She was a black woman who appeared to be in her 20s. She was dressed in low-rise jeans – low enough to reveal an animal-print G-string sticking out the top. She was of average height, about 5 feet 5 inches or 5 feet 6 inches tall. She wore a long, reddish-brown wig.
These are some of the things Staci Locke would remember when describing the peculiar person who showed up at her family-owned nursing home on January 2, 2005.
Earlier, the woman had called from a cell phone, asking directions to Aston Court, a 1920s school building Locke’s father bought and remodeled as a retirement and assisted living community, located in a residential neighborhood of McComb, Miss. A few minutes after the call, Locke met the woman and her noticeably effeminate male companion just inside the main entrance to Aston Court. The pair asked for job applications. No way would Locke ever hire these “trashy”-looking characters, she told herself, but to be polite she went along with their request. As Locke turned to fetch the applications, the woman announced that she had “gas” and needed to use the restroom. Locke was unimpressed with that detail, but she courteously showed her visitor the ladies’ room before heading around the corner. The male followed Locke, keeping up a steady line of questions. Locke got the uneasy feeling she was being stalled.
Returning with the applications, Locke found the woman waiting near the front door and the door to Locke’s office. Warily, Locke gave the pair their applications and showed them out. Then she made a beeline for her office and looked inside her purse. Sure enough, her wallet was missing.
Locke tore out the front door of Aston Court in time to see a white car squeal out of the parking lot. Though this feisty businesswoman ran screaming after her apparent robbers, it was all to no avail.
By the time Locke called 911, filed a police report and contacted the credit card companies – about two hours later – the thieves had already run up $14,000 in purchases on her cards – mostly in $2,000 Wal-Mart gift cards.
As far as she or the police knew, Locke had been the victim of a run-of-the-mill purse-snatching – just another petty crime unlikely to be solved, much less to make the six o’clock news. But the theft of Staci Locke’s wallet was far more significant than anyone realized. Months later, it would provide the critical break in exposing one of the most bizarre crime stories to come out of greater New Orleans in recent memory.
STOLEN AND FORGED
In January 2006 – a year later and 80 miles to the south –Detective Ralph Sacks of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office pulled into the lushly manicured grounds of Christwood. “The Northshore’s Premiere Retirement Community” looked more like an upscale apartment complex than the typical, drab “old folks home.”
For the third time in a year, St. Tammany sheriff’s deputies had been called to investigate a theft at Christwood’s assisted living wing. In February the year before, a resident had reported a stolen credit card. The following April, the daughter of a resident discovered that some of her elderly father’s checks had been stolen and forged. Thefts or complaints of theft at retirement facilities can be especially tricky. Sometimes it’s unclear whether a theft actually occurred or if a forgetful senior citizen simply misplaced something. When financial thefts do occur, they may go undetected for long periods since the residents rarely need to use money. Finally, because of the high volume of foot traffic at such places – employees, friends and family of the residents, private sitters – the list of possible suspects can be huge.
Sacks figured the Christwood incidents were an inside job – a “bad egg” on the payroll. He’d been running background checks on employees, talking to the victims’ banks, contacting merchants where stolen cards were used. To date, this had netted him zilch.
That was about to change. Sacks had been called out to Christwood under more alarming circumstances: Three different residents in one day were reporting checks or credit cards stolen from their rooms. Now it began to dawn on the 20-year law enforcement veteran that he was dealing with something more ominous than a sticky-fingered employee. It was looking like burglaries by an outside party.
A detective in St. Tammany’s property division, the 43-year-old cop had previously worked homicide for the Jefferson Parish and then St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Department. Over the years he had solved some of the Northshore’s most heinous murders, including the case of Samantha Jaume, the young Mandeville mother who was tailed from Wal-Mart, then carjacked and murdered in her own garage with her children in the house.
A few stolen credit cards aren’t exactly the stuff of headlines, but that didn’t discourage Sacks, now in St. Tammany’s property crimes division, from chasing down crooks with the same bulldog intensity he once directed at killers. With his shaved head, barrel-chested build and steely blue eyes gazing out from under bushy black eyebrows, Sacks looks the part of the name-takin’, butt-kickin’ law-and-order guy. The detective’s immaculate dress shirts, stylish neckties and gleaming wingtips only add to the impression that he means business.
“I always try to do my best,” Sacks says seriously. “Someone is counting on me for justice.” Besides, he adds, the idea of criminals preying on some of society’s most defenseless citizens “really pissed me off.”
