The Marshall Project

TheKingofDreams

The multimillion-dollar deception cost the victims more than their savings.

1

Just a few weeks after their mother, Betty, died on Christmas Day 2013, Rhonda Peck and her brother Larry began the long, painful process of sorting through her stuff.

Most of Betty’s belongings were crammed into two storage units, while the spillover took up significant room in Rhonda’s house in Austin, Texas. Betty was a “paper freak,” according to her daughter, and hated to throw away documents. One morning, surrounded by boxes of old receipts and family photos, Larry called from the study, “Rhonda, come here!” Holding a creased piece of paper covered in his mother’s shaky cursive, he read aloud: “To Larry and Rhonda . . . Concerning Rob’s Release.” Rob (not his real name) was their oldest brother and was serving time in federal prison. “Should anything happen to me, contact Alvin Warrick . . .”

Rhonda snatched the paper from his hands. She knew that name—in the months before her mother died, Rhonda had heard her repeat it with increasing frequency. Warrick would call Betty, and they would talk for hours like old friends. “I’m workin’ on something, but I can’t really talk about it,” Betty would say about their chats, as if she were planning a surprise birthday party.

The note listed several other names and phone numbers. “I have paid them close to $300,000.00 as of 5-6-09,” it said. Rhonda felt nauseous. She knew her mother had been giving this man money, but she had no idea it was that much. “Alvin has this information. You can work with him. He is good and wants Rob out!”

The last line was underlined, imploring them to continue her “work” with Warrick. “Please follow through so all I have done will not be lost.”

Rhonda and Larry wondered how much more Betty had spent in the years since she’d written the note to them. As they riffled through their mother’s records—handwritten calculations, annotated phone bills, receipts for wire transfers and withdrawals—the numbers started adding up: $3,000 more on Sept. 10, 2010; $1,500 on Oct. 1, 2013; $1,000 on Nov. 3, 2013. Betty had continued to pay Warrick until the month she died. Altogether she’d spent nearly $400,000 trying to bring her eldest son home.

Betty had always been Rob’s “biggest fan,” according to Rhonda. Long after Rhonda and Larry had moved four hours west to Austin, Rob remained in their hometown of Beaumont, Texas. He and his mom talked on the phone daily and saw each other twice a week. She would cook her pork chops, greens and pinto beans, and the two would visit for hours. They relied on each other. Betty—a chatty southern belle who was always carefully coiffed and well dressed—had been widowed twice and lived comfortably off what her husbands had left her. But she lived alone, so Rob helped with chores and home repairs. Rob had been divorced and lost his only son to a drug overdose in 2003. Amid all his pain, Betty was his main source of comfort. “Her life was her kids, and we felt the same about her,” Rob said. He moved into his mom’s ivy-covered three-bedroom brick home not long after his son died, as she needed more help with daily tasks.

In 2004 FBI agents arrived at Betty’s house with a warrant and seized Rob’s computer, which contained images of child pornography. He had no prior criminal record and claimed in court filings that he had spiraled downward after the death of his son. The whole family was confused and devastated, especially Betty. During the trial, she tried to appear fiercely positive, attending every hearing and reminding Rob that they would get through it. But he often could see her, sitting beside Larry in the courtroom gallery, with tears in

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