As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt life throughout the United States, communities are banding together to assist doctors, nurses and first responders with the essentials: food and housing.
From New York City to Washington state, and across states and cities in between, people have donated thousands of meals to health care workers through various organizations, while others have provided temporary housing to doctors and nurses who are on the front lines of the pandemic.
“It’s really empowering just to see how people want to be a part of this,” Michael MacKelvie, one of the organizers of the group Feed the Fearless, told NBC News by phone.
MacKelvie, a financial planner in Wilsonville, Ore., has been working with Feed the Fearless to purchase food from independently owned restaurants to donate to hospital workers in Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. The group has raised more than $20,000 to purchase meals.
Joel Wishkovsky, an organizer with Frontline Foods, said his donation-based group started out about three weeks ago and has since expanded to 25 chapters and about 400 volunteers nationwide as of Thursday. They have also partnered with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit group founded by celebrity chef Jose Andres.
In Massachusetts, Tracy Chang, the head chef at Pagu in Cambridge, is working with the nonprofit organization Off Their Plate to bring free meals to hospital workers.
The organization has raised over $1 million and is currently in nine states, with a presence in Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Off Their Plate involves a network of chefs, hospital workers and volunteers. Each chef pledges to donate a certain number of meals a week to a specific hospital or medical center and the fundraisers work to raise the money for them to employ the staff necessary to cook and distribute those meals.
All of these groups operate on a straightforward premise: They’re trying to give back to health care workers while providing business to restaurants who may be suffering economically from a lack of business due to the spread of coronavirus.
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“Nationally we’re talking about putting more than $1 million into restaurants’ pockets,” Wishkovsky said, noting that in certain markets like New York and Los Angeles, Frontline Foods is injecting $50,000 to $200,000 into local restaurants.
Chang told NBC News’ Social Newsgathering team she was happy to partner with Off Their Plate because she wanted “to feed health care front-line workers but also feed my employees who have been family to me.”
In New York City, the epicenter of the United States’ coronavirus outbreak, Cole Riley noticed that there was an opportunity to help provide hospital workers with food and beverages to keep them refueled while working grudgingly long shifts.
He started the organization #FoundersGive, which has partnered with companies such as Kind, Chobani and Sabra to donate snacks and beverages to city-area hospitals.
“The products are meant for front-line workers who don’t have any products or snacks,” Riley told NBC News.
One of the hospitals he has teamed up with is Lenox Hill in Manhattan. Joe Leggio, the hospital’s associate executive director, said it has been “overwhelmed with the amount of kindness and generosity” the food and beverage companies have shown.
He said the hospital staff “are ecstatic, they so appreciate it. It’s the small things that go such a long way.”
Other organizations are working to provide health care workers with temporary housing if they choose to make the difficult decision to self-isolate from their families.
Emily Phillips, the wife of an emergency room doctor in Dallas, posted on Facebook that she was looking for an RV to rent where her husband, Jason, could stay.
Phillips said she was worried about the health of her family, which includes a 6-month-old, a 5-year-old, and an 8-year-old who, like Phillips, suffers from asthma.
She was connected through a mutual friend to Holly Haggard, who had an RV she was willing to provide, and from there they decided to start RVs 4 MDs, which would help pair medical workers with RV owners who were willing to loan their vehicles to health care employees to live in while treating COVID-19 patients.
Megan Willig, a hospice nurse in Wooster, Ohio, was matched with Jeff and Sue Winterhalther-Decker through the group’s Facebook page. Willig said she made the difficult decision to self-isolate from her family because her son had previously been hospitalized with pneumonia and she did not want to risk bringing the virus home to him.
“I feel really blessed. I’ve been losing sleep over this whole thing, and I felt like it was my answered prayer,” Willig said.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday that the state would be providing health care workers in the state with vouchers and stipends for no- or low-cost hotel rooms.
Other hotel chains, such as the Four Seasons in New York, have been providing free rooms to health care workers.
Some major companies are also pitching in to help give back to health care workers. Delta Airlines announced that it will donate more than 200,000 pounds of food to hospitals, food banks and other organizations across the globe. Meanwhile, Airbnb is allowing hosts to open their space to first responders who need a place close to their hospitals. The company said they would waive fees for the first 100,000 bookings made through the program.
“The thing that really stands out more than anything is just how a random act of kindness …how empowering that is,” said MacKelvie of Feed the Fearless. “It’s just one of the most powerful things that you can receive, but also give. It’s unfortunate, but times like this remind us of that.”
One French family’s plans for an iconic American road trip took a detour — and has gained new meaning — due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A stranger they met in Florida at the beginning of their planned six-month journey across the United States in a camper gave Berenice, 37, and Christophe Trebuchon, 39, and their children, Eva, 10, and Matheo, 8, a lifeline when they became stranded in the Southwest.
The family had shipped their van, which they named “Sunshine,” from France to the United States. Back in France, Berenice works as a preschool teacher and Christophe is an egg farmer, but they began planning their trip over two years ago to get work, school and money in order.
The family — from Mas-de-Londres, a little town near Montpellier in the south of France — befriended Tom Duval of New Hampshire while kayaking in Florida in late February.
