Every week for the last few years 72-year-old Edward J. Tafoya put down $10--sometimes $20 if the pot was big--to play the California Lotto. He never won more than a few dollars.
So on Tuesday, when a woman claiming to be an illegal resident approached him in Bellflower and offered to sell him her winning ticket, he said, "I thought I could make a little money."
Five hours later, after an elaborate scheme unfolded, Tafoya and his wife, Julia, 75, were out $11,000.
The "winning" tickets they got, sealed in an envelope and placed in Julia Tafoya's pocket, were two worthless pieces of paper--Lotto receipts of the winning numbers clearly marked "Not for Sale."
Sheriff's deputies said Thursday that the Tafoyas were victims of an unusual, well-planned con that robbed the Paramount couple of most of their retirement savings.
"I was a dummy," Edward Tafoya said Thursday.
Lew Ritter, security director for Lotto, said, "If someone makes you an offer like this, and it looks too good to be true, it probably is."
The Tafoyas said that about noon Tuesday the woman approached them at a shopping center.
"She said, 'Do you know how to speak Spanish?' and I said, 'poquito' (a little bit), and that's how this all started," Tafoya recalled.
The woman, dressed neatly in a black skirt, embroidered white blouse and black pumps, told Tafoya she was ill and needed directions to an address in Bellflower where she could get help. Neither Tafoya nor his wife had heard of the place, so the woman hailed a passer-by who said he knew exactly where to go, Tafoya recalled.
The man, who called himself Roberto and appeared to be a stranger to the woman, suggested that the Tafoyas drive him and the woman to the place. By this time, Julia Tafoya said, the woman was groaning and clutching her stomach.
"Oh, what an actress," Julia Tafoya said in retrospect. "I felt so sorry for her. I was even holding her up by her arm.
"She finally said, 'You are being so nice, I am going to tell you a deep secret,' " Julia Tafoya said. "So she said, 'Get close to me, I don't want anybody to hear.' "
The woman told the Tafoyas she had a winning Lotto ticket that she could not claim because she was not a legal resident, they said. She said she would sell the ticket for $25,000, but Roberto said he wanted the ticket verified first.
All four went to a pay phone, where the man dialed a number and let Julia Tafoya speak to a Spanish-speaking man at the other end. The man, who said he was a Lotto employee, verified the winning numbers, and said the ticket was worth close to $70,000.
Roberto went to his bank and withdrew $14,000 for his cut of the deal, and the Tafoyas, with the others in tow, then went home for their checkbook and withdrew $11,000. They turned the money over to the woman.
They then stopped at a drugstore, where Julia Tafoya went inside to buy medicine for the woman, who said she thought she was hemorrhaging. Somehow, the couple disappeared.
"I told my wife, 'We got taken,' " Edward Tafoya said.
Lottery spokeswoman Joanne McNabb said she believes this was the first time such a scam has taken place, and stressed that anyone--legal resident or not--can claim the lottery prize with a winning ticket.