Back in his plain, windowless office in the labyrinth of the St. Tammany patrol headquarters, Sacks got busy. First he called the victims’ banks and credit card companies. Next, Sacks followed up with the merchants where illicit purchases went down, hoping to score a copy of a receipt or video footage of the culprits. Earlier, Sacks had identified a pattern in how the stolen cards were being used. First, the thieves would make a small test purchase to see if the charges would be accepted. If the coast was clear, they’d go for broke, often purchasing gift cards in $1,000 or $2,000 increments at department stores including Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target. Until now, however, none of these purchases had taken place in St. Tammany – Sacks’ jurisdiction – handicapping his ability to investigate. In hindsight, Sacks would realize that the thieves’ erratic zig-zagging across parish and state lines was probably an intentional ploy to elude capture.
But this time, the investigator hit paydirt. One of the latest cards stolen from Christwood had been used at the Kmart in Mandeville – and Kmart had it all on tape.
LONG, REDDISH WIG
She was a black woman who appeared to be in her 20s. She was accompanied by two other women. She wore a long, reddish wig.
These were some of the things Det. Sacks noticed as he watched the surveillance tape of three young ladies using a credit card stolen from Christwood to buy household items at Kmart.
Sacks noticed something else. When making their purchase, the suspects had first attempted to pay using a different credit card. But the charge was refused: That card had been reported stolen.
Before long, Sacks was on the phone with the owner of that stolen credit card, Staci Locke. What Locke had to say blew the detective away: her credit card had also been stolen at a nursing home. “That’s when I said, Oh my God, this [the culprits] isn’t just somebody who works at Christwood,” Sacks recalls. “That’s when I realized this was a whole different story.”
That the same people who apparently robbed Christwood might also be hitting other nursing homes wasn’t Locke’s only startling revelation. One of the suspects who made off with Locke’s billfold, she noted, was sporting a long reddish-brown wig – just like the culprit Sacks saw in the Kmart surveillance video.
Furthermore, to Sacks’ delight, Locke was able to give him the phone number from the cell phone that the robbers had used to call her while en route to her nursing home. Sacks committed it to memory, planning to subpoena the call records.
But Locke had one more fascinating tidbit, a crucial detail the detective probably could not have spotted in a department store surveillance tape. The woman who stole her billfold, as Locke would later recall, had “a freakin’ Adams Apple.”
As Locke told Det. Sacks, she was all but certain that the wig-wearing, G-string-flaunting female who ran off with her billfold was, in fact, no female.
PERPETRATORS IN DRAG
Once Sacks realized who and what he was dealing with, the mystery began to unravel faster than a cheap pair of pantyhose. Immediately, he began calling around to other law enforcement agencies in the region – Slidell, Kenner, Jefferson Parish – looking for similar cases at other nursing homes or crimes involving perpetrators in drag. This would turn out to be Sacks’ most prescient move yet.
To Sacks’ amazement, nearly every surrounding jurisdiction he contacted was working a mysterious nursing home theft similar to the one at Christwood. Until now, however, none of the agencies were aware of the others’ cases or realized that they might be part of a larger picture.
Then, from Slidell police, a possible suspect. Markinious Hartfield, a known cross-dresser, was wanted there on a 2-year-old warrant for burglary. Sacks’ partner, Detective Jerry Rogers, knew Hartfield’s name, too. Rogers had been working a case involving a checkbook stolen out of a vehicle at a New Orleans parking garage where Hartfield worked as a parking attendant. Sacks contacted Hartfield’s boss at the garage, who gave him a cell phone number for Hartfield. The supervisor referred to Hartfield as “she.” The cell phone number sounded familiar. That’s because it was the same number that was used to call Locke just before she was robbed, Sacks says.
Hartfield, it turned out, had a minor criminal record in Jefferson Parish, which gave Sacks a mug shot to work from. According to Sacks and Locke, the nursing home owner had no trouble picking that mug shot out of a photo lineup as the tarted-up woman who stole her billfold.
JEANS AND “GIRL CLOGS’
She was a black woman who appeared to be in her 20s. She had a feminine demeanor and a long red wig pulled back into a ponytail. She wore fake breasts under a red parking garage uniform shirt, slacks or jeans and “girl clogs.”
These were some of the things Detective Sacks noticed about Markinious Hartfield this past February as the parking garage attendant approached an unmarked vehicle. Waiting inside with Sacks was his partner and a New Orleans Parish sheriff’s deputy.
Sacks recalls that Hartfield asked the plainclothes detectives if he could park their car for them. And that, as Sacks jokes, is when “we put the habeas grab-ass on him.”
Hartfield, who did not resist, seemed both totally surprised yet resigned to his fate, Sacks says. “He told us he knew it was coming because he’d had a dream about it.”