They got to talking in a mix of English and French, and as Duval learned of the family’s intended travel plans, he mentioned he used to live in New Mexico and told them to reach out if they needed anything while there, a regular gesture not usually met with immediate action. The Trebuchons stayed in Florida until March 7 and then continued their journey, arriving in New Mexico on March 18.
Days after his return home to the town of Bow, Duval, 60, got a text from the Trebuchons: they were stuck in New Mexico as everything, including the national parks, were shutting down.
“I told them sit tight, I’ll find you a place,” Duval recalled, telling NBC News he sent a message to friends who still lived in the “Land of Enchantment.” Within minutes, he said, Amy and Greg Lewis of Seton Village, just outside Santa Fe, got back to him.
“These guys just stepped up,” Duval said of the Lewises, who he befriended years earlier when they attended graduate school together at New Mexico Tech. “A crazy thing that really turned out to be a good thing in the craziness of it all.”
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The Trebuchons have been living in their camper parked at the front of the Lewises’ home for nearly three weeks.
“We were just happy to be able to have Berenice and Christophe and Eva and Matheo join us,” Greg, 63, said in a video interview. “It worked out well that we could offer them a place at least to park their RV for the interim.”
“I think we both felt really compassionate because we’ve traveled a lot and people in other countries are so kind and generous to us,” added Amy, 59. “And it’s a treat actually to have them.”
The two families are careful while spending time together, wearing masks and staying well-spaced apart, to make the most of their newfound situation.
“They opened their garden and their house and are very generous,” Berenice told NBC News over video interview, “and it will be OK for us to wait. We can just wait for how the situation can be.”
The Lewises, both hydrologists — Amy runs her own hydrologic consulting business, while Greg is retired from state government but continues to do consulting work — have tried to come up with fun activities for their new friends, including borrowing and fixing up a neighbor’s bike so Matheo can ride it.
Neighbors have helped the family in other ways, too.
“We have beautiful masks,” Berenice said as she and her family showed off their COVID-19 protection, including a floral pink one for Eva and a turtle one for Matheo. “The neighbors made the masks.”
To overcome language barriers, the families have turned to technology for assistance.
“We’ve used Google Translate to type in a message and then translate it and then copy it into WhatsApp for more complicated things,” Amy explained.
“With WhatsApp, it’s funny because I write in English and Amy, she writes in French!” Berenice added.
Asked if there’s a plan regarding the Trebuchons staying with them, Greg said they are welcome for as long as they want to stay.
“We’re certainly happy to have them,” Greg said over video chat. “That’s what we’ve made clear — they’re welcome to stay as long as they want or need … They’re very independent, they have their campervan that is self contained and we’re providing almost nothing really, some water and laundry and very kind of basic things.”
More than 10,000 people in France have died due to the coronavirus, compared to more than 14,000 in the United States. Like the U.S., France has also used social distancing and lockdowns to curb the virus’ spread.
“We want to stay here until (the) end of April and then we will see of the situation, if it possible to travel or if we need to come back to France,” Berenice said, adding that they have a travel visa until August. “We don’t know because in France, it is also complicated … we hope we can stay in United States because we would like to stay … I hope in summer it will be OK.”
Amid the chaos and the uncertainty, a beautiful new connection has formed.
“I don’t have the words to say thank you,” Berenice said.
This story was produced by FairWarning, a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues.
Deborah Murray was the new economic development director of Caldwell County, North Carolina, when Robert Leslie Stencil came calling in early 2012.
The county, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was hurting: Unemployment was mired in the double digits. Some 10,000 jobs had evaporated in the previous decade, and 6 million square feet of buildings sat vacant — most of them furniture factories, closed by the mass migration of manufacturing jobs overseas, she said.
“We were at our most vulnerable time as a community back then,” Murray said.
Then along came Stencil, a Charlotte man peddling hope with a 21st century pitch to open an auto manufacturing plant for electric cars and plans to convert regular vehicles to run on compressed natural gas. Murray said Stencil, the founder of Niyato Industries, told her he needed a building for his enterprise that could create 200 to 300 “highly skilled” jobs.
“We wanted to diversify our economy, and here comes this fellow talking about very exciting battery-operated cars,” said Murray, a former newspaper publisher.
“I wanted to be the one to land the great big fish.”
What could go wrong?
Everything, according to federal prosecutors, who eventually exposed Niyato Industries as a $2.7 million investment scam built on the hype, hope and promise of the green energy industry. In January, following a three-week trial, Stencil and an associate were sentenced to a combined 17 years in federal prison for their roles in bilking investors, many of them elderly.
Caldwell County escaped without losing a dollar – just wasted time and dashed hopes, Murray said. But thousands of investors in similar schemes haven’t been so lucky.
While the U.S. Department of Energy declares America to be in the midst of a clean energy revolution — one that is generating “hundreds of billions in economic activity” — fraudsters, too, are cashing in.
“It’s very evident that green energy scams are truly evergreen,” said Gerri Walsh, senior vice president of investor education at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. The not-for-profit organization, supervised by the Securities and Exchange Commission, is authorized by Congress to oversee registered brokers and broker-dealer firms nationwide, helping to protect investors from fraud.
