RALEIGH, N.C. – With their elderly parents seated across the octagonal oak table, Donna and Jim Parker were back in the kitchen they knew so well — the hutch along one wall crammed with plates, bells and salt-and-pepper shakers picked up during family trips; at the table's corner, the spindly wooden high chair where a 7-year-old Jim had tearfully confessed to setting a neighbor's woods ablaze.
It was Christmastime, but this was no holiday gathering. Now, it was the parents who were in deep trouble, and this was an intervention.
For the past year, Charles and Miriam Parker, both 81, had been in the thrall of an international sweepstakes scam. The retired educators, with a half-dozen college degrees between them, had lost tens of thousands of dollars.
But money wasn't just leaving the Parker house. Strangely, large sums were now coming in, too.
Their four children were worried, but had so far been powerless to open their parents' eyes. If they wouldn't listen to their kids, Donna thought, maybe they'd listen to people with badges.
And so, joining them at the family table that late-December day in 2005 were Special Agent Joan Fleming of the FBI and David Evers, an investigator from the North Carolina attorney general's telemarketing fraud unit.
At first, the Parkers were angry at what they considered their children's betrayal. They had always been wary of the government, particularly the Internal Revenue Service. "Well, they're just after your money," Charles Parker would say.
But they'd politely invited the two officers in.
The home was littered with sweepstakes mailers and "claim" forms, the cupboards bare of just about everything but canned soup, bread and crackers. Charles Parker acknowledged to their guests that he'd lost a lot of money, but expressed confidence that he and his wife would eventually succeed if they just kept "investing."
Evers and Fleming showed the couple a video of other elderly scam victims, then played a taped interview of a former con man describing how he operated. Charles was alarmed by what he was seeing and hearing, but his wife seemed to be barely paying attention.
The officers explained they were there to ask for the Parkers' help in catching these predators. With their permission, Evers installed a "mooch line" on the kitchen phone so they could capture incoming calls.
Charles, a war veteran, was tickled at the notion of being part of an undercover operation. He and his wife pledged their cooperation.
After gathering up some of the mailings for evidence, the officers left, encouraged by what seemed a few hours well spent.
But in the coming months and years, things would only get worse for the Parker family — much worse.
It's important to note at the outset that the Parkers were hardly unsophisticated people, the type to be easily fooled. Born in 1924, Charles Alexander Parker and Miriam Wilkinson were high school sweethearts back in Pitman, N.J. Charles served on a Navy destroyer escort off north Africa in World War II, after which they married and embarked on a life of learning and teaching.
Charles earned a doctorate in speech communications, and Miriam received a pair of master's degrees, one in special education. Along the way, Miriam gave birth to four children: Donna, Jim, Linda and Carole.
After teaching stints around the South, Charles Parker took a position in the English department at North Carolina State in Raleigh, from which he would eventually retire. In 1966, the couple built a split-level home in a neighborhood with streets named for flowering trees, and later converted the garage into a classroom for Miriam's special-needs pupils.
Through their hard work and thrift, the Parkers were able to send all four children to college and pay off their home. They bought a piece of land in the North Carolina mountains and put a camping trailer on it, eventually replacing it with a house.
Between their savings and Charles' pension, they were looking at a comfortable retirement.
Then the conman entered their lives.
Older Americans lose $2.9 billion a year to fraud, according to a study conducted last year by the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech. Most victims are between 80 and 89, and most are women.
"Elder financial abuse is becoming the crime of the 21st century," Denise Voigt Crawford, past president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, said when the report was released.
Using the latest technologies, "these criminals need not defraud their victims face-to-face," David Kirkman and Virginia H. Templeton wrote in a 2007 article for the journal Alzheimer's Care Today. From far away, "they can identify vulnerable seniors, contact them, and induce them to part with their savings."
A slowing down of brain function comes with normal aging, they noted. The elderly are susceptible to errors in judgment, particularly in situations where a snap decision is required — such as during a telemarketing call.
