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Sarasota man held in lottery swindle


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 2000

TAMPA -- The man who called Ruth Davidson said he was a lawyer. In a soft voice, he told the 83-year-old retired dietitian she was getting $178,000 from the Canadian lottery.

The only catch: She would have to pay $6,000 in taxes first.

"He was just so convincing," Mrs. Davidson said Monday. "He said his mother sounded the same way I did."

In the end, Mrs. Davidson sent nearly $60,000 to addresses in St. Petersburg and Montreal, supposedly for taxes and insurance. She never saw her award. And she's still waiting for her money back.

Mrs. Davidson is one of 13 victims listed in a 53-count federal indictment unsealed Monday, charging a Canadian citizen named Serges Jacques "Jack" Descent, 63, with running a $1.5-million telemarketing scam through his St. Petersburg businesses.

The scam targeted people in their 70s and 80s who had previously participated in foreign sweepstakes, or who had been identified as easy marks, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Callers claimed to be working with the Canadian government to disburse lottery winnings to rightful owners. But to collect, a winner had to pay taxes, insurance or other handling fees up front.

Some of those fees were sent to Descent's business, Group Crown International Inc. at 3235 Fairfield Ave. S in St. Petersburg, the indictment states.

The indictment charges no co-conspirators, although it describes a number of calls being made by people claiming to be lawyers, government agents and even a Canadian municipal court judge. Callers urged many of the victims not to report their conversations to anyone, to protect imaginary investigations, the indictment states.

Descent faces 53 counts of mail fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. Penalties for each count range from 5 to 20 years.

The indictment also seeks return of the $1.5-million, or, if that money is not available, possible forfeiture of Descent's foreign and domestic bank accounts, property owned by the Fairfield Commerce Center Inc. and a 1993 Mercedes.

Descent, a Sarasota resident, had his initial appearance before a federal magistrate late Monday afternoon.

The prosecutor asked that Descent be held without bond to await trial, saying Descent traveled abroad frequently and was a risk to flee.

Descent called that request "ridiculous." He said he had been in this country 37 years, that he ran a business with 11 employees, that he had invented a product and invested $3-million in its manufacture.

"I have a home, with a wife and family," Descent told the judge. "I have nowhere else to go. I'm 63 years old. To hold me here is ridiculous."

But U.S. Magistrate Mark Pizzo ordered him held until he could appear at a bail hearing Thursday. Davidson, who lives near San Francisco, said Monday she was glad to hear Descent was being prosecuted. "Maybe it'll save somebody else," she said.

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