In December, the authority published an article aimed at investors wanting to “put money where their values are,” such as environmental or socially responsible arenas. Among other things, the agency warned to “be on the lookout for ‘green’ scams” and noted that investors should be especially wary of pitches that dangle the prospect of large gains involving small, thinly traded penny stocks.
Niyato Industries, for instance, had promised that its 50-cent-per-share stock would yield 10- to 16-fold returns when the company went public.
“I kicked myself all over the place for being so stupid,” said Ernie Friesen, 79, of Yuba City, California, who lost $300,000 to Niyato and a related green scheme. “Honestly, I think I got greedy. … I learned my lesson.”
Walsh and other fraud experts said it is hard to quantify the prevalence of green scams. They do not appear on top 10 scam lists, which feature more familiar money grabs such as “Nigerian prince” emails, get-rich seminars or Social Security and IRS impostors.
But a review of federal indictments, along with media accounts, reveals the breadth of schemes that recently have seized on alternative, renewable or waste energy products:
In a federal courtroom in Alabama, a father and son were found guilty last year for their roles in a $10 million scheme involving a company that supposedly could convert garbage into ethanol. Donald Watkins Sr. of Atlanta and Donald Watkins Jr. of Birmingham, whose victims included former NBA star Charles Barkley and other sports figures, were accused of using victims’ money to pay for such things as alimony, back taxes, a private jet and clothing. On the elder Watkins’ website, an August 2019 post states that he has reported to federal prison “where he will be held until the appeals process rightfully overturns this sentence.”
The executive of a Florida video surveillance and security company was charged last year in a multimillion-dollar stock and “carbon credit” scheme, which allegedly targeted victims in the United Kingdom, many of them elderly. The indictment, in the Southern District of New York, accused Roger Ralston of using telemarketers to sell carbon credits, or permits granting the right to emit certain amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The government contends the victims were falsely promised that their environmentally friendly investments were risk-free, could be easily sold and would yield a “significant, short-term return” — but were, in fact, fake. Ralston’s attorney said his client declined to comment.
A Southern California man was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in federal prison in 2018 for multiple investment scams, two with audacious environmental claims. Peter Heinrich Conrad Reinert touted, among other things, a product to increase gas mileage for any car up to 150 miles per gallon, federal prosecutors said. In another ploy, he told investors his company was developing technology to convert used tires to oil. Reinert, who falsely claimed to be a Secret Service agent and Marines intelligence officer, took in more than $7 million — much of which went to luxury cars, purchases at Apple’s iTunes store and wire transfers to an account in Poland, prosecutors said. Reinert’s attorney had no comment.
“Fraudsters can turn on a dime when it comes to changing their pitches,” Walsh, of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, said. “Whatever the hot new industry … they’re able to shift their focus to pitch frauds that capitalize on those themes.”
A $1 billion scheme
Individual investors have not been the only targets of green energy scams.
Last year, federal prosecutors in Northern California announced a $1 billion solar energy fraud scheme that ripped off the U.S. Treasury and big institutional investors through the manipulation of federal tax credits, along with bogus equipment sales and rentals. Instead of retirees, the front-line victims of this scheme — besides the IRS — included the paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams, the insurance giant Progressive Corp. and Warren Buffet’s conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
“The government was absolutely harmed by this,” McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, said. “The government was out a billion dollars in tax revenue.”
Described as the biggest criminal fraud case in the history of the Eastern District of California, based in Sacramento, the investigation into DC Solar revealed a complex plot from 2011 to 2018 involving mobile solar generators, false financial statements and phony lease agreements. For the “vast majority” of investors, the big attraction was the federal tax breaks they would receive for investing in renewable energy, said Assistant U.S. Attorney André Espinosa.
In January, the company’s husband-and-wife owners, Jeff and Paulette Carpoff, pleaded guilty to the scheme, in which investors agreed to buy generators manufactured by DC Solar, which had touted their versatility and environmental sustainability. The units were mounted on trailers and could be moved around to provide emergency power to cellphone towers and lighting at sporting events. Investors agreed to have the company lease their solar units to third parties to give them a revenue stream, on top of their tax breaks.
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Except at least half of the 17,000 mobile solar generators didn’t exist, and many were never deployed to the places described in the so-called lease contracts. Investors were given fraudulent reports supposedly tracking their generators and who was leasing them, Espinosa said.
“The false periodic reports helped lull the investors into believing, ‘OK, everything’s on the up and up,’” he said.
William Portanova, a Sacramento attorney representing Paulette Carpoff, said the company began legitimately, but over time, “corners were cut, then concealed, then lied about to investors.”
“As with most investment fraud cases, everyone had a good time until the music suddenly stopped and there were not enough chairs,” Portanova said in an email. “Paulette deeply regrets her involvement and has done everything in her power to make amends. … She does not ask for sympathy.”