"Experience teaches us that those with mild dementia tend to be the most vulnerable," wrote Kirkman and Templeton, respectively an assistant attorney general in North Carolina and a gerontologist.
The Mayo Clinic defines "mild cognitive impairment" as an "intermediate stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more pronounced decline of dementia."
The basis for a diagnosis in many cases: falling victim to repeated scams.
No one can say exactly how the trouble began in the Parkers' case.
They might have made a small donation to some charity or responded to a sweepstakes letter they got in the mail. Somehow, the couple ended up on what people in the industry call the "sucker list."
And once they were marked, the scammers proceeded to "reload" them.
You've won this multimillion-dollar lottery, they'd say. All you need to do is send us the money to cover the taxes, and we'll send you your prize.
So on Dec. 8, 2004, Miriam Parker — then 80 — drove herself to the Wal-Mart down the road to send a MoneyGram to Montreal, Quebec.
Isolation from absent children is often one of the hallmarks in cases like these. But that wasn't so with the Parkers. Sure, Jim had settled in Ohio, and Carole was living in Florida. But Linda and Donna were both just down the road in Cary.
With three kids to raise, Linda wasn't able to look in on their parents all that often. So she and the others counted on Donna, the eldest, to keep an eye on things.
A busy real estate agent and teacher, Donna popped in as often as she could. But she'd always appreciated her parents for not trying to tell her and her siblings how to live their lives, and she did her best to return the courtesy.
In her parents' living room is a plaque that reads, "Mom's 10 Commandments for a Happy Household." No 10 on the list: "If I say do it, don't ask why."
No. 6: "If it rings, answer it."
And so, over a series of calls, Howard Clark — a man with a warm voice who called her "dear" and "sweetheart" — had learned enough personal information about Miriam to convince her that he was the family's ticket to riches.
After her Dec. 8 MoneyGram, other wires followed on Dec. 13 and 16.
On Jan. 12, 2005, she sent a Federal Express package to a "Mr. Stewart" on Papineau Street in Montreal. Inside, as instructed, was a magazine with $12,550 in cash sandwiched between its pages.
The Parkers had quickly become what authorities refer to as "super victims."
Though trusting, Miriam asked Howard repeatedly when they would receive their winnings. One day, he called to say he was on his way to deliver the prize in person — only to call back to say he'd been detained at the border, and that he needed her to send $200 so he could defray things. She sent him the money.
By May 2005, the Parkers had blown through their savings. They had tapped into their home equity line and had maxed out several credit cards. Willing as they still were, the Parkers were running out of things to give.
Unwittingly, their children had contributed to the problem. When Miriam asked Donna for a $7,000 loan, the daughter thought little of it.
Through most of their marriage, Charles Parker had taken care of the couple's finances. But in 1989, shortly after his retirement, he suffered a heart attack. That was followed by colon cancer. As her husband's health declined, Miriam stepped to the fore.
Faced with mounting debt — and clinging to the assurances that a big payday was coming — she was determined to right their financial ship.
That's when she became a "money mule."
She can't remember whether it was in a phone call or a note. But Howard told her that she'd been "hired" by the Canadian sweepstakes company.
On May 5, 2005, a package from Bloomingdale, N.J., containing $8,275 in cash arrived at the Parkers' home. It was followed five days later by a FedEx packet with $10,000, then three days after that by an envelope stuffed with $25,000.
In just over one week, Miriam Parker would receive and repackage $60,000 in cash for delivery to Mr. Stewart of Papineau Street, Montreal.
Having the money hopscotch from one victim to another complicates things for would-be investigators.
Sometimes, there would be two stacks of bills, one much thicker than the other, tucked into magazines. The smaller pile was Miriam Parker's "commission."
If someone sent her a check, she was to convert it to cash and send that along, Howard said — and she wasn't to tell her children about their dealings.
But the kids had already become alarmed by changes in their mother's behavior.
