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Feature • Filed 06:00 A.M. 08.01.2019

The King of Dreams

A Texas con artist made millions promising prisoners' families the thing they wanted most: To bring their children home.

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Just a few weeks after their mother, Betty, died on Christmas Day 2013, Rhonda Peck and her brother Larry began the long, painful process of sorting through her stuff.

Most of Betty’s belongings were crammed into two storage units, while the spillover took up significant room in Rhonda’s house in Austin, Texas. Betty was a “paper freak,” according to her daughter, and hated to throw away documents. One morning, surrounded by boxes of old receipts and family photos, Larry called from the study, “Rhonda, come here!” Holding a creased piece of paper covered in his mother’s shaky cursive, he read aloud: “To Larry and Rhonda . . . Concerning Rob’s Release.” Rob (not his real name) was their oldest brother and was serving time in federal prison. “Should anything happen to me, contact Alvin Warrick . . .”

Photographs of Rhonda Peck and Martha Highfill by Eli Reed for The Marshall Project

This story was published in partnership with Amazon Original Stories.

Rhonda snatched the paper from his hands. She knew that name—in the months before her mother died, Rhonda had heard her repeat it with increasing frequency. Warrick would call Betty, and they would talk for hours like old friends. “I’m workin’ on something, but I can’t really talk about it,” Betty would say about their chats, as if she were planning a surprise birthday party.

The note listed several other names and phone numbers. “I have paid them close to $300,000.00 as of 5-6-09,” it said. Rhonda felt nauseous. She knew her mother had been giving this man money, but she had no idea it was that much. “Alvin has this information. You can work with him. He is good and wants Rob out!”

The last line was underlined, imploring them to continue her “work” with Warrick. “Please follow through so all I have done will not be lost.”

Rhonda and Larry wondered how much more Betty had spent in the years since she’d written the note to them. As they riffled through their mother’s records—handwritten calculations, annotated phone bills, receipts for wire transfers and withdrawals—the numbers started adding up: $3,000 more on Sept. 10, 2010; $1,500 on Oct. 1, 2013; $1,000 on Nov. 3, 2013. Betty had continued to pay Warrick until the month she died. Altogether she’d spent nearly $400,000 trying to bring her eldest son home.

Betty had always been Rob’s “biggest fan,” according to Rhonda. Long after Rhonda and Larry had moved four hours west to Austin, Rob remained in their hometown of Beaumont, Texas. He and his mom talked on the phone daily and saw each other twice a week. She would cook her pork chops, greens and pinto beans, and the two would visit for hours. They relied on each other. Betty—a chatty southern belle who was always carefully coiffed and well dressed—had been widowed twice and lived comfortably off what her husbands had left her. But she lived alone, so Rob helped with chores and home repairs. Rob had been divorced and lost his only son to a drug overdose in 2003. Amid all his pain, Betty was his main source of comfort. “Her life was her kids, and we felt the same about her,” Rob said. He moved into his mom’s ivy-covered three-bedroom brick home not long after his son died, as she needed more help with daily tasks.

In 2004 FBI agents arrived at Betty’s house with a warrant and seized Rob’s computer, which contained images of child pornography. He had no prior criminal record and claimed in court filings that he had spiraled downward after the death of his son. The whole family was confused and devastated, especially Betty. During the trial, she tried to appear fiercely positive, attending every hearing and reminding Rob that they would get through it. But he often could see her, sitting beside Larry in the courtroom gallery, with tears in her eyes. A federal judge in Texas sentenced him to 10 years in prison. (Rob asked to remain anonymous because he feared he could lose his job.)

In January 2014, Rhonda Peck and her brother Larry found evidence that their late mother had paid a mysterious man upward of $300,000 trying to bring her eldest son home from federal prison.

Rob and Betty’s get-togethers moved to the stark visiting room of FCI Beaumont, a federal prison 15 miles from Betty’s house. Instead of her pork chops, they ate sandwiches and salads with Thousand Island dressing from the prison vending machines. Betty was there so often she came to know everyone by name, from the guards who patted her down to the other visitors in the waiting room. The families formed an informal support group. They chatted while going through security and would go out to dinner together, especially when one couple was visiting their son all the way from Lebanon. Betty kept spare clothes in her car in case another visitor failed to pass the prison’s dress code. When she and her friends parted ways, they joked, “See ya at the country club!” If Betty’s kids were her life, now FCI Beaumont was too.