The break in the case came by way of a whistleblower in July 2018, Espinosa said. The investigation revealed the astonishing proceeds from the scheme headed by the couple from Martinez, a city near San Francisco. According to the government, the Carpoffs used victims’ money to pay for a minor-league baseball team, a NASCAR race car sponsorship, luxury real estate around the world, a subscription private jet service and a collection of some 150 antique and exotic vehicles.
The Carpoffs are scheduled to be sentenced in May; four others also have pleaded guilty. And, several companies have initiated paybacks to the IRS, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Khasigian.
Malcolm Segal, a Sacramento attorney representing Jeff Carpoff, said his client had “a tremendous product,” and investors “flocked to the table” because of the tax advantages. Ultimately, though, DC Solar couldn’t keep up with investor demand for generators or find enough customers to sublease the units — and the troubles began, he said.
Carpoff forfeited his many properties and cars because “what he wants is for all that money to go to the investors,” Segal said. “His desire is to see them made whole, if that is possible.”
Scott, the U.S. attorney, said that $500 million has been returned to the U.S. Treasury and $120 million has been collected so far in forfeited assets.
The anatomy of a green energy scam
John Smirnow, general counsel for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said that other than the high-profile DC Solar case, the trade group is “not seeing much investor fraud at all” within the solar industry.
“We don’t see any unique attributes of solar that would lead to investment fraud,” said Smirnow, who oversees the group’s consumer protection program.
Solar is increasingly recognized as “a mainstream energy choice,” he said. Trade group data show that the number of installed residential systems increased more than 13-fold from 2010 through 2018.
“Investor fraud doesn’t really seem to necessarily target specific industries,” Smirnow said.
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, however, saw the need in 2009 to issue a green energy scam alert, warning investors to beware. It was the early days of the Obama administration, which had vowed to create a “new energy economy” and made it a cornerstone of the stimulus package that year. In its alert, the authority cited solar and wind-power companies that made aggressive, dubious claims.
A decade later, the authority executive Walsh said there’s no reason to believe the threat is over.
“The change of administrations, the passage of time, has not changed the reality that there are still people seeking to capitalize on green energy,” she said.
According to the regulatory authority, green investment frauds typically follow one of two paths: the classic Ponzi scheme, or a so-called pump-and-dump stock fraud.
In a Ponzi scheme, such as the Carpoff solar generator case, the scammer promises high rates of return with little risk, then uses funds from new investors to pay supposed returns to early investors. A pump-and-dump ploy involves fraudsters who inflate their stock prices through overly optimistic or false or misleading statements, then sell off their own shares while leaving investors with worthless stock.
Among other things, the authority urges prospective investors to be wary of grandiose claims that this is “the next big thing,” guarantees of big returns, unsolicited communications from salespeople, and press releases or other statements whipping up unwarranted demand for stock.
‘I thought I knew better’
James G. Bohn, a Massachusetts-based economist who has studied green energy fraud, said that emotions can motivate investors, who have “a desire to do good.” Others are lured strictly by visions of exorbitant returns, he said.
Both factors came into play in the Niyato Industries case, a scheme from 2012 to 2016 in which Stencil and at least nine others conspired to bilk some 140 investors out of more than $2.7 million, according to federal prosecutors.
The pitch was enticing: Invest in Niyato Industries, a so-called leader in alternative fuel technology, government documents show. According to its executives, the company that was incorporated in Nevada had “state of the art facilities,” patented technology and lucrative contracts lined up for its electric car manufacturing business — a pitch that later morphed into a supposed business to convert gasoline vehicles to run on compressed natural gas.
“People hear about green cars, electric cars or CNG-run vehicles, and they say: ‘That sounds like a good idea. That’s something we should do. I like it,’” said a Justice Department official who worked on the case, asking not to be named because he is not authorized to speak on the record.
“Having a good idea is really critical to these schemes, because it’s what gets people to think that they should part with their money.”
Stencil and his associate, Michael Allen Duke of Richardson, Texas, were sentenced in January; five others have pleaded guilty, while another defendant from Beverly Hills, California, remains at large.
Federal defenders for Stencil did not return phone calls for comment. Stencil recently filed a notice of appeal and asked for an appointed lawyer because he is “indigent.” Duke also is appealing.
The investors, many of them over 55, were told Niyato was on the verge of an initial public offering of its stock. They were urged to hurry up and get in on the ground floor for just 50 cents a share of the limited stock supply, then watch its value soar to at least $5 a share after the IPO, according to the 2017 indictment in North Carolina.
“The promise that there’s going to be a high rate of return paid out in a short period of time – that is the hallmark red flag,” the Justice Department official said. “Legitimate companies who are going public through a legitimate process — they do not make those types of representations.”
Niyato salespeople targeted elderly victims because they believed they were more likely to forge a “special relationship” with them that could develop almost into a friendship, the Justice Department official said.
Ernie Friesen, who will turn 80 in April, said he sank $50,000 into Niyato and $250,000 into another green investment that the government described as a scam with some of the same players. A former food company executive, Friesen left that industry 35 years ago to open an RV dealership in Yuba City, a community of about 67,000 north of Sacramento. He still works every day at the family business, alongside his son and daughter; his wife of 59 years, Irene, has retired.