During visits, Jim noticed that she would race him to the phone, and then prevent him from listening to the conversations.
She stopped going over to Linda's house to help with the babysitting. And when the couple would go to the mountain house, they'd only stay the day — because Miriam was expecting a call and had to be home to get it.
And then there was the sudden need for loans. When Donna asked what for, her parents were evasive, saying they were helping one of the grandkids with school expenses. By then, they owed her $20,000 and Jim another couple thousand.
Jim sent his mother articles about people who'd been scammed.
When the kids finally persuaded their mother to get a credit report, the news was jaw-dropping. Their thrifty parents were nearly $200,000 in debt.
Miriam Parker insisted that their ship was about to come in, and that she would soon repay all the loans. So Donna gave her a deadline.
In an email to the other siblings, she explained: "I told her that if the money was not there by Wednesday, July 6, the family would be forced to do things we do not look forward to. I also implored her not to give Howard any more money. She still believes in him."
The money, of course, did not come. It was time to get authorities involved.
Raleigh police told Donna there was nothing they could do unless the perpetrators were local, and so she went to the state Attorney General's Elder Fraud Unit. Around that same time, Donna received a call from the FBI — her parents had popped up on their radar in connection with another case.
It became apparent to authorities that the Parkers weren't truly willing participants in the scam. So they staged the December family intervention.
That kitchen-table gathering ended promisingly, with Miriam assuring Fleming and Evers that she would not forward any more packages. Charles told them he felt as if a heavy burden had been lifted.
Donna allowed herself to hope that the people who'd ripped off her parents would be caught — and that they might even get some of their money back.
But a frantic phone call a couple of weeks later dashed those hopes.
"They're going to turn the gas off," her mother told her on a day with temperatures forecast to plunge into the 20s. Calling the utility company, Donna learned that her parents owed more than $900.
Next it was the electricity. Then the water. Eventually, the children were having to buy their parents' groceries.
Even then, Miriam remained convinced that Clark was her friend. At one point, she invited him to the family's mountain retreat to meet her kids. The Parker siblings sardonically referred to him as "our other brother Howard."
Attorneys Donna contacted could offer no help — the elder Parkers hadn't been deemed incompetent, and it was their money.
And the envelopes just kept coming — from San Jose and Hayward in California, from East Liberty, Ohio.
In April 2006, Jim Parker and his wife Susan came to town for Donna's wedding. They were sitting in his parents' kitchen when the doorbell rang.
The FedEx driver handed Jim a crinkly envelope. From the outline, he knew without opening it what was inside. He sneaked downstairs to his old bedroom, pulled out a business card with a gold seal on it and dialed the number.
"I've got this package," he said. "What do you want me to do with it?"
He and David Kirkman, manager of the Elder Fraud Prevention Project in the AG's office, met at a gas station. When authorities opened the envelope, they found an old issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine. It contained $5,725 in cash from a Visalia, Calif., widow.
Kirkman called a contact at Federal Express, who ordered a stop on deliveries and pickups at the Parker home.
But the crooks just switched to United Parcel Service.
And now, in addition to money, they were delivering and picking up car tires and custom rims, and laptop computers worth thousands of dollars — all purchased by other elderly victims.
That's when state and federal authorities reached out to their counterparts north of the border.
The FBI subpoenaed records from the courier services Miriam Parker was using and found the address in Montreal. On Aug. 2, 2006, officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Surete du Quebec paid the occupant a visit.
Dave Stewart acknowledged accepting numerous packages from the American lady on behalf of a man whom he knew as "Roger." Stewart, a native of Jamaica, said he was paid $100 per package.
In all, Miriam Parker had shipped 119 packages totaling more than $606,000 to Stewart. Professing ignorance of any illegal activity, Stewart agreed to cooperate.
Howard, meanwhile, gave Miriam a new address to which she should forward items.
On Aug. 17, 2006, laptops valued at more than $7,200 arrived from Hayward, Calif. She sent them to a "Joseph Reid" on Sixth Avenue in the Montreal borough of Verdun.
