IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Investigators say a $730,000 swindle started with a sweet pitch: an Iowa woman sent friends hand-written notes asking for loans so she could surprise her husband with gifts for his birthday or their anniversary.
Beverly De Ronde, 60, of Pella, would explain that she wanted to buy tools or equipment while there was a big sale. She promised to pay the loans back soon with interest — but told friends and family to keep the arrangement secret so her husband wouldn't find out. "There are no greater relatives or friends than you both. Because of you, I am making a dream come true," she wrote to one couple.
In a federal indictment unsealed Thursday, prosecutors say the letters were part of a seven-year scheme in which De Ronde conned co-workers, relatives, friends and acquaintances throughout southern Iowa. They say she used the money to buy herself antiques, jewelry, Rolex watches and other items and then borrowed more to partially pay off earlier debts.
De Ronde has been charged with 12 counts of mail fraud and ordered to appear Sept. 19 in federal court in Des Moines for an arraignment. Her phone rang unanswered Friday morning, and an attorney representing her in a personal bankruptcy case didn't immediately return a phone message.
"She said she needed the money because she had to buy some anniversary present for her husband. I was pretty dumb about that," said Elizabeth Van Dusseldorp, 86, of Pella, who loaned De Ronde more than $41,000 in 2009. "I should have known you wouldn't need that many thousands of dollars for an anniversary gift. But she said she hadn't given him anything big and she wanted to buy him some tools."
Van Dusseldorp said she knew De Ronde because they both worked at a company that prints the local weekly newspaper in Pella, a city of 10,000 about 45 miles southeast of Des Moines. She said De Ronde was a good worker and a fun person who liked to tell stories and often went boating and snowmobiling in Wisconsin.
Van Dusseldorp said she figured that her friend would pay her back with the $4,000 promised interest, although all she ever received were gifts of five $100 bills and a $100 gift certificate to a grocery store.
The indictment says De Ronde started borrowing money in 2003 and continued through 2010, when she filed for bankruptcy. She would send her victims checks that she claimed could be cashed at later dates or repay small parts of the loans to gain their trust, the indictment said.
Then, in 2010, she sent her lenders a letter saying she was "spending beyond my means" and telling them to have no further contact with her or her husband, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
About a dozen lenders have filed legal action in De Ronde's bankruptcy case trying to prevent their debts from being waived. A trial is scheduled for next month, but De Ronde's attorney is asking for the case to be delayed until the outcome of the criminal prosecution.
The U.S. Attorney's Office disclosed its criminal investigation earlier this month, when agents served a search warrant at De Ronde's home on Aug. 15. U.S. District Judge John Jarvey has ordered De Ronde and her husband to hold on to dozens of antiques, ranging from stained glass windows to dry sinks, that agents say may have been purchased with money from the scheme. The antiques may be subject to forfeiture if De Ronde is convicted.
One of those trying to get their money back is Florence Rempe, of Leighton, who loaned De Ronde the most of any victim, more than $268,000 between 2003 and 2005. The money was given in increments of $8,000 or $15,000 for "Joel's surprise," according to bankruptcy records. Rempe declined to comment Friday.
"It's difficult to lose that kind of money and not feel some sort of hardship," said Donald Neiman, a lawyer representing several of De Ronde's victims. "I think they are happy to see that something is being done."