As owner of All Seasons RV Center, Friesen said he believed his Niyato investment would enable him to open a filling station for customers who bought the company’s so-called modified vehicles.
“The pitch to me was how successful the company was in signing up government agencies and counties, and that the stock was going to go ballistic,” he said.
Friesen said the scam “took away a lot of our available cash.” Irene Friesen, 79, said she began to grow wary of the aggressive pitchman who continuously called the home number.
And then the calls stopped. Today, the Friesens’ money is gone, and the couple is left with a manila file folder full of stock certificates.
“I don’t blame anybody but myself, because I know better,” he said. “My wife was opposed to it, and we generally don’t do anything that we’re not in complete harmony on. In this case, I thought I knew better.”
In the end, there was no Niyato IPO. There were no electric cars, no lucrative contracts, no patented technology, no facilities — and no ability to manufacture vehicles at all. The company’s stock was worthless. Stencil had paid “a guy in Austin” to convert his truck to compressed natural gas, then he wrapped it in the Niyato logo, the Justice Department official said.
Caldwell County rebounds
As for “plant” locations, Caldwell County was not the only target. According to the Justice Department official, Niyato representatives also paid visits to cities in California and Nevada, similarly talking up a proposed manufacturing plant and seeking an incentive package. The company then issued press releases to stoke investors.
In these kinds of cases, it’s unlikely that victims will recover much, if any, of their money, the Justice Department official said.
Back in North Carolina, officials grew wary of Niyato in 2012 and backed away, said Deborah Murray, who is still executive director of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission. She is pleased to report that the county’s fortunes have greatly improved since Robert Leslie Stencil and his team blew through — unemployment is way down, the economy is diversified and the furniture industry has made something of a comeback.
“When you’re new in your job, you want to have a win. And this sounded like a tremendous win,” Murray said.
Derek Weidner moved from Houston, Texas to Santa Rosa earlier in the summer to work for a private company as a lineman restoring power lines that had been destroyed in the horrific wildfires that ravaged California last year.
The 25-year-old was just settling in to his new home at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds RV Park on Ashton Avenue, where many of the other linemen lived.
Judy Weidner, Derek’s mother who lives in Arizona, told Dateline she spoke with her son on the phone around 8:30 p.m. on Friday, July 19, 2019.
“We talked about my nephew’s upcoming wedding. Derek was supposed to be a groomsman, so we were just talking about flight arrangements and such,” Judy said. “He sounded fine. Happy. We said love you to each other and that was that.”
That was the last time Judy spoke to her son. The next day, he was gone.
Derek’s friends, who also live in the RV park, were the last ones to see him. They told authorities with the Santa Rosa Police Department they all hung out with him until about 10 p.m. that night. But the next morning, Derek was gone. And so was his truck.
“His friend, who was living in the trailer beside Derek called me the next day. On Saturday,” Judy told Dateline. “He asked if I knew where Derek was because he didn’t show up for work. At first, I wasn’t too worried. I thought maybe he just took off for the weekend. Or, also, he’s notorious for breaking his phone, or forgetting to charge his phone, you know, maybe that’s why no one could reach him.”
On Sunday, the California Highway Patrol made an unsettling discovery.
Derek’s GMC Denali pickup truck, Illinois license plate #1242790B, was found parked alongside South Highway 101 at Milepost 6.70, in Hopland, California. Hopland is about 50 miles from the RV park.
“It was parked at an odd angle, his friends told me,” Judy said. “Right away his friends began searching in that area. It’s a steep ravine that slopes down into a stream. A lot of brush and dense areas.”
But there was no trace of Derek.
A missing persons report was filed Monday and the Santa Rosa Police Department along with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office (MSCO) began a full search and rescue for Derek. The sheriff’s office joined because the truck was found just over the county line.
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According to a press release by the MSCO, “the MCSO and the CHP searched the area with a CHP helicopter as well as with CHP officers, Sheriff’s Deputies and K-9s. A more extensive search with the Mendocino County Search and Rescue (SAR) team was also conducted using trailing dogs and ground teams.”
But, again, Derek was nowhere to be found.
According to his mother, Judy, Derek’s wallet was left back at his trailer, but his debit card was found inside his truck. His phone has been off since that weekend and has not been able to be tracked. His bank account has not been touched since he disappeared.
Judy noticed that his favorite hat and the Crocs he often wore were missing.
“He was probably wearing that hat. And those Crocs. He loved wearing them,” Judy said. “But he wouldn’t wear the Crocs out in the woods. It would be too difficult to walk through that area where the truck was found. It doesn’t make sense.”
Judy told Dateline she doesn’t think Derek was ever in that area. She said Derek’s friends said the same thing.
“He was a heavy smoker, but when his friends were looking for him, they noticed there were no cigarette butts around the truck or in the general area,” Judy said.
Police told Judy they suspected suicide.
“I don’t think he would ever do that. He seemed so happy when I talked to him. His friends said he was happy. He had plenty of money in his account,” Judy said. “But I’m not saying he didn’t do it, I understand that’s a possibility. But where is his body? If he did it, they would have found him in the trailer or his truck, or near his truck. I don’t know, I just think something else happened.”