Parcels kept coming — from Texas and Massachusetts, South Carolina and Washington, Missouri and Maine.
By December 2006, with the Parkers' credit card debt topping $70,000, the family held another kitchen-table intervention.
This time, they persuaded their parents to grant Donna a limited power of attorney. One of the first things she did was change their phone number — though too late to stop them making $650 in calls to Jamaica in one month.
In January 2007, she accompanied her parents to the credit union, where they took out a 30-year, $179,000 mortgage on their home.
But it was like shoveling sand against the tide. Late that spring, Donna Parker got a call from a grocery store near her parents' home. Her mother had been in five times that day to wire money.
She remembers one particular evening, sitting around the kitchen table, attempting to help her parents draft a budget. About an hour and a half into the visit, she realized they hadn't been paying attention.
"Why aren't you listening to this?" she asked.
"We're waiting for the phone call," her mother replied. They were expecting delivery that night of a new Mercedes, another supposed reward that would never come, of course.
Exasperated, Donna stormed out.
Miriam Parker had become a cog in Howard Clark's fraud machine. The FBI's Fleming decided to turn the tables on him.
On April 3, 2007, Miriam phoned him — this time with Fleming recording.
"Yes, dear," he replied sweetly.
It might have been her fault, Miriam began, that they'd had trouble with some shipments lately.
"I should have mentioned to you, I've been having an ear wax problem, and it's gotten real serious ...," she said apologetically. "I don't always hear too well."
As the conversation went on, Howard grew testy about her failure to send her packages quickly. In one case, he noted, trucks had left a UPS office just before an important package arrived from her. Send everything next-day air, he demanded.
When she asked whether she should go back to her former shipper, Howard cut her off.
"Don't go back to that same store, sweetheart. No, you can't never go there again."
When she suggested that the person at the store was just trying to save her some money, Howard told her that was not their concern.
"I'm giving you the money to pay for this. YOU just do what I instruct you to do, dear."
Perhaps sensing he'd been too hard, he changed his tone.
"Not to say that YOU are making the mistake, but maybe they are," he said. "And we can't afford for you OR them to make the mistake."
But this time it was Howard who'd made the mistake.
Using "trap and trace" technology, the FBI determined the pitch calls were coming from Montreal, and Mounties soon had a real name for "Howard Clark" — he was Clayton Atkinson.
Atkinson had 13 convictions for assault, theft and weapons possession stretching back to 1994.
On April 13, 2007, three officers in blue flak vests positioned themselves at the door of his apartment. An agent down the hall dialed Clark's number, and the ringtone sounded from inside.
Pretending to be Jim Parker, the agent said he was calling to help his mother collect her prize. As soon as Atkinson spoke, the officers burst in.
In Raleigh, a federal grand jury handed up a 35-count indictment against Atkinson and two co-defendants — Dave Stewart and Jamaal McKenzie, aka "Joseph Reid". The three were charged with one count each of conspiracy and interstate transportation of stolen property, seven counts of wire fraud and 26 counts of mail fraud.
Even then, the trouble wasn't finished for the Parkers, obviously now a marked couple.
Not long after the indictments, Donna Parker got a call from a Western Union office near her parents' home. They'd been there twice in one day, "sending money to a relative in Jamaica."
By then, Charles and Miriam Parker were nearly 84. Pushed to the edge, Donna suggested it was time they let her take over their affairs.
"I am NOT mentally incompetent," her father, who had suffered a second heart attack, protested.
"Dad," she replied. "I'm not going to go and say you're incompetent. But I will go and say you're financially incompetent."
In May 2008, she filed a petition seeking appointment of a financial guardian. The last line was the most difficult of all: "It is the Petitioner's opinion that senility or some other undiagnosed condition may be the cause of the Respondent's actions."
