MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In Los Angeles, two elderly women are in jail in connection with a bizarre life insurance scam. Police believe they took out policies on homeless men and then arranged to have the men killed in carefully planned hit-and-runs. So far detectives know of two victims, but they claim the women may have lured others into their web.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Olga Rutterschmidt is 73, a Hungarian immigrant in Hollywood. Helen Golay is a 75-year-old grandmother who owns a triplex in Santa Monica. Neither has a criminal record and neighbors say they seem harmless enough. But L.A. police believe the pair masterminded a ruthless life insurance scam that left two homeless men dead.

PAUL VERNON: It's one of the most sinister evil types of cases that you would run against.

DEL BARCO: L.A. police lieutenant Paul Vernon says Rutterschmidt and Golay befriended the men, set them up in apartments and persuaded them to sign life insurance policies with the two women as sole beneficiaries.

VERNON: Once they had that one signature they would go to a stationery store and have a rubber stamp made, where they would then use that rubber stamp to complete 19 different insurance policies between just these two men.

DEL BARCO: FBI Special Agent Herb Brown says the policies on 50-year-old Kenneth McDavid and 73-year-old Paul Vados were worth more than two million dollars.

HERB BROWN: We have determined that at any given time, the two female defendants would represent themselves either as an aunt, a girlfriend or even at one point as a fiancé.

DEL BARCO: In 1999, Vados was found dead in an alley in Hollywood, the victim of a still unsolved hit-and-run. Then, last June, Kenneth McDavid died under similar circumstances and police got suspicious. Now they believe that Rutterschmidt and Golay may have been directly involved.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARSENIC AND OLD LACE)

DEL BARCO: Lieutenant Vernon says the case reminds him of the 1944 Cary Grant movie Arsenic and Old Lace, in which two elderly sisters poison a series of gentlemen who call on them to rent a room.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVE ARSENIC AND OLD LACE)

JOSEPHINE HULL: (as Abby Brewster) The gentleman died because he drank some wine with poison in it.

CARY GRANT: (as Mortimer Brewster) Well, how did the poison get in the wine?

JEAN ADAIR: (as Martha Brewster) Well, we put it in wine because it's less noticeable. When it's in tea it has a distinct odor.

DEL BARCO: But Vernon says there's one big difference between fact and fiction.

VERNON: In the movie, the women seemed innocent and naïve and maybe a little bit off. In this case these women were quite conniving and very measured in what they were doing in planning this out.

DEL BARCO: Six years ago Monumental Life Insurance argued in court that it shouldn't have to pay the death benefit for Paul Vados because the hit-and-run looked suspicious. Vados's children suggested even back then that the women were behind his death. But a year later a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of Rutterschmidt and Golay. Lieutenant Vernon says the pair must have known that in California life insurance companies can't contest a claim after two years.

VERNON: It would be naïve to think and improbable to think that there aren't other victims in between that six year period. Because you know, they were only waiting two years between taking out the policies and these men ending up being dead.

DEL BARCO: On Skid Row in downtown L.A. speculation that there may be more victims still unaccounted for is the talk of the street.

ED WRIGHT: Little old ladies, they pick a homeless guy and some how or another plan their murder and then turn back around and file the insurance claim and they're paid like two million a claim. That was deep.

DEL BARCO: And that worries 63-year-old Ed Wright, who like many other homeless people feel like a potential target.

WRIGHT: Because you can see it this way. The copycat thing. Somebody wants to do the same thing they've done.

DEL BARCO: 67-year-old Anthony Thomas says survival on the streets is hard enough for Skid Row's elderly, who are frequently robbed of their social security and disability money.

ANTHONY THOMAS: You just wait until next week on check day, you ain't seen anything yet. That's when the old people get their ass whooped and their money took.

DEL BARCO: For now, the two women, Rutterschmidt and Golay, remain in federal custody, charged only with mail fraud. But L.A. police are busy trying to build a murder case.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR New, Los Angeles.

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