Roughly two years into Rob’s sentence, Betty started dropping hints to her son about a secret project. She refused to say more. “I know what I’m doing,” she told him. When Rob had particularly hard days, she’d pat his arm and say in her warm southern drawl, “You’re gonna be fine. You’re gettin’ out of here before you know it.”

Not many people in Betty’s position knew the name Alvin Warrick. But dozens of inmates’ families all over the country would soon know the same man by the name Peter Candlewood, founder and CEO of the Houston-based company Private Services.

Candlewood said he was a consultant who could bring inmates home from federal prison—for a price. His LinkedIn page said he had graduated from University of Phoenix and, in his spare time, volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. It said he’d been in the business of reducing federal sentences since June 2004. (Candlewood’s Facebook page was a little more mysterious. His profile picture was of the U.S. Supreme Court and most of his 95 friends were from Ethiopia.) He told some of his customers he had been in federal prison himself and was working off the books for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In a mailer printed on company letterhead, Private Services advertised that it could free prisoners under what’s known as Rule 35(b). Under federal law, a court can retroactively shorten a sentence if someone “provides substantial assistance in investigating or prosecuting another person.” Although it’s not often used, the rule usually applies to a defendant who hands over valuable information about associates or about others who have committed crimes. But most family members who became clients of Private Services, like Betty, didn’t have dirt on criminals. So they paid Candlewood and his colleagues to find that information for them.

Candlewood claimed to run a network of confidential informants who could dig up intelligence on drug traffickers by coordinating undercover drug buys. His clients funded the operation, and in exchange for putting the dealers behind bars, their own loved ones would get out of prison sooner. Candlewood asked for hundreds of thousands of dollars from each client, mostly to pay the informants, he said, along with a modest fee for himself and his colleagues. That included Diane Rice, his right-hand woman, who communicated with customers, coordinated the money and provided a comforting ear for parents whose children were locked up. There was Alfred Lane, a partner in the business, who set the price for customers. Last, there was Nancy McCann, a private investigator who the company said would work with judges and prosecutors to ensure inmates got credit for their help.

Private Services required that families pay several thousand dollars up front for the company to review their case. How much the entire deal would cost depended on how many “cases,” or individuals referred to the federal government for prosecution, would be required to get someone out.

If approved, clients would be sent a letter of agreement between their federal prosecutors and McCann, printed on federal court letterhead, assuring them that they were working together on a deal. Candlewood usually refused to provide references from any formerly incarcerated people he had helped spring free—the business was called Private Services for a reason. References could put his previous clients at risk and compromise his work with the informants, he said. There were a lot of drug lords out there unhappy with the work he was doing—he had to keep quiet. Despite Candlewood’s secrecy about former clients, many inmates were swayed by fellow prisoners who were praising his work. One inmate, who ultimately decided not to use Candlewood’s services, said the question was posed to him like this: “How much is your freedom worth to you?”

Alvin Warrick’s operation, which eventually became known as Private Services, began in Beaumont; it seems that Betty was one of his first clients. Her family doesn’t know how the two met, but she started sending him money around 2007. Then she shared his information with her friends from the “country club,” who soon became clients too. Cathy Zuniga from Texas signed up, as did the Najjar family from Lebanon. As word spread, Sue Wade in West Texas said she “jumped right on it,” after her son had been “thrown under the bus” at sentencing, as did Tony Martinez, a former prison guard in Upstate New York. A cluster of federal inmates in the Florida Panhandle paid Private Services via their families too.

Back at FCI Beaumont, 79-year-old Martha Highfill’s son Jack (not his real name) heard about Candlewood’s company from a fellow inmate in late 2014. Jack’s friend showed him the signed agreement between his prosecutor and McCann, which said that in exchange for eight criminal cases provided to the FBI or DEA, they had agreed to his “full and final immediate release.” (Jack asked to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted while still in prison.)

