Feds: Ex-soldier who stole from military aid groups is back to scamming people
By SCOTT DAUGHERTY | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: July 20, 2017
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Sterling Scott’s "daughter" has horrible luck.
She’s been badly injured in a car crash in South Korea, left brain dead in a wreck in Mexico and killed in an accident in Texas, to name a few of the tragedies.
But don’t feel bad for the young girl Scott is hugging in an old photo federal agents found on an online fundraising page set up to help the former soldier pay medical bills.
The girl, the daughter of Scott's ex-wife, is fine. And the stories he – or at least someone claiming to be him – keeps telling about the child are at the center of a new federal investigation.
"Nobody really questions it when you say your daughter died," said Joe Guzzi, a Virginia Beach veterinarian who says he helped Scott set up a GoFundMe page. “Who does that?”
Scott was convicted two years ago of stealing more than $11,000 from military aid groups. He blamed his actions on injuries he claimed to have sustained while serving in 2011 in Iraq, saying someone “owed” him for everything he had been through.
Scott is set to return Friday to U.S. District Court in Norfolk amid a growing list of possible probation violations, including a felony theft case in Virginia Beach Circuit Court and allegations of wire fraud involving the attempted theft of money from a Nebraska-based charity.
The Pilot also has spoken with members of a Hampton Roads-based car club who say Scott lied to them about the death of his daughter to gain their sympathy and financial support.
"We took him in like one of our own, and he completely took advantage of us," said Guzzi, a member of the Street Predatorz.
In phone interviews, text messages and emails the past two months, Scott told The Pilot he was not behind the GoFundMe page. He said his email and Facebook accounts were hacked.
"Somebody set me up," Scott said. "I didn't receive a dime from anyone and didn't want to receive a dime from anyone."
He offered a similar defense June 12 when asked by Senior U.S. Probation Officer Jason Bissette about calls to the Nebraska charity. He said he lost his phone the month before and believed someone was trying to frame him.
When told by The Pilot that members of the Street Predatorz said they took him to a Hooters to help him cope with his daughter's death, Scott said, "They can say whatever they want."
Andrew Sacks, whom Scott hired in May to represent him in the Virginia Beach theft case, declined to comment on the GoFundMe page. He said he also told his client not to speak directly with The Pilot anymore.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Kosky, who prosecuted Scott two years ago for stealing from the aid groups, also declined to comment.
A history of sob stories
Scott's legal problems stretch back to his time with the Army, according to court and military records. He served nine years, with two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
In late 2014, however, the staff sergeant's military career unraveled amid allegations he tried to rip off Army Emergency Relief. He chose an “other than honorable” separation that November in lieu of a court-martial and left the service as a private.
Scott created more problems for himself four days after his discharge, when he started using his old military ID – a photo of which was also used on the GoFundMe page – to scam other aid groups.
Court documents said he would call the charities in advance, using names like “Sergeant Major Wood.”
Among the fake stories he told: His wife and child had been in a car crash in South Korea, and he needed money to go see them.
In all, Scott stole $8,650 from the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society's offices in Chesapeake, Oceana, Portsmouth and Quantico. He also stole $3,000 from the Coast Guard Mutual Assistance office in Elizabeth City, N.C., documents said.
The crime spree drew the attention of the Coast Guard Investigative Service. Scott was identified as the culprit, charged and convicted in a matter of months.
He was sentenced in December 2015 to 10 months in jail, after which he would have to serve three years' supervised probation.
Following his release last year, Scott pleaded guilty in state court to two other crimes committed before his arrest. One of those cases involved allegations that he lied to the staff of a Williamsburg hospital about having cancer to get pain pills and then claimed it was his “twin brother” when he was caught.
Chesapeake and Williamsburg/James City County judges didn’t give Scott any jail time, but he is still on probation for the federal and state charges.
“Can you send me $50 online bro”
Guzzi said he met Scott in April at a Chesapeake 7-Eleven, where he noticed he was driving a new, red Chevrolet Camaro. Guzzi owns a 2012 Camaro, and the two started talking cars.
Guzzi eventually introduced Scott to the Street Predatorz, and they all got to know one another over the next two weeks.
Then, Guzzi said, Scott dropped a bomb on the car club members. On May 4, he mentioned in an online chat that his daughter had died in Texas, according to screen shots provided to The Pilot.
The messages indicated that Scott's daughter hit her head, that her brain started to bleed and that she died before surgeons could operate.
Guzzi said Scott identified his daughter as Janelle Scott and explained that she was epileptic and had fallen at a playground in Texas.
It was at that point that Scott started asking the guys for money – $50 here and $90 there – to help cover his travel expenses.
"Can you send me $50 online bro moneygram or westernuion," Scott wrote in one message, according to a screen shot. "Just wanna make sure I'm good till Tuesday then I'll have insurance."
Guzzi said he helped Scott start a GoFundMe page, noting that the vet's grammar was not very good. Guzzi said it collected about $300 in a day.
