A Mystery Unfolding
With her eyes glued to the woman, she waited. Had she been fooling everyone for so long? She racked her brain to come up with a reason for it. Was she being lured? Was she in danger? As she looked ahead and saw the beggar get inside the car, she knew. She had to follow this woman and uncover her secret.
As the mystery unfolded, she could never have known that she would discover such a web of lies.
Melissa Smith from San Diego, California, was on her usual errand routine when she spotted the panhandler again. On this day, in particular, something just felt off. Melissa decided to trust her intuition and investigate a little further.
She stood by her car pumping gas when she noticed the beggar and her little boy standing behind the shopping center. But when she saw where they went, she was incredulous. Her first instinct was to whip out her phone.
East Lake Village Center
This beggar had to be smart — the center where she reserved her favorite spot was at a shopping plaza called East Lake Village Center. This upmarket shopping center contained restaurants, goodwill, hair stylists, dentists, grocery stores, and expensive clothing stores.
The woman knew that this place would be crawling with people willing to spare some extra cash for a penniless woman with an enormous baby bump. But she had a huge flaw in her plan — she could never have suspected that one woman was onto her scheme.
California may be famous for its balmy weather, pristine beaches, and glamorous residents, but it is also notorious for its large number of homeless people. And people also have to be aware that some of them are imposters. Melissa was no fool when it came to con artists, but she just felt uneasy about this woman in particular.
But when she began to see her every weekend in her usual spot, she dismissed her gut feeling. “I felt bad. There’s a pregnant lady with a little boy who is down on her luck,” she recalls. Little did she know, she should have trusted her first instincts.
The beggar would stand out in the scorching sun for quite some time, but she wasn’t always on her own with her son. Melissa recalls seeing who she assumed was the little boy’s dad standing with them on more than one occasion. The trio had become notorious in the area — it’s not every day you see a pregnant beggar.
This pulled more than a couple of heartstrings and sure enough, passersby tended to give them more than usual — often dropping dollar bills into their collection cup and handing them hot drinks and sandwiches. But one day, Melissa couldn’t contain her curiosity.
Smith hadn’t questioned the beggar’s motives until one particular day, and couldn’t help but feel pity for her. She had seen the pregnant woman in the same spot for over two months. She must be desperate, Melissa thought.
Being heavily pregnant and standing in the scorching Californian sun for hours must have been excruciatingly uncomfortable for the poor woman. But then, something happened that stirred a deep suspicion in Melissa, and she couldn’t let it go.
The pregnant woman seemed to have mastered the art of begging. She knew she would be pitied by shoppers walking in and out of the shopping center, so she did her best to stir their emotions.
Consumers saw a pregnant beggar with a little boy by her side, and couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt. Her cardboard sign that she held above her baby bump said “Please Help,” and of course, people who walked by felt terrible for the young woman and took out their wallets. But was it all an act, or was she genuine? Melissa had to find out, but she had no idea just what she was getting herself into.
Although Melissa lived just a short drive away from the shopping center, she had never been there at this particular time before. She would usually run her errands during an hour at mid-morning, but today, she decided to break her routine and stop for a smoothie before closing time.
Immediately noticing that the pregnant beggar was conspicuously absent from her usual spot, Melissa couldn’t help but worry for the woman. She hoped she was okay. Upon starting her car, she realized that she was running low on gas. So she swung around to the gas station opposite the East Lake Village Center and pulled over to fill her tank.
Then, something odd caught her eye that would lead to an investigation.
As Melissa was pumping gas into her car, she noticed a familiar face. The pregnant beggar was waiting behind the shopping center, holding her sign up in hopes of getting a few more pennies before she went home. But as Melissa continued to watch, she noticed a car heading straight for the pregnant beggar. Was she in trouble?
The vehicle stopped right beside the woman, and Melissa’s suspicions started to grow. Had she seen too much?
