Since South Valley Newspapers wrote an April 24 story about a 77-year-old Gilroy man who claimed he was scammed by a crook under the guise of a friendly tree pruner, 10 others from Gilroy and Morgan Hill have come forward with similar stories of a man by the name of Michael Oliveira who collected money for work he never completed, prompting police to launch an investigation.
Oliveira’s alleged victims have been angry that Gilroy and Morgan Hill police have shown little interest in catching the alleged scammer. But as of Monday, police are asking victims to contact (or in some cases, re-contact) them regarding their experience with the landscaper, said Sgt. Chad Gallacinao.
A Gilroy councilman also asked the Santa Clara County District Attorney to open up a case against the landscape scammer.
A 76-year-old west Gilroy woman, who asked that her name not be used, was scammed by Oliveira in early April she said, and reported it to police so that he would be stopped from scamming other seniors.
“Police kind of blew me off,” she said.
Getting scammed by Oliveira was a rough moment for the woman, who is afraid she isn’t as sharp as she used to be and is more susceptible to con-artists.
“This really hit me hard, because I thought, ‘Oh, I’m losing it,’ and I hadn’t felt that way before. It’s not about the money, it’s the fact that I can get conned by people,” the woman said. “You hate, at my age, to feel that you’re losing it.”
The woman had a strikingly similar story to others who claim to have been swindled by the landscape scammer: A dark-haired man with piercing gray eyes and a warm laugh came to her door and gave her a good price for tree pruning, if she paid a fee to dump the trimmings in advance.
“It’s just so embarrassing at my age to fall for something like that,” she said.
Embarrassing as it might be, there are others in her neighborhood who can relate. Just down the street on El Dorado Drive near Santa Teresa Boulevard and Hecker Pass Road, John Herren, 75, fell for the same convincing story early April.
“He was such a good talker, he could have probably talked the pants off a nun,” Herren said.
Oliveira initially asked Herren for a $220 dump fee, and then after working a few hours and butchering Herren’s trees, he asked for $380 to get his trailer axle fixed so he could finish the job.
The same story about his axle needing repair was fed to other customers, including Al Whitaker, the man who said he was scammed by Oliveira on April 12.
He never came back after that, not even to clean up the clippings or pick up his equipment. Herren lost $600.
“He called me numerous times and said he was going to show up early the next morning but he never showed up,” Herren said.
Herren reported the incident to the GPD, who had no interest in his story, he said. He said his meeting with Sgt. Daniel Castaneda “did not end well.”
“I ended up having to apologize to him, after he got irate on me for saying police don’t care about what’s happening,” Herren said.
Castaneda gave him the same run-down that is all too familiar to those scammed by Oliveira. Herren was told since his was the “only report,” there wasn’t enough to prove an intent to defraud on Oliveira’s part, and since he entered into a contract, the matter was civil, and needed to be dealt with in small claims court.
“They told everybody the same thing, that they were the only complaint,” Herren said.
Herren said it would be nice if somebody could at least “give him a little bit of a scare” so he quits scamming.
Police didn’t say specifically what made them change course in launching an investigation, but attributed it to the amount of people that came forward claiming to be defrauded as a result of the story. Gallacinao said calls regarding the landscaper were documented and kept track of by a computer assisted system.
Although Oliveira seems to prey on senior citizens, he doesn’t rule out younger people as potential victims. Denise Pizarro, 48, of Berkshire Drive in Morgan Hill also fell prey to Oliveira in April.
Pizarro fell for Oliveira’s trick because she saw him working across the street in her neighbor’s yard and thought if they had hired him, he must be legitimate. Pizarro later learned that several others in her neighborhood were victims.
Oliveira gave her a low estimate for putting in the lawn that she desperately wanted for the summer. Dressed in his trademark orange vest, Oliveira stood in Pizarro’s living room, explaining to Pizarro that he’d appreciate being paid $200 beforehand for the dirt and sod he had to pick up from the store. He said he preferred cash because he was going through a divorce.
Pizarro said that Oliveira must have sensed her hesitancy, because he looked her in the eye and said that if she has a trust issue, not to bother with it, and not to worry about him because he had “plenty of work lined up.”
“He said that like he was a real cool kind of dude,” Pizarro said.
Pizarro is sad because she spent the money she had set aside to get her lawn done, and it looks like her backyard will remain barren this summer.
“I know I’m never going to see my money again, but my thing is I don’t want to see this man on the streets getting away,” Pizarro said.
Morgan Hill Sgt. Troy Hoefling said MHPD will work with Gilroy Police.
On April 30, Gilroy Councilman Bob Dillon asked the Santa Clara County District Attorney to open a case.
The District Attorney would not comment if an investigation had been launched.
“But we did read the article, and these are the kinds of things we take very seriously,” said Sean Webby, public information officer for the District Attorney’s office.