But then, Scott claimed his "ex" asked him to take down the page because she wanted privacy. He posted a message in the group chat that he received from GoFundMe indicating the car club members would be getting refunds. At the same time, he asked them to still give him money directly, according to screen shots and interviews.
From dead to dying
What happened next started to make Guzzi and other members of the Street Predatorz question what was going on. Guzzi said Scott created a second GoFundMe page, in which he claimed his daughter was injured in a car crash in Juarez, Mexico. She was close to death, according to a screen shot.
The page included photos of him hugging a young girl and wearing his old uniform. There also was a picture of his old military ID.
Scott shared that GoFundMe link on the Facebook pages of more than a dozen television stations, veterans groups and celebrities.
In at least one of the posts, he referred to his daughter as “brain dead.”
"It went from an accident at a playground to a car accident," Guzzi said. "And she went from being dead to being on life support. … It was completely different."
Guzzi said it was about that time he and the other guys started researching Scott's background and realized he had a record.
Guzzi said several members received refunds when Scott shut down the first GoFundMe page. Others, however, said they used Western Union to wire him money and did not get it back.
Cortez Rollins, another Street Predatorz member, said he is out $50. Screen shots provided by Guzzi indicate at least one other member wired $100 to Scott using Western Union.
A “general” tries to help
While Guzzi and the rest of the Street Predatorz were learning more about Scott’s background, Wendy Tatro of Wounded Warriors Family Support in Omaha, Neb., was just learning his name.
A man identifying himself as “General David Reese” called Tatro in May using a cellphone number later identified as Scott’s, according to Bissette’s petition to revoke Scott’s federal probation.
Reese explained to her that he was at a Hawaii airport and had met a distraught veteran named Sterling Scott. He claimed that Scott’s daughter had been killed in a car accident in El Paso, Texas, and that he needed money to pay for a flight and lodging. He directed Tatro to a GoFundMe page that was supposedly set up by Scott’s chaplain.
Tatro started to question Reese about his connection to Scott because he repeatedly used “I” or “we” when referring to the vet’s situation. The caller hung up.
Tatro investigated further. She noticed that Scott’s GoFundMe page identified him as living in Virginia – not Hawaii. She called back the number to ask more questions and request a copy of Reese’s DD-214 military records.
The man hung up again.
Bissette noted in his petition that Scott previously acknowledged using the name “Sergeant Major Reese” while ripping off other military aid groups.
More legal trouble
In addition to potential legal problems with the GoFundMe pages, Scott has been charged in an October theft of tools from his former boss Albert Crespo, a Virginia Beach resident who owns Road Runner Towing in Norfolk.
Crespo did not return calls for comment, and police and prosecutors declined to comment.
Scott is set to stand trial Aug. 14. A conviction would violate his probation, probably resulting in his incarceration.
Several other problems could also send Scott – who now works for a Portsmouth construction company – back to jail.
In his petition, Bissette said Scott was $300 behind on his restitution agreement, failed to submit to six drug tests last year and was unsuccessfully discharged last month from a court-ordered mental health treatment plan.
Without his probation officer’s permission, Scott was also added as an authorized user on two credit cards in 2016, the petition said. Both were closed, with balances of $22,450 and $1,215.
A missing testicle and a shifting story
Questions also remain regarding Scott’s military service and the injuries he claims to have suffered in an explosion overseas.
Scott’s military record does not include a Purple Heart, which would typically be awarded to a soldier wounded in action, or a Combat Infantryman Badge, given to soldiers who fight on the ground. One of Scott’s former Army supervisors, Sgt. Maj. LeRoy Haugland, also said his staff could find no evidence he was injured in any such explosion.
In interviews with The Pilot, Scott, whom military records identified as a mortarman, maintained that he lost a testicle when a bomb blew up his Humvee. He reiterated much of what he told U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar in 2015, when he testified that he was evacuated to Germany after the explosion and underwent "six or more" surgeries. He said he was unable to walk for a while and still had shrapnel inside his body.
Details of Scott's story have changed over the years, though. He claimed this week he was injured in 2011 in Afghanistan, but as proof, he provided photos of medical records that referenced a 2007 groin injury and a "history of shrapnel in the abdomen." The records, drafted in 2013, said there was no documentation of the injury in Scott’s VA claims file, but an Army medical evaluation board nonetheless appeared to rule that the injury was sustained in 2007 while he was entitled to base pay.
Scott's former attorney, Kevin Pettrey, also told The Pilot in 2015 that his client had told him the explosion occurred in Iraq. Haugland recounted a similar story, indicating Scott told him he was injured in Baghdad.
Scott served in Iraq for about 14 months in 2006 and 2007 and then about six months in 2009. He served in Afghanistan from May to August 2011, according to the Army.
When confronted with the discrepancies, Scott said he had post-traumatic stress disorder and memory problems.
"I was blown up numerous times," he said. "I can't remember everything."