Judy told Dateline she fears the worst and believes there is foul play involved in her son’s disappearance.
“Someone did something to him,” Judy said, as she broke down in tears. “He would never just leave us like that, without saying goodbye. Something is terribly wrong.”
Judy said Derek is close to his family, which includes his two younger brothers and his father who works for a construction company overseas in Kazakhstan.
She said the last time they saw Derek was over the Fourth of July holiday when he came home to Arizona to visit the family.
“He was happy to be home. He’s just such a great guy, a good son,” Judy said. “He had a big heart and would do anything for anyone. He loved to be outdoors, loved to hunt and fish. Just enjoyed the simple life.”
Judy told Dateline she doesn’t know what to do or where to go from here.
“Everything is a dead end,” Judy said. “My gut feeling is that something horrible happened and whoever did it dumped his truck in that area. But Derek could be anywhere. There are too many loose ends. All we want are answers.”
Three months after Derek’s disappearance, police said they are continuing to investigate.
“We follow every tip we get,” Santa Rosa Police Department Detective Anthony Turner told Dateline. “But we have no updates at this time.”
Derek is described as being 6 feet 3 inches tall, 290 pounds, with brown eyes, black hair, heavy build with a beard.
Anyone with information that could help find Derek Weidner is asked to contact the Santa Rosa Police Department at (707) 543-3600 or you can leave a tip on theMissing: Derek Weidner Facebook page.
The U.S attorney’s office charged Mark D’Amico on Thursday with wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. He was expected to appear in court Thursday.
The 40-year-old has already pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges in state court.
Prosecutors alleged that D’Amico, his then-girlfriend Katelyn McClure and homeless veteran Johnny Bobbitt made up a story in late 2017 about Bobbitt giving $20 to help McClure when her car ran out of gas in Philadelphia. The group solicited donations through GoFundMe, purportedly to help Bobbitt.
The triodid numerous newspaper and television interviews, posed for photos together, revisited the spot where they claimed their first encounter happened and went on “Good Morning America.” Authorities began investigating after Bobbitt sued the couple for allegedly not giving him the money.
In announcing criminal charges last November, Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina said almost no part of the tale was true and that instead, the group met near a Philadelphia casino in October 2017 shortly before they told their story.
Authoritieshave alleged D’Amico was the ringleader and concocted the story. The federal criminal complaint released Thursday alleged all of the money raised in the GoFundMe campaign was spent by March 2018, with large chunks spent by McClure and D’Amico on an RV, a BMW and numerous trips to casinos in Las Vegas and New Jersey.
Her thoughts flashed to escape routes as her beachside trailer rose into the air, but Davy’s mouth also repeated a quiet prayer of “Oh my God, oh my God,” over and over again. By her fourth short, divine plea, she felt her home come back to earth.
“It’s very frightening,” she said, sitting on the stoop outside her trailer a few days after Thursday’s scare. “I called my son, and he came over and made me leave right away.”
That fear turned to sadness for many in this close-knit town on Bogue’s Bank, a barrier island off North Carolina’s coast. As insurance adjusters made their rounds, it would soon come time for a decision on whether to try to recover or never return.
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The community had largely left ahead of warnings thatHurricane Dorianwould strike their peaceful island oasis. But before the storm even began to bear down, a waterspout formedabove the Atlantic Oceanon Thursday and turned these island refuges into unrecognizable sheets of twisted metal and broken glass.
“People here have lost their happy place,” Davy said. “Some folks have fallen all to pieces.”
Across the street from Davy, the once familiar line of trailers and mobile homes colorfully decorated with bright island themes had been leveled into a long stretch of debris.
Arlene Cotty, 66, sat in a chair and rested as two of her closest friends picked through the wreckage to find a few of her belongings. She almost lost this home in Hurricane Florence in 2018, but this time she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to rebuild.
“I’m upset, but it’s gone,” she said, her voice trembling. “I don’t imagine at this point that I could come back if I wanted to.”
The leveled buildings meant there was no refuge from the hot sun or the pudding-thick humidity on these long stretches of pavement. Nevertheless, Cotty’s two friends continued to dig. Most importantly, they’d located her dog’s ashes and a keychain embossed with her mother’s image.
“People on the ground who felt the effects of Dorian are our focus today,” Cooper said in a statement. “Getting food, water and medical help to the people in need is the first priority. Utilities are working hard to restore power and we want life to return to normal as soon as possible in eastern North Carolina.”
But it wasn’t only homes that were destroyed when the tornado made landfall. At least one family’s livelihood took a direct hit.
Mike Denmead, 36, and his mom Linda Denmead, 70, had operated a granite countertop business, Artisan and Granite Inc., next to the mobile home park since 2006. But the structure where they polish sheets of stone was pulled into the air by the twister, which raked it across the roof of the building that houses their showroom and ultimately tossed it 150 yards into a nearby waterpark.
When he saw the shattered granite and the collapsed roof, Denmead said he felt an overwhelming emptiness. His thoughts turned to his 13 employees who depended on him, as well as the nearly three months of contracts that they still had to fulfill.
