Protected and served


Three years ago we wrote about the case of Vera Pratt, an elderly Chilmark woman who was bilked out of more than $3.5 million by a Florida woman purporting to be a psychic who could rid her of demons.

Sally Ann Johnson eventually pleaded guilty, and was sentenced 26 months in federal prison and ordered to repay the $3.5 million she stole from Pratt. She was also ordered to pay $725,912 to the Internal Revenue Service, taxes never paid on the money she received for her “psychic” services.

Much like Al Capone, it was the failure to pay taxes that did Johnson in. Bringing Johnson to justice was due in large part to the solid detective work of Sgt. Sean Slavin of the Chilmark Police Department, and his unwillingness to let Johnson get away with her devious and manipulative scam.

The case came up again last week in a Globe Magazine article that detailed how Johnson took advantage of Pratt, and it further expounded on Slavin’s solid police work. 

“The case was assigned to Detective Sean Slavin, who happened to be Pratt’s neighbor, a half-mile as the crow flies,” according to the story. “He had often seen her working in her garden. They would wave to each other as he passed by on the road. Soon, Slavin knocked on Pratt’s door and met his neighbor for the first time.”

Slavin’s work was beyond what can be learned at the police academy. It involved intuition and observation. 

“Slavin noticed some disorganization around [the woman’s] home, like mail and newspapers piled up on counters. His attention was especially drawn to empty shelves, with their books gathering dust in moving boxes,” according to the Globe story. “‘Are you going anywhere?’ he recalls asking.”

Pratt told him she was going to move eventually. “Once my healer gives me the OK and all the demons are gone,” the Globe reported.

Slavin, who was the department’s detective at the time, showed empathy and compassion in digging deeper. Too often, people who fall prey to scammers are dismissed as bringing on their own problems.

He reached out to family members, and found that Pratt had paid a lot more than the $15,000 Pratt reported to Slavin that she gave Johnson for payment. While family members thought she had likely paid Pratt upwards of $500,000, by giving Slavin access to bank accounts, Slavin found it was seven times that amount.

We recently had a similar case reach the courts and a conclusion: Mason Buddy, an elderly man himself, preying on an elderly woman he’d met at a hospital and robbing her of thousands with the promise of investing it. He also took a classic car from Trip Barnes and sold it, without ever giving Barnes the proceeds from the sale. 

Buddy, after an agonizing number of no-show appearances in court, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation. He was ordered to make restitution or he would land in jail. We have our doubts about whether that will ever happen. (Both the woman and Barnes say they have yet to receive a dime.) Buddy has proven elusive through the years — given an inch, he takes a mile.

But there was solid police work on the part of Oak Bluffs Police Det. Jeffrey LaBell, and work done by Tisbury Officer Scott Ogden, that forced Buddy’s guilty plea, even if the courts are having trouble holding him accountable.

The lessons here are simple. Check in with your elderly family members, particularly those who are living alone and vulnerable. And if you see something that doesn’t add up, ask questions and get law enforcement involved. 

Unfortunately, there are other Sally Ann Johnsons out there, and another Mason Buddy may be lurking.

Fortunately, there are other Sean Slavins, Jeffrey LaBells, and Scott Ogdens out there as well.