'The Sweetheart Scammer': From Beachfront to Behind Bars - NBC Southern California

'The Sweetheart Scammer': From Beachfront to Behind Bars

How detectives say a convicted felon with no permanent home address hopscotched across three states and funded a wealthy lifestyle by living entirely off stolen identities

'The Sweetheart Scammer': From Beachfront to Behind Bars
Maria Hendricks aka Maria Christina Johnson

Maria Hendricks traded in her $7,000-a-night bungalow at the Four Seasons Resort in Santa Barbara for a jail cell April 28 when deputies investigating a fraud report walked into her suite and ordered her out of the bedroom at gunpoint.

Hendricks, wearing only a shirt, complied and walked toward deputies with her hands in the air. She gave deputies a driver's license that had her picture, but a different name and a birth date about 20 years older.

Hendricks, aka Maria Johnson, aka Maria Hainka, was the wanted ex-con who Los Angeles County authorities were seeking in an ID theft investigation.

Convicted Con Woman's Ocean ViewConvicted Con Woman's Ocean View

Maria Hendricks shot video from a patio overlooking the beach March 17, 2016 in the weeks before she was arrested on April 28, 2016, the latest in a string of arrests for identity theft.
(Published Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016)

Her arrest closed the latest chapter in the life of what authorities say is a career grifter with convictions for fraud, check forging and ID theft in Washington state and Oregon dating back to 1997. She had no home, moved from place to place, and ripped off men and women by assuming different identities to fuel a fancy lifestyle, authorities said.

Details of Hendricks' arrest were made available through interviews with the detectives and the prosecutor investigating her, a Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department arrest report and a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department search warrant that were obtained by NBC4 after her conviction last fall.

Hendricks pleaded no contest to ID theft charges and was sentenced to four years behind bars, prosecutors said. A restitution hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

From the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, the state prison 260 miles north of Los Angeles where she's being housed, Hendricks declined to comment. In response to the request, she sent NBC4 a handwritten letter, but indicated its contents were "off the record."

Identity theft is common.

Millions of people are victimized every year in the United States. But one of the scams authorities said Hendricks pulled off was less common. It's called the "sweetheart scam."

There were 20 such scams across the country last year, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit set up to support victims of identity theft. The center's spokesman said that few people report the crime due to the stigma attached to it.

"These are the types of people that everybody's worried about," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Duane Decker, who was one of the investigators on a local, state and federal task force tracking down Hendricks. "They're the ones that convince you that your grandson's in jail and you need to pay bail, and they are the ones that run the tax scams. They do these type of scams that an unwitting victim would fall subject to."

In May 2015, Hendricks met a man on a dating app.

She was attractive, cunning and had a good story, said the man, who spoke to NBC4 on condition that he not be identified because he is a victim.

"She was sexy," he said. "She was attractive for an older woman."

She dropped names of famous directors and Hollywood celebrities. She told him she knew the best restaurants. She told him she dog walked for celebrities and went to their parties, he said.

None of it raised any red flags. It wasn't unusual to hear this kind of stuff, especially in Hollywood, said the victim, who works in the entertainment business.

But the victim said there was another side to Hendricks when she talked about the "emotional distress in her life."

So when she asked to sublet the victim's apartment while she moved between places, the victim agreed. And when she offered to over pay him $2,000 for a 10-day stay, he said it "legitimized her lifestyle."

Inside the apartment she accessed an old laptop with tax documents and a social security number from previous years, he said.

That was all it took for her to open credit accounts, he said.

He said she accessed his existing credit cards and opened up additional lines of credit under his name and in the names of family members. The victim found out about it when an agent from a credit card company called him notifying him of the charges, he said. He suspected Hendricks and notified the cops.

After six weeks he finally got to talk to fraud detectives, who opened a case.

The experience was disruptive and frustrating for the victim.

"It was very, very traumatic," he said. "It was like getting digitally ambushed. It was mainly what she was doing to my family that drove me crazy because they're not digitally savvy."

Southern California Crimes Caught on CameraSouthern California Crimes Caught on Camera

Hendricks was charged with the ID theft of the victim's father, according to the felony complaint for arrest warrant. That charge was ultimately dismissed as part of Hendricks' plea agreement. But also as part of the agreement, the victim's father still qualifies for restitution. How she got the father's information remains a mystery, prosecutors said.

After the sweetheart scam, detectives said she broadened her net and used different methods of scamming people.

Last February, Hendricks impersonated an 81-year-old woman in order to rent a room at a house through an online short-term rental website, according to the search warrant and detectives. Once there Hendricks assumed the identity of the homeowner, who was away in Spain, documents said.

"She was smart," said LA County Sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Duncan, who oversees the task force that arrested her. "She changed her method several times to avoid being caught."

Added LAPD Detective John Manoogian, also a member of the task force: "If someone had a dog, she'd pretend to be a dog walker."

Those who know the 5-foot-4 brunette with hazel eyes say she can be charming.

"It was very hard not to like her," said Mike Wittlin, a movie and TV producer, who met her years ago when she was trying to rent his condo and they became friends. "We became good friends because I could see the good in her and would try my best to give her moral and emotional support and I always felt that if I didn't try, who would?" 

A woman who met Hendricks at another Santa Barbara hotel before her arrest told deputies she knew her as Maria Johnson.

She said "Johnson" tried to immediately befriend her and "acted as if they were best friends and knew many people in common," according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department report.

The woman said she became uncomfortable when Johnson said she had a gift for her and repeatedly tried to get her alone in her hotel room, the report said.

Hendricks claimed she inherited her wealth.

In the days before her arrest, Hendricks appeared to boast to a male acquaintance that she could afford $35,000 for a 30-day stay at a fancy hotel because she was an heir to the oil magnate J. Paul Getty, according to a text message detectives seized from her cellphone.

She also once claimed she was a relative of the Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR Racing Team, detectives said.

While staying at the Four Seasons she told hotel guests she was a famous children's book author and offered to pay for strangers' drinks, once racking up an $800 bar tab, Manoogian said.

But it all evaporated when authorities got a tip that she had been staying at The Four Seasons, according to the arrest report.

When she was arrested, deputies found a forged check for $25,000 written to the Four Seasons, authorities said.

Detectives estimate that she spent more than $100,000 in the 30 days leading up to her arrest using other people's credit cards and forged checks.

Among the receipts seized were a room service dinner for $1,081, a breakfast bill for $277, a mani-pedi-facial for $510, and a highlight, color and cut for $554, detectives said.

Detectives said Hendricks played the con right up until the time she was about to be booked into the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Malibu-Lost Hills Station jail. She told detectives she was someone else, was having trouble with her credit and froze her accounts because someone was pretending to be her, according to the search warrant.

She said she had legally changed her name and was issued a new social security number, the search warrant states.

When a detective mentioned that she could face an additional charge for lying about her name, Hendricks gave them her married name, Maria Hainka.

"I have been through this before," detectives said she told them, according to the warrant. "I am going to fight this."

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