Mellisa’s frozen in her tracks, her gaze glued to the woman. This had to be some kind of joke, right? She feels sick to her stomach while a million questions run through her mind; had this woman been fooling her all this time? Where was her child? Where was her ‘baby bump’? Nothing made sense.
She feels her blood boil as she stands soaked in frustration and anger. Melissa knew she had to follow the woman, she had to find out the truth. But she never expected to uncover this woman’s harrowing web of lies.
Whenever Melissa Smith did her errands in her hometown of Sam Diego California, she could always count on seeing the same friendly faces at her local grocery store. She could be picking up dry cleaning, groceries for tea, or just having a quick browse, and she’d soon be greeted by the beaming smiles from her fellow townspeople.
But there was another person that Melissa could always count on seeing – a panhandler, and Melissa had no idea just how much this panhandler was going to turn her world upside down.
Unbeknownst to Mellisa, this beggar was smart. She knew exactly what to do. She had claimed a small spot outside East Lake Village Center—a shopping plaza that contained grocery stores, restaurants, vintage stores, clothing departments, sweet shops, florists, and jewelry stores. Constant consumers were walking by with pockets full of change.
The beggar knew the area would be full of people willing to donate some money once they noticed her big bump. But she never thought Melissa would be keeping tabs on her.
One warm summer day, Melissa hopped out her car and made her way into the supermarket; she saw the same beggar stand in the scorching sun in stained clothes. But this time, the beggar had company.
Melissa had seen a strange man with them on more than one occasion—she presumed it was her husband. She had become well known in the area, and Melissa always noticed shoppers drop her hot drinks and sandwiches. They managed to stir the emotions of the public. Soon, they would have an extra member to help with their collection. But Melissa couldn’t contain her curiosity.
Melissa had started to pity the beggar. And to make things worse, the poor beggar had mouths to feed and a family waiting for their next meal.
With every glance Mellisa gave the beggar, her heart shattered; no mother should live like this; standing in the California summer heat, heavily pregnant and begging for money. But Melissa had no idea what was coming. despite this, Melissa couldn’t let her suspicions go.
The pregnant beggar had much experience. She knew what it would take to get the attention of customers and passersby. She knew what it would take to make them pity her.
She created the perfect story—a mother and her young son fight for survival. To get herself noticed, she held a cardboard sign with “please help” scrawled across in black ink. If they didn’t feel sorry for her little boy, they were bound to feel sorry for her unborn child. She made sure to hold the sign just above her bulging bump. Maybe she was genuine. Either way, Melissa had to make sure, but she had no idea what was in store for her.
Melissa lived close to the beggar’s favorite location. Usually, she did her shopping early before the after-school rush, but on this particular day, it was nearly closing time and to her surprise, the woman was missing from her normal perch. Understandably, Melissa was slightly worried.
Melissa loaded her trunk with her groceries and just as she was about to hop back into the car, she saw something across the road on a lamppost. And what it read left her feeling sick to her stomach.
Melissa raced over to the lamppost to see what the poster said. “MISSING,” it read in a big and bold font. Below the text was a picture of a little boy, no older than 7. He had bright blue eyes and a smile that could light up a room.
Melissa’s heart broke at the thought of this little boy being missing. She felt for his mother; she could only imagine the type of horror she’s going through. Melissa whipped out her phone and snapped a picture of the poster before getting back into her car. But something still plagued Melissa’s mind. Where was the beggar?
The woman beggar had to be ok, right? Maybe she was out somewhere else looking for money? Melissa dismissed her thoughts and hopped into her car, but as she reversed out the parking lot she saw something. Little did she know, it would start an investigation.
Melissa saw that the pregnant beggar was at the side of the shopping complex, holding her sign in an attempt to get a few more pennies. Then suddenly, a vehicle raced around the corner and headed straight towards her. Who was the driver? Was the woman in trouble? And where was her little boy? Melissa watched on to see what would happen, but as her gaze rested on the vehicle that stopped beside the woman, her suspicions only grew stronger. She had no idea what was coming.
Melissa had hundred of questions running through her mind. She was super confused. What was she seeing? The driver was none other than the woman’s partner! But that wasn’t the most surprising part.
The man was driving a Mercedes Benz – a luxury car – well known for its leather interiors and expensive price tags. What was the woman doing sitting in a luxurious vehicle? Melissa didn’t hesitate to act but later on, she made headlines. And her whole world turned upside down.
Not only was the car an expensive brand, but it was spotless, pretty much brand new! Melissa knew she had to follow the couple; she recorded the entire incident on her phone as she managed to catch up with the two, who was laughing uncontrollably.
They were counting money and their little boy was not even sat in a car seat or seatbelt. Melissa felt her blood boil. She knew she had to notify the public! But she never expected their lies to spin so far.
Melissa quietly crept behind the two masterminds. To her surprise, they stopped outside yet another shopping center. It looked like the two con artists had everything planned to the last detail.
