick, who had lent the life jacket to the teenager wakeboarding behind the boat, was thrown from the boat and never seen alive again. In the Donner Lake incident, the teen jumped off a pontoon boat at about 1:30 p.m. on Saturday to recover his hat, which had fallen into the lake, said Truckee police Lt. Dan Johnston. The teen, whose name has not been released by police, got into trouble as he began swimming back to the boat, Johnston said. The boy’s 23-year-old cousin attempted a rescue but was unsuccessful. Police believe the boy’s body now rests nearly 180 feet deep in the lake. Divers are not able to drop that deep without specialized equipment, Johnston said. “It’s too deep,” he said. “It’s pitch black down there.” One diver, who rose too quickly from deep waters, began bleeding from his face because of the quick decompression, he said. Searchers are now relying heavily on a Yuba County boat, with sophisticated sonar equipment, that is slowly scanning the bottom of the lake. A professor from the University of Nevada, Reno, has donated a remote-controlled camera that can send up video of the lake bottom, said Johnston.

Tough first murder case for Truckee

TRUCKEE – A woman found dead inside a bloody duffel bag left at a Tahoe Donner parking lot Monday night was killed at a different location and dropped at the parking lot, police believe. In their first homicide investigation as a department, Truckee police are using their entire force to turn up clues on the grisly death. A group of four golfers returning from a Reno golf game reported the body in the parking lot of the Northwoods clubhouse at 3:40 p.m. Monday, police said. “One of the gentlemen noticed a duffel bag placed next to his vehicle,” said Truckee police Lt. Dan Johnston. “He felt the duffel bag and it did not feel normal to him, so he called police.” Police opened the bag and discovered a dead woman. The woman was clothed and did not appear to be dismembered, Johnston said. No one is reported missing within Truckee town limits, police said. Police are awaiting autopsy reports from the Placer County coroner in Auburn to determine the victim’s identity, age and cause of death. Although police opened the bag, all they were able to determine was that the victim was an adult woman. “This is going to be a very slow, painstaking process to take the bag apart with the body inside, and you have to do it layer by layer,” Johnston said. “And frankly her face is not readily visible.” Clues at the scene have police convinced the victim was not killed in the parking lot, but taken there in a duffel bag with straps and left on the pavement during the day on Monday. Police believe the person who dropped the body there did it during the day in a busy parking lot, and investigators are trying to locate eyewitnesses to the act. “This person inside this bag was placed there in broad daylight undoubtedly in front of someone,” said Johnston. “It is my belief that somebody had to see somebody carrying a duffel bag and putting it down beside a truck.” Although they are pursuing this as a murder case, police said residents in the area had little to be afraid of. “We have an interstate here that travels … between two metropolitan areas,” Johnston said. “Frankly, we get thousands of cars a day that come through on the freeway. We are not immune to this. However, it appears clear that this did not happen directly in that parking lot and I see no reason for the public to be concerned in the area.” But Tahoe Donner residents are still shaken by Monday night’s events, said Darren Shaw, general manager of the Tahoe Donner Homeowners Association. “Everyone is obviously concerned and disturbed that this sort of thing happened – and happened so close to home,” Shaw said. Police are looking at surveillance tapes from around town, following up missing persons reports from out of the area, and passing out fliers that may lead them to witnesses. Working with the state Department of Justice and other local agencies, the police have gotten 15 to 20 missing person reports from the Bay Area and outside of California, said Johnston. The fliers have also turned up some tips, he said. “Is it a mystery? Absolutely at this point, but that is why we work at it to solve it,” Johnston said. Anyone with information should call the Truckee Police Department at (530) 550-2323.

Truckee police sergeant heads to Middle East

TRUCKEE — Sgt. Dan Johnston was packing up for a vacation in Cabo San Lucas on July 10 when he received his orders for deployment to the Middle East. He reported to his 1-19th Special Forces unit Thursday. Just a few months ago, Johnston, 43, signed up for the Army Reserves for the second time. This week he flew to Utah, reporting to his unit, which was recently ordered into one year of active duty by President Bush. The orders came much sooner than Johnston and the Truckee Police Department had expected. “Everybody’s in shock a little bit, but they’ve been very supportive and helpful,” Johnston said. “It’s sad to leave. This is a very well-run town and a well-run police department.” Johnston expects he will be in either Iraq or Afghanistan. “There’s a lot of rumor and speculation about where we’re going to be,” Johnston said. “But (the military) doesn’t get into that.” However, even with the death toll in post-war Iraq rising on almost a daily basis, Johnston said he has no apprehension about his deployment. “That’s the hazard of the job. I’m going to take it one day at a time,” said Johnston, also a reservist for 10 years until the early ’90s. “You never quite know what the military is going to do with you.” As a corporal in Special Forces, Johnston and the 200 or so soldiers in his unit will most likely be assisting units in the Middle East. Although Johnston is fairly optimistic, his co-workers in the police department haven’t taken the news of his deployment so well. “It was so quick. Less than two weeks before, and we find out that he’ll be leaving,” said Cmdr. Scott Berry, Johnston’s immediate supervisor. “We’re very proud of him — proud of what he’s doing. He’ll be greatly missed.” Johnston, who was the head of the department’s detective unit, has contributed a lot to the department’s community policing philosophy, said Chief Dan Boon. Boon said he has mixed emotions about Johnston going to the Middle East. “I have great concern about him getting into this situation … but I also appreciate his patriotic duty,” said Boon, who served in the Vietnam War. Boon said he has been giving Johnston words of “encouragement, inspiration and caution.” “(Johnston) is going into an area where there’s a lack of communication, where English is not a common language. He might be relying on individuals from other countries to translate — individuals he may or may not be able to rely on,” Boon said. However, based on Johnston’s performance with the department, Boon said he expects his sergeant will be successful. “Under the conditions they’ll be in, I think they’ll have one helluva soldier working with them,” he said. Over the last couple of days, Johnston has been preparing for his deployment — training his replacement, Sgt. Jeff Nichols, and trying to get all of his belongings in storage. He said he’ll miss his girlfriend. “She’s a little torn up about this,” he said. And he’ll miss the department, especially the citizens’ academy, but he’s also looking forward to going overseas. “There’s always a sense of excitement to do something new and different in a new location where you haven’t been,” Johnston said. “I’m not hesitant to do this at all, other than some personal matters.”