Melissa couldn’t believe what she was witnessing. She craned her neck to get a better look and her mouth opened in complete disbelief. The driver was the woman’s partner. But the most surprising detail was what the man was driving.
The car was a Mercedes Benz – a well-known luxury brand with all the bells and whistles. It was obvious, even to Melissa, that it cost a lot of money. But what was this woman doing sitting in such an expensive car?
Melissa jumped into action but never expected to make headlines.
“They were leaving, and I noticed they went in a Mercedes Benz. I thought, ‘Wow, a Mercedes Benz?’” explains Melissa. Not only that, but the car also appeared to be brand-new. Melissa jumped into her car and followed the couple. As she documented the whole process with her phone, her car rolled up beside the couple, who were laughing.
“Lo and behold, they were in front of us. Here they are counting money, laughing. Their little boy is not in a car seat or a seat belt. He’s all the way in the front seat with them,” Melissa said.
She couldn’t have felt more betrayed. She knew that she needed to get to the bottom of this and warn everyone. But she could never have known how deep this case really went.
Melissa followed the car to another shopping center, not far from the first. It seemed like this couple had everything carefully planned out. The vehicle came to a halt, and to Melissa’s amazement, the pregnant beggar got out and started to fool everyone again.
“She sits there with the sign. He goes (and) parks the Mercedes. They put up the sign and not less than five minutes; here she is getting money from all these people,” Melissa said angrily.
Now, she had caught her, but she couldn’t have known that the authorities would soon be involved. Melissa was scratching dangerously at the surface of something much more sinister.
As Melissa got closer to the woman and her little boy, she started snapping pictures. But when the pregnant beggar spotted her she grew vicious. She started yelling and screaming, lifting a huge rock threateningly.
“Next thing I know, she picked up this big boulder,” Melissa said, “I don’t know if pregnant people can do that, but it was pretty big over her head and coming at me with this rock.”
A witness saw everything and decided to call the cops, but when the beggar knew what was happening, she grabbed her little boy and took off. What the woman didn’t know was that Melissa wasn’t about to let what she had seen go.
Melissa decided that she wasn’t going to let the woman get away with bamboozling the public so easily. She called a news station and posted everything on social media. She wanted everyone to know how they had been deceived, and to warn everyone in the area not to fall for this master beggars’ plan.
The news station was so intrigued by the story that they decided to run the plates from the car Melissa had taken pictures of. To their surprise, it stated that the car was in a woman’s name and also, there was an address that was undisclosed.
She had no idea that others had their eyes on this particular panhandler, too.
Journalists quickly followed the lead, and this began an exciting spiral. The apartment complex where the woman resided was called Encinitas Heights Apartments and residents said rent is $2,500 a month. After a couple of attempts, no one answered the door. But then, they received a phone call.
The couple living in the apartment had just moved in, while the couple before them had just picked up and left.
Smith had documented everything. Social media and the news had become rather interested in the mysterious pregnant beggar and broadcasted the story for everyone to see. “I feel bad. Don’t give these people money. They don’t need it. They’re driving a Benz,” Smith said.
But while the investigation was still infuriating people, one call made journalists spring into action.
Another witness had spotted the panhandler. Rebecca was doing her shopping when she thought she recognized a beggar at another shopping center. She called the broadcasters and were quickly informed.
Minutes later, Emily Valdez arrived at the center.
Valdez was told that the beggar was still in the area, she quickly got to her feet and searched the center for the mystery woman. But when she found her, she was perplexed. Wasn’t this woman supposed to be pregnant?
Only two days had passed since Melisa Smith had taken the pictures, but this lady in front of her was holding a baby.
“Is This You?”
The camera crew and Valdez approached the woman. “Is this you, begging?” Valdez asked the woman as she held up her phone with the picture of the pregnant beggar. The woman looked at the picture for some time and then said she didn’t speak English. Had they just caught her?
The woman who was holding the baby was also with a little boy who looked exactly like the one in the picture, and then the father arrived.