“I mean, my building, what am I going to do with that?” Denmead said inside his granite showroom, noting that his mother had just taken her first day off since Hurricane Florence this past Labor Day. “My guys: they rely on me. My clients: they rely on me.”
But while some said they weren’t sure if they would come back, Denmead said he felt confident that many would plan to rebuild.
He said he was trying to recast this tragedy as an opportunity — the alternative was far too gut wrenching.
“I can dwell on all the negatives because it’s the easiest thing to do, but what we need to do is just keep going,” he said. “Now we can rebuild and get things right.”
Phil McCausland is an NBC News reporter focused on the rural-urban divide.
The 86-year-old woman in rural Utah doesn’t usually answer solicitations from strangers, she said, but the young couple who knocked on her front door seemed so nice. Before long, she had handed over her Medicare and Social Security numbers — and allowed them to swab her cheek to collect her DNA.
She is among scores of older Americans who have been targeted in a scam that uses DNA tests to defraud Medicare or steal personal information. Fraudsters find their victims across the country through cold calls, door knocking, email, Facebook ads and Craigslist. They also troll low-income housing complexes, senior centers, health fairs and antique shops. Sometimes they offer ice cream, pizza or $100 gift cards. Some callers claim to work for Medicare, according toa fraud alertissued July 19 by the Federal Trade Commission.
The woman in Utah said she didn’t know the purpose of the DNA test she submitted to this month — “I’m too old to remember” — but the visit troubled her for several nights, she said.
“I’d lie awake thinking about it, saying, ‘You fool, you shouldn’t have done that.’” (She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by other scams.)
In interviews with Kaiser Health News, seniors around the country reported feeling betrayed, exposed and confused.
Capitalizing on the growing popularity of genetic testing — and fears of terminal illness — scammers are persuading seniors to take two types of genetic screenings that are covered by Medicare Part B, according to experts familiar with the schemes. The tests aim to detect their risk for cancer or medication side effects.
The scammers bill Medicare for the tests. The patients, who might never receive any results, typically pay nothing. But they risk compromising personal information and family medical history. And taxpayers foot the bill for tests that may be unnecessary or inappropriate.
Scammers can really cash in: Medicare pays an average of $6,000 to $9,000 for these tests, and sometimes as much as $25,000, according to the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services.
DNA test scams appear to be ramping up: Complaints to the inspector general fraud hotline have poured in at rates as high as 50 per week, according to Sheila Davis, an OIG spokeswoman. That’s compared with one or two complaints a week at the same time last year, she said.
The inspector general issueda fraud alertin June, urging seniors to refuse unsolicited requests for their Medicare numbers and take DNA tests only with the approval of a doctor they know and trust. By Medicare rules, DNA tests must be medically necessary and approved by a physician who is treating the patient.
In cases that have gone to court, scammers were accused of breaking those rules by paying kickbacks to doctors who agreed to order DNA tests for patients without ever treating them. The front-line recruiters who solicit the tests might work directly for a lab, or as independent contractors who divide revenue with a laboratory in exchange for bringing in extra business.
Some solicitors try to scare seniors into cooperating, said Shimon Richmond, an assistant inspector general for investigations. They warn seniors that they could be vulnerable to heart attacks, stroke, cancer or even suicide if they do not take the DNA tests.
“That’s a pretty egregious form of patient manipulation and emotional abuse,” Richmond said.
Richmond said the two tests involved in the scams are: CGx, which tests for genetic predisposition to cancer, and PGx, a pharmacogenomic test for genetic mutations that affect how the body handles certain medications. They’re part of a new frontier of preventive genetic health.
In New Jersey, three people weresent to federal prisonin May for a scheme that used a purported nonprofit called Good Samaritans of America to persuade hundreds of seniors to take DNA tests. The co-conspirators raked in $100,000 in commissions from labs that ran the tests, according to the government.
“This is a gold-rush area for folks. It’s leading to a big response by the government,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bernard Cooney, a prosecutor in the case.
This month, a Florida doctor wascharged in federal courtfor his role in an alleged fraud scheme to order DNA tests for patients in Oklahoma, Arizona, Tennessee and Mississippi. Patients were recruited through Facebook ads offering $100 gift cards, according to court records. The doctor allegedly confessed that he was being paid $5,000 per month to approve these tests, even though he never spoke to any of the patients involved.
Some labs accused of billing Medicare for unnecessary genetic tests — includingMillennium HealthandCompanion DX Reference Lab— agreed to repay the government but declared bankruptcy before doing so, leaving taxpayers on the hook.
Meanwhile, older Americans are encountering sales pitches that leave them feeling deceived.
In Weslaco, Texas, Will Dickey, a 71-year-old retired police detective, submitted to a DNA test at a health fair in February.
“I have a bunch of cancer in my family,” he recalled thinking, so “it’d help if I had an idea of what genes I had in me.” Three weeks later, he saw the same salesperson rounding up business at his RV park, where his wife and several neighbors got their cheeks swabbed. Dickey, who spent 10 years working with DNA tests in a police crime lab, said he was surprised at the cost: A lab in Mississippi charged Medicare $10,410 for his tests.
