Con man jailed for swindling friend in hospitalWhen Bryan Bowman Sr. showed up at his door, Carroll Johnson took him in. In return, Bowman took Johnson for all he was worth.
By: By Chris Hubbuch, La Crosse Tribune, Wis., Superior Telegram
When Bryan Bowman Sr. showed up at his door, Carroll Johnson took him in. In return, Bowman took Johnson for all he was worth.
Over two months last summer, while Johnson was hospitalized, Bowman took over his house and his identity, manipulating Johnson's daughters and racking up nearly $50,000 in charges in his name.
For that, Bowman will spend eight months in jail and three years on probation.
Though not the largest amount of money, Judge Elliott Levine called it one of the worst cases of fraud he has seen.
"I don't think I've ever seen quite the level of manipulation and conning you've done," he said. "You're a smart man. In the financial world, you're very dangerous."
A tale of betrayal
His eyes watering and voice quavering, Johnson told his story Tuesday in La Crosse County Circuit Court, where Bowman was sentenced for identity theft.
An accomplished amateur wheelchair athlete who worked for nearly two decades at Festival Foods, Johnson said he was in a deep depression in March 2011 after losing his job at Walmart. He was demoralized by a series of stays in the hospital for infections in his legs, paralyzed in a tree-cutting accident in 1980.
Johnson, 56, was lonely and had an extra room in his French Island home. Bowman said he and his teenage son had nowhere to live, but he ran a repo business and was expecting a big tax return.
"Bryan seemed like a very nice man," Johnson said. "And because my daughter, Julie, had sent him over and I had the utmost confidence in her judgment, I had no hesitations about opening my home to him."
Bowman agreed to pay $200 a month in rent, and the men became quick friends. Bowman's son even started calling Johnson "Grandpa."
"They became like a second family to me," Johnson said.
Bowman, who was on probation at the time for passing bad checks, helped Johnson apply for unemployment benefits. He typed his Social Security number into the computer and created a password. When he said he needed $2,800 to pay child support, Johnson loaned him the money.
Despite once being bankrupt, Johnson prided himself on a perfect credit score. He even bragged about it to his new roommate.
Meanwhile, Bowman had not paid rent.
Johnson ended up spending 53 days in the hospital last summer after doctors declared him incompetent to care for himself. He said Bowman came to his room and presented him with a document he said was a back-dated rent agreement.
"I never read it because I never thought he would mislead or hurt me," Johnson said.
During this time, Bowman told his friend he'd deposited $2,500 in his bank account.
"I was so happy that I told him not to worry about the remaining $300," Johnson said.
What he didn't know was that Bowman had used Johnson's own credit card to take out a cash advance. When Johnson was released from the hospital, Bowman took him out to dinner and to the races. Again, Johnson didn't realize he was the one footing the bill.
Still, when he discovered unauthorized charges on his credit card, Johnson hesitated to report it.
"I didn't want him to go to jail and lose his kids over $700," he said.
The next day, he and his son found another $11,000 in fraudulent charges.
And that was just the beginning. Johnson learned Bowman had used his credit cards - and others he took out in his name - to finance jewelry purchases and vacations, even Internet porn. The damage added up to more than $46,000, according to prosecutors.
"The man that I thought was my friend had robbed me blind," Johnson said.
Julie Carey, who knew Bowman as a teenager, said she had no idea the person she sent to live with her father was a con man. She described how Bowman tried to become Johnson's guardian while he was in the hospital.
"We just thought he was such a caring person," she said. "This is the man who called him Dad... This is the man who I considered my best friend. The entire time he was playing some sick game. None of us have ever experienced betrayal on this level."
'A big mistake'
Bowman, 41, pleaded guilty in June to one felony count of identity theft, for which he faced up to three years in prison. He said Tuesday he made "a big mistake" and that he's changed his life, though he still has "a long way to go."
"I used you, and for that I'm deeply sorry," he said. "I took advantage of a positive situation and ruined a good friendship."
As a condition of the deal, prosecutors agreed not to seek a harsher punishment than recommended by a pre-sentence investigation. Levine, the judge, said prison is appropriate based on the severity of the crime, but not without first trying reform in the community.
He stayed a three-year prison term that will take effect if Bowman fails on probation.
"There is a hammer coming down on you harder than you can even believe if you don't follow through," he said.
Levine sentenced Bowman to a one-year jail term -- the first eight months to be served in custody and the balance on house arrest. He is also ordered to pay $5,646.22 in restitution.
As conditions of his probation, Bowman is not allowed to have a computer, smart phone or Facebook account. He cannot have a credit card, debit card or checkbook -- all of which Levine called his "tools of manipulation."
Bowman is allowed a single email address and a savings account. He cannot own a business while on probation.
"You will be a cash-and carry-individual," Levine said.
(c)2012 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.)
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