He dismissed the camera crew and took his family through the parking lot. The camera crew documented them going inside a minivan with dealer plates. But they had another plan up their sleeve. They ran facial recognition on both women, and the results matched them at an 80%.
But something made Valdez think that there was more to the whole situation.
He had first spoken in Spanish, but then briefly said something to the panhandler in a second language. Little did he know that this detail was about to blow the whole case wide open.
Valdez replayed the recording and listened carefully when she heard the language, and immediately got on the phone to call in the experts.
Leslie Albright watched the video that had been taken by Valdez and her camera crew intently. She had retired recently from her post as a detective at the San Diego Police Department, where she had served as a specialist in underground crime rings for 25 years.
But there was something about this case that had her nodding her head, and it suddenly hit her that this was no ordinary panhandler.
Under The Exterior
The woman whose actions had infuriated millions on social media was about to have her scam exposed, but there was more to the story. There was an indication that there was a growing problem in the community. Underneath California’s slick and hip exterior, there was a dark underbelly, growing bigger by the day.
One Redditer was determined to expose what was really going on, at great risk.
Leslie had seen a lot of crime in her life, and when she heard the man speak, she suspected that something was up. She recognized the language that he had spoken in the recording taken by Valdez’s camera crew right away, and their modus operandi fitted many that she had seen before perfectly.
But what else was the couple hiding?
According to Albright, the couple is tied to an organized crime ring in California. They and had entered the country illegally and commit crimes on a daily basis. They are known to reside in expensive apartment blocks and have numerous cars to enable them to pull their scams on their unsuspecting targets. It is likely that the couple is not a couple at all, and the panhandler’s “pregnancy” was used as a tactic to elicit sympathy from the kindhearted locals.
But what other crimes is the ring heading? — there is more to the story than meets the eye.
The problem with this particular group is that they rarely stay in one place for long, and this makes it difficult for the authorities to pinpoint them. As soon as they get wind that someone is onto them, they pack up and move on. This is exactly what had happened with this particular pair of suspects.
But one unnamed man was about to shine a light on the mysterious couple, and endanger himself in the process.
One man came forward after seeing the video of the panhandler on the news and revealed all the details on Reddit: “…I had a friend of a friend tell me that they knew them and that they’re just a hustling pair of Con Artists who’s families conned their way into the country.” He also went on to say that he knew the details of the woman’s dark past and that her life had not been a pleasant one. She had been forced to work within the crime ring from a young age.
After he leaked the information, he removed himself from Reddit for fear of what would be done to him if the men who ran the crime ring ever found out his identity.
The Bottom Rung
It was also revealed that the woman seen in the footage often pretends to be pregnant with a foam prop hidden under her shirt, and this helps her to collect over $500 per day — and there are many other women like her. The inner workings of the organized crime ring are complex, with men who head the operation from the top.
They promise food and shelter to the women who are dispatched all over the country each morning, and their illicit panhandling practices ensure that they have enough money to live lavish lives. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“They’ll use the babies, children, any way they can… the children will not go to school because their job and their future is the Family Business,” Albright said in an interview. These children grow up into a life of crime. The unnamed Redditer also wrote: “People should know, there’s PLENTY of service and organizations that exist to help people and ESPECIALLY for women with children. They’re taking advantage of them all as well as scamming people at the parking lot entrances. Neither of them are reporting the money they’re making from her begging and both are claiming poverty to get state and federal assistance.”
Shortly afterward, the informant started to receive strange and threatening phone calls, but he had one more thing to add before he disappeared off Reddit.
“They might be up and trying this scam again or it might be another woman, either way, call the cops on them, making sure to tell the dispatch that they’re “the BMW scammers” so they’re identified and the state can start the proper deportation proceedings against them… don’t help any of them or give money to any of the panhandlers you might see.” — the unnamed Redditer cautions.
Investigators are still trying to find the head of operations, and people have become more careful of the people they give their money to since the story went viral. Who knows what other crimes are tied to this Californian crime ring?