Widow, 96, preparing to celebrate her birthday was killed in alleged murder-for-hire plot at her home

A "vibrant" 96-year-old widow preparing to bake cookies for her birthday was killed at her Montecito, California, home in 2022 in an alleged murder-for-hire plot, according to authorities who said the case involved a "tangled evil web of financial exploitation."

Violet Evelyn Alberts was found dead in her bed on May 27, 2022. Deputies with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office began investigating her death after they found a broken window in the back of her home, Sheriff Bill Brown said at a news conference Thursday.

Violet Evelyn Alberts (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office)
Violet Evelyn Alberts (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office)

A medical examiner determined she died from asphyxiation and the manner was homicide.

During the investigation, deputies learned that Alberts had allegedly been tricked into signing over her home in the wealthy Santa Barbara County neighborhood. They also uncovered that she was the victim of a murder-for-hire scheme.

Brown said that investigators identified a woman named Pauline Macareno, 48, as the "central figure in the manipulation and deceitful targeting" of Alberts.

Pauline Macareno (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office)
Pauline Macareno (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office)

Macareno was "referred" to Alberts, who needed additional money after she "aged out" of her savings, according to the sheriff. Alberts, who did not have any immediate family in the area, lived in a "very valuable home," Brown said.

It's not clear who referred Macareno to the victim.

In 2020, Macareno allegedly "capitalized on Alberts' vulnerability" and engaged in financial elder abuse by forging documents and establishing fraudulent entities to gain control of Alberts' assets, Brown told reporters.

Macareno’s scheme involved her offering Alberts a reverse mortgage that "ultimately led to the fraudulent acquisition of her property," he said.

Brown declined to go into detail on the motivation behind the murder, but said that "in the eyes of Pauline Macareno, Ms. Alberts was living too long."

Macareno was arrested in June 2022 and charged with elder abuse, fraud and manipulation of legal documents. She was recently sentenced to six years in state prison for fraud related to Alberts’ case. Additional charges are pending, Brown said.

Three other people were arrested this year in connection with the case.

Henry Rostomyan (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office)
Henry Rostomyan (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office)

Harry Basmadjian was arrested on Jan. 2, Henry Rostomyan on Feb. 24, and Ricardo MartinDelCampo on Tuesday, the sheriff said.

Rostomyan and MartinDelCampo are accused of doing a "scouting trip" at Alberts' home on May 24, 2022, according to the sheriff. It's not clear what Basmadjian's alleged involvement was.

Rostomyan, MartinDelCampo and Basmadjian were arrested on several charges ranging from murder to conspiracy and solicitation of murder, Brown said.

Rostomyan, 33, and MartinDelCampo, 41, are being held in the Santa Barbara County jail without bail. Basmadjian, 58, was being held in federal custody in Los Angeles on an unrelated charge and "suffered a life-threatening medical emergency" that left him essentially brain dead, the sheriff said.

Brown declined to say how the male suspects are connected to Macareno.

Richardo MartinDelCampo (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office)
Richardo MartinDelCampo (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office)

The sheriff described Alberts as a "vibrant" widow who was a "cherished figure" in the Montecito community. She moved to the area after her husband, David Alberts, died in 1993.

"Despite her age, she had remained active and engaged," the sheriff said. "And she was known for her warm demeanor and social nature."

Alberts did not have any family who lived nearby and "relied on her friendships and connections within the neighborhood," he said.

On the night she was killed, she was at her home baking cookies to celebrate her upcoming birthday.

"The ingredients for those cookies were found on the table when on May 27, 2022, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office responded to a distressing call to check on Violet Alberts' welfare," he said.

Her caretaker discovered her body.

Brown said investigators are still seeking additional information in the case.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com