A California woman was targeted in a mortgage scam to take her home then killed in a murder-for-hire plot, sheriff says

Detectives probing the death of a 96-year-old California woman nearly two years ago have uncovered she was the victim of an elaborate murder-for-hire and reverse-mortgage scam that sought to gain control of her home, authorities said Thursday, announcing four people have now been arrested in the case.

Violet Evelyn Alberts was found dead in her bed by her caretaker in her Montecito home on May 27, 2022, with a window in her home shattered. An autopsy later found she died by asphyxiation, and the manner of her death was determined to be a homicide, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

The case was shrouded in mystery as investigators pieced together “a tangled, evil web of financial exploitation against the victim,” Brown said in a news conference on Thursday.

The scheme began when the widow, who was in “a financially distressful situation,” was approached by Pauline Macareno, 48, who offered to sell her a reverse mortgage on her valuable home, Brown said.

But Macareno ended up making a series of transactions – including forging documents and establishing fraudulent entities – seeking ultimately to illegally gain control over Alberts’ property, the sheriff’s office said. Macareno was the “central figure in the manipulation and deceitful targeting” of Alberts, Brown said.

Investigators then found evidence Alberts became the target of a murder-for-hire scheme, the sheriff said.

“In the eyes of Pauline Macareno, Miss Alberts was living too long,” Brown said, adding “the acceleration of her death is presumably what was behind the murder.”

Just three days before she was found dead, two men, 41-year-old Ricardo MartinDelCampo and 33-year-old Henry Rostomyan, had gone on “a scouting trip” to Alberts’s home, according to the sheriff’s office.

“This pivotal discovery shed light on the premeditated nature of the crime, underscoring the perpetrators’ calculated efforts to survey Alberts’ home and to plan their vicious and reprehensible actions,” Brown said.

Rostomyan was arrested last month and MartinDelCampo was arrested on March 5 and are currently being held at the Santa Barbara County Jail without bail on charges of murder and conspiracy to murder Alberts, according to the sheriff’s office. A third man, 58-year-old Harry Basmadjian, was arrested in January for his alleged involvement in the conspiracy while already being held in federal custody in Los Angeles on an unrelated charge, according to a sheriff’s news release.

Macareno was arrested in 2022 and has since been sentenced to six years in state prison for fraud related to Alberts’ case, according to the sheriff’s office. She now also faces pending additional charges, Brown said, without elaborating on the charges.

CNN has been unable to determine if any of the suspects have legal representation. CNN has reached out to the Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office.

Identification of a suspect’s vehicle, a review of surveillance camera footage and forensic analysis of the crime scene led investigators to the suspects, Brown said. The investigation remains ongoing, authorities said Thursday.

Victim was a cherished figure in Montecito, sheriff says

Alberts was a cherished figure in the Montecito community, Brown said, describing her as active and known for her warm demeanor and social nature.

“Her love for her home, complete with a pond filled with cherished koi fish that she brought from Beverly Hills, reflected her appreciation for life’s simpler pleasures,” the sheriff said.

Alberts had plans to celebrate her upcoming birthday by baking fresh cookies before her death. “The ingredients for those cookies were found on the table when, on May 27 of 2022, the Santa Barbara sheriff’s office responded to a distressing call to check on Violet Alberts’ welfare,” Brown said.

Macareno “essentially took advantage of the victim,” Brown said, calling it a “particularly heinous case.”

“The victim was in a financially distressful situation where she had essentially aged out of her savings and she basically had a very valuable home that she lived in, but she had run out of money,” Brown said.

In 2022, adults over 60 years old reported 88,262 complaints to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, with a total loss of $3.1 billion – an 84% increase in losses compared to 2021. California has the highest the number of elderly victims of fraud in the country, with $624.5 million in reported losses in 2022, according to FBI Los Angeles.

“This case is certainly an extreme example,” Brown said. “But there are unfortunately oftentimes there’s victimization of elderly victims who are preyed upon by others in a variety of different financial ways.”

CNN’s Sara Smart contributed to this report.

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