A Green Bay man who swindled $30,000 from an elderly Waupaca woman will spend three years in prison.
Brown County Circuit Court Judge Donald Zuidmulder sentenced Matthew J. Lawrence, 47, to three years in prison and six years of extended supervision on Wednesday, Jan. 18, after Lawrence pleaded no contest to felony theft by fraud and abuse of a vulnerable adult.
For Janice Lytie, of Waupaca, Lawrence’s sentencing marks the end of a long ordeal.
In early January 2010, Lytie went to a Green Bay casino where she met with her sister. As Lytie played the slots, a man in his 40s sat down next to her and eventually, they struck up a conversation that lasted several hours. That was her first encounter with Lawrence.
“He told me about his wife dying of cancer and how much she suffered and how lonely he was. I felt so much empathy for this guy because my husband had died of leukemia,” Lytie said. “Everything he told me from then on, beginning with his wife’s death, was one lie after another.”
Over the next several weeks, Lawrence and Lytie exchanged phone calls. She visited him in Green Bay, and he visited her in Waupaca.
However, where Lytie saw an opportunity for friendship, Lawrence saw an opportunity to make money.
On Jan. 21, Lytie wired $850 via Western Union to Lawrence. She wired $900 to him on Jan. 28, then another $1,175 on Jan. 29.
On Feb. 3, she sent Lawrence $2,000 while he was in Syracuse, N.Y., and on March 1, she sent him $1,200 while he was in Chicago.
Each time Lytie gave Lawrence money, it was in response to a hardship story.
Lawrence told Lytie his carpet cleaning business was in trouble and that he needed help buying supplies and paying taxes. Then he said his friend was in Brown County jail and needed bail money. He said his car, which Lytie purchased for him, had broken down on I-94 in Chicago, so he needed money to tow and repair it.
Lytie recalls how one day in February, Lawrence arranged for her to meet his twin brother Pete while he was out of town.
“He kept telling me about his wonderful twin brother. He invited me to his house to meet his twin brother,” Lytie said. “When I got there, he was dressed up and pretending to be Pete. I knew the minute I saw him that it was Matt and not any twin brother.”
Lytie said she played along for awhile, then threatened to go back to Waupaca.
“He admitted he was Matt and said it was just a joke,” Lytie said, noting that he had used the same story on other victims.
Over the two months that Lytie was seeing Lawrence, he became more demanding and controlling.
“He’d call me on my home phone and my cell phone, again and again. If I wasn’t home, he’d keep calling every few minutes. He would leave so many messages that nobody else could get through,” Lytie said. “When he would finally get a hold of me, he would swear and yell at me and want to know where I had been.”
Lytie said Lawrence also attempted to persuade her to obtain a restraining order against her own children.
Gorman launches investigation
Accompanied by her son and daughter-in-law, Lytie came to the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department on March 12, 2010. She was reluctant to report Lawrence, because she felt embarrassed by what had happened.
After he began investigating the case, Detective Sgt. James Gorman soon uncovered the extent of Lawrence’s lies. He found that Lawrence’s wife was not dead.
In fact, she had filed for a divorce in June 2004 after Lawrence beat her so severely she was taken to the hospital.
Lawrence was convicted of misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct on July 12, 2004, in Brown County. He was placed on two years of probation with the condition that he have no contact with his ex-wife and pay her $1,100 in restitution.
In March 2005, Lawrence was convicted of forgery uttering and sentenced to one year in state prison and two years of extended supervision. The victims were women.
In October 2007, Lawrence’s probation was revoked, and he was sentenced to two more years in prison.
At the same time Gorman was investigating Lawrence, Brown County Adult Protective Services was seeking a court injunction against Lawrence because he had been seeing a disabled woman.
While speaking with the County Post, Gorman opened a binder with more than 500 pages of reports, photos and interview notes that were part of his investigation. He pointed to photos of a bruised and battered woman in a hospital bed, then to reports involving several women who have accused Lawrence of stealing from them.
Gorman estimates at least half a dozen Wisconsin, most of them in their 70s, have fallen prey to Lawrence.
“I’m finding all these women who have been victims and I can’t believe my eyes,” Gorman said. “I came to realize that this guy is a monster and has got to be stopped.”
Gorman said he believed Lawrence posed a danger to Lytie and he encouraged her to seek a restraining order against Lawrence.
On March 26, 2010, Gorman personally served the order to Lawrence when he came to Lytie’s home in Waupaca, then took him to the jail for questioning.
During the interview, Lawrence said he thought his relationship with Lytie had been going well until she found out about all the lies he had been telling.
He admitted to lying about his age, lying about the death of his wife, lying about his vehicle being stalled on I-94, lying about his friend being in jail and needing bail money and lying about his taxes. He said he spent much of the money on gambling.
Lawrence also told Gorman that he had ongoing relationships with elderly women from Neenah and Green Bay.
When Gorman interviewed Lawrence’s ex-wife, she said they had been married for less than a year. In that time, he had accumulated $180,000 in credit card debt. She said she knew of two women, one in Wisconsin and the other in Maine, that she believed Lawrence had previously swindled.
Brown County takes the case
In late March, Gorman presented the information from his investigation to the Waupaca County district attorney’s office. It was more than 500 pages long. He met with Assistant District Attorney Vicki Taggatz.
Throughout April, the district attorney’s office did not press charges against Lawrence. Lytie made frequent calls but was unable to learn the status of her case. She believed that the district attorney would not prosecute the case.
On April 28, 2010, Amy Temby, a social worker with Waupaca County Adult Protective Services, emailed District Attorney John Snider regarding the case. She asked him to file charges against Lawrence.
Snider responded, “Does the theft by fraud statute cover these facts? It appears other prosecutors reached the conclusion that it does not.”
On May 26, 2011, Taggatz sent a letter to Lytie regarding the case.
“I do not believe sufficient evidence exists that any criminal activity occurred in Waupaca County,” Taggatz said in her letter. “With regard to some of the loans, the only evidence we have suggests that they were used for legitimate purposes. There are other loans where the money was used for gambling.”
Taggatz noted two of the loans were clearly used for gambling, and those took place in Green Bay within Brown County jurisdiction.
“I have asked Capt. Don Conat of the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department to refer this matter to Brown County authorities for review and possible prosecution,” Taggatz said.
Snider provided Taggitz’s correspondence on the case in response to questions from the County Post.
“Vicki determined the venue was in Brown County because the conduct occurred there,” Snider said.
Lytie and Gorman later contacted the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups and the state attorney general’s office.
They also contacted Brown County District Attorney John Zakowski, who agreed to prosecute the case. Gorman said a homicide and a major drug bust in Brown County caused work on Lytie’s case to be delayed.
In June 2011, Zakowski filed charges against Lawrence based on evidence from Gorman’s investigation. The charges were for felony theft through fraud and abuse of a vulnerable adult occurring between Jan. 10 and March 30, 2010. Lawrence pleaded no contest to both counts.
Lytie, who is in her early 70s, wants other older adults to be aware of the predators who can steal a lifetime of savings in the blink of an eye.
“I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to somebody else,” Lytie said, adding that she plans to meet with the attorney general’s office in Madison to seek tougher laws.
She also noted her appreciation for the efforts of Gorman and Temby to bring her case to justice.
“As I go over this case and see all these victims, I can’t help but wonder how many more victims are out there,” Gorman said.