A week ago Saturday, I had just started mowing my front lawn about 3 p.m. when a man came walking down Main Street waving at me with a broad smile. I let the mower die and took his outstretched hand as he approached.
He introduced himself by a common, friendly first name and said he was my new neighbor, having just moved into a rental house with his wife about five houses up the street from me. I told him my name and he asked if he could finish mowing my yard for $2 because he had just walked home from U.S. 99 after his vehicle broke down and he needed to earn some money to retrieve it.
I told him no, he didn't need to mow my lawn for $2 and took out my wallet and handed him a $5 bill, thinking he would take it, thank me and be on his way. Well, he thanked me, then he politely asked if I could give him a ride to a friend's house, who would help him out.
So I agreed and we loaded up and took off, visiting amiably. He told me he was born Nov. 24, 1967, and thus he was 50 years old. I thought he was a Scorpio like me, but he corrected me and said he was a Sagittarius. He told me he worked at a company in Mount Pleasant and that it was a good job with good benefits, including a 401k.
So as we drove he started mulling about how much it was going to cost to get his car and asked if I could spare any more money, promising to pay me back at 6 p.m. that day. So I gave him a $20 bill, and he thanked me profusely again.
We got to the house and looked in the driveway and he said his friend wasn't home, because he had two vehicles and one of them was gone. Then he asked if I would take him to the home of the guy who was going to tow his vehicle to town. Sure, why not? It wasn't far.
So we drove to another house across town, and when we got there he said that guy wasn't home either because his truck was not there, and thus he must already be out getting his vehicle. So then he wondered aloud if maybe it was going to cost him more money since it was a Saturday, and asked if I had any more money to lend him, because he already had paid the guy $100, but it might cost $150 for the tow.
By this time, I'm pretty sure I'm being snowed, but for some reason I reached once again and gave him another $20. I just wanted to trust, I guess, and see where this was going.
The clincher came when he said he was parched and asked that I take him to a nearby Casey's General Store so he could buy a soft drink. So I did. He entered the store and several minutes later waved me away from inside the door, indicating he had contacted a friend for help.
Well, of course he never showed up at 6 p.m. that day or anytime since. I resigned myself that I had been scammed and would never get my “loan” back. But I still wondered what that guy's real story was.
He professed to be overheated while we were together, due to walking all the way to town. But he never seemed to cool down, even with the AC on in my truck. As I thought the events through, it dawned on me that he might have been suffering from some sort of drug withdrawal.
So on Tuesday I went to the police department and filed a report about being scammed. Officer Chris Chiprez patiently took my report and then asked if I could describe the guy. So I did. He then asked if I thought I could ID him in a photo. I said, sure, maybe. He left the room and returned a few minutes later with a photocopy of a mugshot.
And there he was: My new “neighbor.” Only his name is not what he told me and he is well known to Burlington police as a local crack cocaine addict. They know where he lives, which isn't far from my house, but it's not five houses up the street. And, yes, he is 50 years old, but most likely everything else he told me was simply made up.
And the houses I took him to? Possibly local drug dealers. If he had found one of them at home, he would have bailed on me, promising as he left to pay me right back, most likely. I'm not the first person he has scammed, Officer Chiprez assured me, and most likely not the last, but there is little the PD can do about it since it's a civil matter.
I was telling a friend about this over coffee and he said he had a very similar incident several years ago while walking his dog at a park in West Burlington. Same MO: Disabled vehicle, a drive to a “friend's” house, then another, and then a request for money and a ride to Oquawka, Ill. He “lent” the man $20, but drew the line at the cross-river drive and left him at the second house.
The takeaway? Don't automatically be a good Samaritan, even in broad daylight on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Keep your radar up and be prepared to simply say no — and you are never too old to live and learn.
Randy Miller is a retired city editor for The Hawk Eye. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.