Sacks arrested Hartfield on the not-so-dreamy charges of access device fraud, exploitation of the infirm, racketeering and simple burglary. Meanwhile, Sacks had issued a warrant for a woman, a real woman, named Aisha Howard. The detective believed Howard was one of the other people seen with Hartfield in the Kmart videotape. Sacks had gotten Howard’s name from a source in the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department, where she was on parole for similar crimes. Howard, according to Sacks, has “a serious track record” of convictions relating to property crimes. At the time of the crimes she is accused of participating in, according to Sacks, Howard was employed as a certified registered nursing assistant at St. Anthony’s Nursing Home in New Orleans. St. Anthony’s told the detective there had been no thefts there. Howard surrendered to St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office in March, shortly after Hartfield’s arrest and was charged with four counts of burglary, exploitation of the infirmed, access device fraud and racketeering. Authorities said further charges could be forthcoming.
Based on interviews with Hartfield and Howard and other evidence, Sacks believes the ring may have stolen at least $1 million over a four-year period. He also suspects Howard of being the mastermind behind a massive burglary ring consisting of cross-dressing men who targeted nursing homes and other businesses in several states, Sacks says. Howard, herself, “has alluded to the fact that she knows 300 or so people” involved in this sort of crime, the detective says. “From information we got from [Hartfield and Howard], we know that the others are transvestites. But [Howard] said she did not think of the [scam]. It’s a scam that has been going on for a while.”
In a typical scenario, according to Sacks, members of the ring would show up at nursing homes and other businesses dressed as women and pretending to apply for a job. Passing themselves off as females not only made them seem less threatening, Sacks notes, it also made them harder to identify. Once inside a facility, one ring member might create a distraction while another slipped away to troll for unlocked doors or unattended purses and wallets. Other times, according to police sources, ring members would wait by a locked entry. As someone was coming out of the building, they would slip in.
Sacks believes the suspects often purchased large gift cards with the stolen credit cards because they could easily be sold on the street for cash.
The day after news of Hartfield’s arrest aired on WWL-TV, Sacks received a phone call from the owner of a mini-warehouse facility in New Orleans. According to the owner of Extra Space Storage on South Jefferson Davis, Hartfield was renting a storage unit there. The same day that Hartfield’s arrest made the six o’clock news, the owner told Sacks, a transvestite claiming to be Hartfield’s brother showed up wanting access to the unit. The owner refused him access and notified the detective instead.
“When I heard that, I got a search warrant pretty fast,” Sacks recalls.
Inside the storage unit, according to Sacks, police found evidence allegedly linked to still greater criminal activity in even more locations, including checks looted from a New Orleans doctor’s residence in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Police also found clues to Hartfield’s life as an alleged transvestite: numerous snapshots of Hartfield made up as a woman and striking poses for the camera; photos of Hartfield with other transvestites; love letters written to Hartfield by a man who Sacks says is a prison inmate. Ironically, Sacks also found papers indicating that Hartfield had successfully completed at least part of the process to become a certified registered nursing assistant, just like Howard. In Sacks’ estimation, the charismatic Howard was a role model for Hartfield. “In fact, I’ve been told they called him Little Aisha,” Sacks adds.
In the mini-warehouse, St. Tammany Police also found receipts for big-ticket items, including a $1,000 buffet server from a furniture store and service work performed on a Land Rover, Sacks says. Howard supposedly drove a Land Rover, he notes. Once in custody, both suspects accused the other of living large off stolen money, Sacks says. “He said she was living like a movie star. She said he was the one living lavishly.”
More evidence gathered from the storage unit indicated that the two had applied for disaster assistance from FEMA, Sacks notes. In fact, Howard was living at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, compliments of FEMA, at the time of her arrest.
After the arrests, Sacks’ phone started ringing. Not only did he hear from private citizens who believed a loved one had been victimized, he also heard from police departments who suspected the ring might be to blame for similar crimes in their jurisdictions. Authorities suspect the ring may be responsible for crimes in Texas, Ark., Miss., Fla., Okla. and Ill. They were not just stealing cards and using them,” Sacks notes. “In other jurisdictions, it was also identity theft.”
In May, Mandeville Police charged Hartfield and Howard each with four counts of simple burglary in connection with checks stolen from Roquette Lodge, an assisted living facility. Baton Rouge and Avoyelles Parish authorities are very interested in Hartfield and Howard, too, Sacks says.
Because the ring’s activities cross so many jurisdictions and require so much manpower to track, St. Tammany has brought in the Secret Service and the Louisiana State Police task force on financial crimes to help with the investigation.
“Over a year, my partner and I worked on that case,” Sacks muses. “We never let it go … God knows where it will lead. The more you dig, the more you find. ”
Meanwhile, Hartfield and Howard’s alleged victims are left to put their lives back in order. Apart from any direct financial losses, some elderly victims also had their identities stolen and their credit histories destroyed.
“[The suspects] have caused a lot of chaos,” Sacks adds.
“These people were thieves, and they just happened to be cross dressers. It was just an easy lick for them.”
Ed. note: Both Hartfield and Howard’s lawyers were contacted by the author. Howard’s lawyer refused to comment, but said that Howard plans to plead not guilty and contest the charges. Hartfield’s lawyer never responded.