Dead woman identified as Reno transient

TRUCKEE – Police here are puzzled by the death of a 54-year-old transient woman from Reno who was found wrapped in a blanket and rope and crammed into a duffel back left in a parking lot Monday. An autopsy on the victim has provided little new information on how she died. Police investigators said they used fingerprints to identify Cynthia Dee Erler. She also used a number of other last names during the past 15 years she apparently lived on the streets of Reno, including Farr, Farrar, Faustion and Keck. “There are no obvious signs of trauma to the body,” said Truckee police Lt. Dan Johnston. “There are no obvious signs of death.” Reno police said Erler was arrested numerous times over the years in Reno, the most recent in November on a charge of public intoxication. The St. Vincent’s Food Pantry in Reno has records of her picking up food once a month for the past seven months. The woman lived on the streets of Reno and in low-budget hotels in the city for at least the last 15 years. She had no ties to the Truckee area, Johnston said. Toxicology reports, which could take weeks to finalize, will determine if drugs or poison were involved in her death. The woman had a medical history that police would not divulge. Truckee police are in Reno questioning her friends. Her relatives, who live in Central California, are being tracked down so they can be notified of the death. “Our plans are to attempt to locate where she might have died, how she might have died, and who was involved with … placing her body into a fairly small bag and bringing her up into this area,” said Johnston. Police said the woman’s body was not treated well after she died. Although small, approximately 5 feet, 4 inches tall and just over 100 pounds, the woman’s body had to be manipulated to fit inside the duffel bag. “The bag is smaller than she would be standing up and she was placed in that bag,” said Johnston. Truckee officials, who initially believed the death was a murder, are now uncertain of the cause of death after the autopsy reports came out. “We know that she died. We don’t have any indications that it was as a result of a homicide at this time,” said Johnston. “It very easily could have been. It is not natural to put somebody in a bag like that.” No eyewitnesses have come forward, but the police are busy following up on about 250 tips that have come in. The Northwoods Clubhouse, where the body was discovered by four golfers returning from a Reno golf game, appears to be a “random location” for the body to be dumped, police said – The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Teen’s body recovered from Donner Lake

TRUCKEE – Searchers recovered the body of 15-year-old Mohit Melvin Prasad from Donner Lake on Tuesday, ending a deep water search that spanned a week and a half. “It’s a great relief to find him,” said Truckee police Lt. Dan Johnston. “It allows the family to put him to rest.” Prasad drowned in the lake July 16 after jumping from a rented pontoon boat to recover his hat from the water. A Yuba County sonar boat first picked up a reading of the body just after midnight at a location slightly west of where the search had been concentrated. A second, more detailed sonar reading from a Tuolumne County boat confirmed that the object was the body of Prasad. Officials then lowered a remotely operated vehicle, which was able to grab the body and bring it to the surface. The body, which was brought up around 3:50 a.m., was under approximately 130 feet of water, Johnston said. Prasad’s family was on the shore of Donner Lake during the operation. Police determined it was the body of Prasad through a physical description and matching clothing and jewelry. The successful recovery capped a 13-hour day of searching. Monday was the first day the agencies had searched since efforts were scaled back last Wednesday. For Truckee police, who had been in contact with more than 60 members of Prasad’s family during the ordeal, the successful end to the tragic drowning was welcome. “It’s an emotional experience for everyone involved,” Johnston said. Prasad’s body was turned over to the Nevada County Sheriff’s office. The county coroner will likely perform an autopsy before the body is returned to the family for burial. Johnston said the search agencies, which included personnel from six different counties, as well as the Donner Lake homeowners who allowed the searchers to operate from their private beach, were an integral part of the success of the search efforts. “It’s our great honor to get him back to (his family),” Johnston said. “It is a good ending to a sad story.”