The court appointed local attorney David T. Watters guardian ad litem. The Parkers were "charming and personable," but hopelessly blind to their predicament, he wrote.
It was clear to him that Miriam Parker was the main concern.
"Incredibly, Respondent fails to recognize that the family is the victim of a cruel financial scam," he wrote. "In two conversations, she indicated that she felt that she was working with a better quality of person at this time, and that these people would live up to their promise to provide money to Respondent."
The court appointed Donna Parker guardian of their estate.
The criminal case ground slowly along, and last year Atkinson and Stewart pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy and mail fraud. (Jamaal McKenzie is awaiting trial in Canada on an unrelated assault charge.) The plea agreement listed 31 individuals who'd been defrauded of a total of $840,705.
When Atkinson appeared for sentencing at U.S. District Court in Raleigh on March 15, Miriam and Donna Parker were there. Charles Parker had died just a month earlier.
Miriam Parker had imagined Howard as much older, perhaps with gray hair. Standing before them was a 33-year-old man, his dark hair cropped close.
When the time came for victim impact statements, Donna Parker rose. She told Judge Terrence W. Boyle that it had taken two years to pay off the credit card debt her parents had racked up. She talked of the cashed-in insurance policies and liquidated stocks, and of the mortgage they'd been forced to take out.
She told of having to take her parents to court, and of the lingering resentment it had caused.
"To this day," she said, still referring to her father in the present tense, "they are convinced that their family deprived them of their right to prizes and lottery winnings."
Her father was now beyond further harm, she told the judge. But she lived in constant fear that her mother would be victimized again.
"The sad thing is, I know my family is not unique," she said. "Scammers who prey on the elderly are a blight on society."
For his part, Atkinson pledged to "pursue legitimate things in the future." He hoped to one day return to Canada to care for his aging father.
Seizing on this, the judge asked: "Can you imagine if somebody like you was doing this to your family? Could you imagine how shocked and outraged you'd be?"
Atkinson stood mute.
"Answer me!" Boyle thundered.
"I can't sit in front of you and give an excuse for it," Atkinson said.
Boyle sentenced Atkinson to 12½ years in prison, Stewart to 6½. He also ordered them to pay $840,705 in restitution — $84,350 of it to Miriam Parker.
No money has been recovered, Agent Fleming told the judge.
Responding to an interview request, Atkinson sent The Associated Press a three-page, expletive-laced letter, cursing prosecutors, his lawyer and America's "corrupted justice system."
"i am angry and miserable everyday," he wrote in his unpunctuated, ungrammatical reply. "my life is (expletive) ruined now you think i care about the parkers".
Even today, Miriam Parker seems conflicted about the man she still refers to as Howard.
"He was always very nice," she said.
She managed to keep her home, but she's lost most of her independence. Each month, Donna sends her a debit card with $500 on it, to pay for food, prescriptions and gas — soon to be 88, her mother still drives. The daughter still screens the mail and pays all the other bills.
On a recent, sultry day, she and Donna sat at that familiar oak table, a Lazy Susan piled with junk mail between them. On the shelf was a new memento: A miniature Mountie, keeping watch in his iconic red tunic and broad-brimmed hat.
How could Miriam have taken money from other people, knowing what she and her husband had been through?
"I didn't realize some of that was happening," she replied, meekly.
She looked down at the table and shuffled envelopes.
"As I look back on it, it was a good bit of stupidity on my part," she said, her voice dropping. "I just felt that I had really been a real sucker — I really had. And, but, I guess I was just so anxious."
She keeps turning it over in her mind: How did Howard get her name? It must have been that company she used to buy that cheap jewelry from, she figures.
"It had a Canadian address," she said absentmindedly.
She said she knows better than to respond to such junk mail now.
"I'd better not," she said, casting a glance at her daughter. "Or they would've been on my back, right?"
"Yes, ma'am," Donna replied.
"Which is all right," the mother said. "I have very smart kids."
"We had to be," her daughter said.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/(hash)!/AllenGBreed