Then, the woman got out and took center stage. She sat on the floor with the sign, receiving money from strangers, while her partner parked the thousand dollar car. Finally, Melissa had caught her in the act. But she never expected her discovery to involve the authorities. Unbeknownst to her, she was just scratching the surface of something much more sinister.
Melissa was fearless. She marched right up to the woman and began to take pictures of her and her son. Was the little boy even her son? When they spotted Melissa, they turned vicious. They began to yell and scream at her, and even grabbed a huge rock that was anchoring their sign.
A woman close by witnessed the entire incident and decided to call the cops, but once the beggar saw another person with a phone, she grabbed her little boy by the hand and ran. They thought Melissa would give up, but she was persistent.
Melissa wasn’t going to let her get away that easy. She knew she had to expose them for what they are; thieves and liars. She immediately posted everything on social media and then got in contact with the local news station.
The news station was curious and journalists became obsessed with the story. What else were they hiding? Residents couldn’t believe Melissa’s discovery. They were hurt and shocked by the ‘homeless’ woman’s actions. How could she prey on the pity of others? Then, one call caused journalists to grab their crew and leap to a new scene.
The panhandler had been spotted! A woman called Rebecca was out in a shopping center and had heard the story and recognized the woman from the video Melissa had shared online.
Once word reached Emily Valdez, she piled her crew into their van and drove. They refused to let her slip away again. Valdez followed the tip and raced around the shopping center in search of the mysterious woman. When she finally found the woman she was perplexed. Wasn’t the woman pregnant? It had been two days since Melissa discovered the truth. Now, this woman was holding a baby. But Valdez didn’t hesitate. She knew she had to be quick.
“Is this you, begging?” Valdez held the microphone to the woman and showed the video on her phone. The woman’s face went as white as a ghost. Then, her gaze rose to Valdez, and then to the camera. “I don’ speak English,” she whispered.
A small boy tugged at her jumper as the woman tried to get away. Then, as Valdez began to follow the woman, her husband appeared. “Keep the camera rolling!” Valdez wasn’t afraid of fighting for a good story. The man dismissed the cameramen but they followed and watched them pile into the back of a minivan. Valdez pondered over the husband. There was something about his reaction that made her believe there was more to uncover. And she was so right.
Originally, the man had spoken to Valdez in Spanish. Then, he whispered something to his partner in another language. Valdez didn’t understand what he said, but she knew she had to find out.
Valdez downloaded the footage, found the brief encounter, placed the headphones on her head, and pressed play. The throaty language played over and over again in her ears. What was he saying? Later, she received an unexpected phone call from an expert, and everything changed.
Leslie Albright, a retired detective, had seen Valdez’s short interview with the suspects. Over her career that spanned over 25 years, she became a specialist. But something about the short interview had her thinking. It picked at her curiosity like a scab on her arm.
She had heard that language before, but where exactly? As hard as she’s tried she couldn’t put her finger on it. Then, it hit her. This was no ordinary beggar. This was someone far more sinister.
Leslie had spent years and years catching criminals, and beggars aren’t usually involved in any offenses, but when she heard this man speak in a foreign language, she knew there was much more to this story.
After she rewound Valdez’s interview and played the sentence, the detective knew he was speaking Romani. She was sure of the couple’s involvement with an organized crime ring she had spent years trying to disband. But would justice ever be served?
This particular group had started their ring following their illegal entry into the United States. Over the years, Leslie had discovered their homes in inexpensive apartment blocks and their multiple vehicles, allowing them to scam multiple unsuspecting targets on more than one occasion.
Leslie shared her conclusion—the man and woman were co-workers rather than lovers, and the pregnancy was one big scam. What else had this crime ring orchestrated? Unfortunately, there were more layers to this story.
Authorities have spent time and effort trying to bring these perpetrators to justice. However, they rarely stay in one spot long enough to be caught. Once they even suspect the residents are onto their act, they pack their few belongings into the back of their vans and flee. Later, more evidence surfaces.
Turns out, the female beggar often stuffs her jumpers with foam in order to appear pregnant. And the fake belly manages to gain her over $500 daily. But she’s not the only one woman pretending to be pregnant in order to make cash.
Leslie explained that the workings of a crime ring are very complex, but it is the men who lead the operation. In exchange for a day’s work, men promise desperate women food and shelter.
They are then dispatched around the country every morning and collected in the evening. Those at the top don’t distribute the profits fairly. Instead, they spend it on their own lavish lifestyles. Unfortunately, there’s more left to this story.
They’ll use the babies, children, anyway they can… the children will not go to school because their job and their future are the Family Business,” Leslie later shared. These children are uneducated.
To most, a life of crime is all they have ever known. “People should know, there’s plenty of service and organizations that exist to help people and especially for women with children.
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.”
Leslie’s former team is still working tirelessly to pinpoint those at the top of the underground organization. Thanks to Melissa’s intuition, she managed to expose the truth behind these beggars. But if these criminals can’t be caught, will they ever stop?