He didn’t get results until he requested them by phone. The report, which listed results as “uncertain,” was “a bunch of gobbledygook that makes no sense to anybody who’s not in the medical field,” he said. He reported the case to authorities as possible fraud.
As in Dickey’s case, scammers often gain access to places that seniors trust by persuading gatekeepers to let them make presentations. Bev Beatty allowed a genetic testing company to run a booth at a senior health fair she organized in Oak Forest, Ill., last year. At least 10 seniors took the tests. Afterward, she was irate to discover they had been roped into a scam. Test-takers told her they never received their DNA results, even though Medicare paid thousands of dollars.
“If somebody’s going to be fraudulent and bill Medicare, it kind of riles me up,” she said. “I would like to see them hanged.”
In Paducah, Ky., Donald McNeill, a 72-year-old Vietnam War veteran, was persuaded at an event at his senior center in December to submit a cheek swab for a DNA cancer screening. The company never sent results, he said. But it billed $32,212.86 to his Medicare supplement insurance plan. He’s worried his personal information will be misused.
“I’ve lost my identity to these people,” he said. “They got my DNA and they got my information through this scam. I’m extremely upset.”
Others may face consequences for merely engaging with scammers. In Idaho, a woman in her late 60s said she responded to an online ad for free genetic testing and got a callback 20 seconds later. She received a cheek swab kit in the mail but, suspecting a scam, never sent it in. Now, she said, she finds her phone suddenly plagued by robocalls.
In California, 1 in 4 cases reported to the state’s Senior Medicare Patrol this year for potential fraud have been related to genetic tests, according to Sandy Morales, statewide volunteer coordinator.
Sherry Swan of Roseville, Calif., is one of many who have filed complaints. She said she was home one Sunday afternoon in early June when a man named Caleb knocked on her door, and said, “I’m here to do your DNA testing.”
“What are you talking about?” she recalled asking him. She said he failed to produce an ID when asked. “It was just a scam from the minute he opened his mouth.”
Swan said she spent five minutes arguing with the man, then called the police when he left.
“I’m aggressive. I work with homeless in the county,” said Swan, who is 64. But she said she worried about the more passive and trusting neighbors in her senior living complex. She later discovered that many had been persuaded to take the tests and divulge their family medical histories.
A man named Freddy, who answered a number on a flyer that Caleb had left at Swan’s door, said he supervised Caleb as part of a team from Whole Home Solutions. He said the operation was aboveboard because they enrolled only eligible Medicare beneficiaries, and that a teledoctor would consult with the person’s treating physician before the tests were sent in. The tests were handled by Pathway Labs in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Pathway Labs CEO Rene Perez confirmed his lab handled about 20 tests sent in by Whole Home Solutions. But he said he cut ties with the company on July 6 on the advice of his attorneys after receiving complaints about how seniors were being solicited for the DNA tests. The lab worked with the outfit for about 45 days, Perez said.
Such experiences make him “reluctant to take on new business” from similar entities sending in DNA tests, Perez said.
“We strongly advocate and believe in the benefits of genetic preventative health,” he said. “But the problem that we see right now is that it’s really picking up momentum on the national level. Unfortunately, when that happens, you get a variety of different sorts of groups that essentially may see dollar signs.”
To seniors curious about these DNA tests, Richmond of the inspector general’s office has this advice: “If anyone calls you, or sends you an unsolicited request for your Medicare number or to convince you or scare you into taking a genetic test, either hang up the phone or say no.”
Seniors interested in the tests should call their primary care provider, he said: “Don’t give into the manipulation or the scare tactics to get this health care test from someone you don’t know.”
Unlike the trio of bare-bones NASA rovers that Apollo astronauts steered across the lunar surface in the 1970s, the proposed rover will have an enclosed, pressurized cabin. In artist renderings, the vehicle looks a bit like a bigoff-world SUV.
“Manned, pressurized rovers will be an important element supporting human lunar exploration, which we envision will take place in the 2030s,” Koichi Wakata, vice-president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), said in a written statement. He said the space agency aims to launch the new rover in 2029.
The rover will be about 20 feet long and 17 feet wide, and will feature a 140-cubic-foot cabin capable of accommodating two passengers — four in an emergency. It will bepowered by fuel cell technologysimilar to what’s used in some of Toyota’s earthbound vehicles. Fuel cells run on oxygen and hydrogen and emit only water.
The rover will have a range of more than 6,200 miles, according to Toyota. That represents a big improvement over theNASA lunar buggiesbrought to the moon on the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions. Those electric vehicles were designed only for short trips; Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmidt set the distance record, driving their rover a total of 22.3 miles on three separate outings in December 1972.
“The Apollo astronauts had to return back to their lander each night, so they could only drive a certain distance before having to turn back around,” Brent Garry, a geologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told NBC News MACH in an email. “The pressurized rover is more like a lunar RV. The crews can drive and work ‘all day,’ then eat and sleep inside without having to spend precious time driving back to the lander every time.”
In 2009, Garry spent 14 days living in a prototype lunar rover as part of aNASA experiment known as Desert RATS. That field test, conducted in the Arizona desert, was designed to evaluate several robot technologies.