Jack, who was just two years into a nine-year sentence for fraud, had gotten divorced since his arrest and wasn’t speaking to his daughter. He was desperate to start rebuilding his life. He’d written to President Barack Obama and every one of his Congress members and had submitted multiple pardon applications, but all went unanswered. When he heard about Candlewood’s offer, he thought it might be his ticket out.

In a series of letters and emails with Jack, Candlewood agreed to a $2,000 retainer and touted a “90% success rate” for his clients. “Bottom Line: We can help YOU drastically reduce your prison sentence,” he wrote.

"We thought, this is real, this is good. I'm hiring snitches for the government. I believed [Candlewood] because I believed my son."

Martha Highfill

“This was our only hope,” said Martha, who had googled “Rule 35(b)” and seen it was a legitimate law in the federal criminal code. “We thought, this is real, this is good. I’m hiring snitches for the government. I believed [Candlewood] because I believed my son.”

The first “case” would cost the family $4,500, Candlewood said. He needed the money right away so that he could run the drug busts that weekend. Jack’s sister, Angie, who had access to his bank account, wrote a check and handed it off to Diane Rice, who came to pick it up at Angie’s office in Houston.

Soon after she sent the money, Martha got a call from Rice: Jack’s money had helped take down a 35-year-old drug dealer from Houston named David Neuman, who had bought 62 grams of crack from their informant on Saturday and another 40 grams on Sunday. That was enough to prosecute Neuman as a serious dealer, but it wasn’t enough to erase Jack’s sentence, according to Private Services.

Soon Rice was calling every couple of weeks, telling Martha how much more money the company needed for “cases” planned for that weekend. When Jack’s savings ran out, Martha traveled to different banks, cashing in her own savings bonds and certificates of deposit and withdrawing her retirement funds.

Rice called to update Martha on each of the undercover drug deals her money had funded. She used code words for drugs like “Green Beans” and “Scorpion” and talked about the RICO Act, the federal law used to take down criminal networks. She usually included the full name of the person they’d busted, their age, the amount of drugs and their hometown. Martha would try researching the names Rice mentioned, but she always came up empty. She figured the cases hadn’t yet gone to trial, and there wasn’t any news because the arrests hadn’t been made public.

While assisting the FBI's investigation into Warrick, Martha Highfill turned to the same criminal justice system that had made her family vulnerable to the scam in the first place.

Meanwhile, Jack was emailing with Candlewood almost daily through CorrLinks, a service used in federal prisons. Candlewood seemed knowledgeable about the system and used law enforcement lingo to give Jack detailed play-by-plays of every drug deal he paid for. “Remember, the Intel advises the [target] be hands on when the ambush takes place,” he wrote to Jack. “The mule will be present and can squeal or blow the whistle, which can break the case.” Once when Jack asked whether any of the dealers they had caught were facing charges yet, Candlewood assured him that they couldn’t prosecute anyone “until your final caseload is closed. This is for the safety and well-being of the workers.”

Their correspondence grew more intense as the months dragged on and Jack was still behind bars. “My case in general has become so many times larger than we ever anticipated,” Jack wrote to Candlewood. “Somehow we must find a way to keep a lid on my costs . . . I will continue to pray for our success.” Jack asked Candlewood to ask Alfred Lane, the financial manager of Private Services, for a discount, especially because he had referred other inmates to his company. Lane wouldn’t budge, Candlewood said. “Try not to worry and stay positive, don’t let the devil in. We have the workers working very hard for you.”

For Jack, it was easier to blame the wait on the legal system rather than the people he was paying. “I have done more than my fair share of the work to obtain my release . . . Right now, I feel like I am being abused by the feds,” he wrote in October 2015, 11 months after he started paying Private Services.

By then Jack was emotionally and financially exhausted. He had used up his daughter’s college fund, sold property and borrowed money from friends. His mother had drained most of her retirement funds. And yet he was still stuck in FCI Beaumont. “This process has bled us dry,” Jack wrote to Candlewood. “We are being posted for foreclosures.” But he was in too deep to back out. And Candlewood assured him: Just a little bit longer, just a little more money. “The finish line is in sight,” he wrote.

Alvin Warrick grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, home to the largest oil refinery in North America. His grandfather worked at the refinery for 39 years. His father worked there, too, until he died in 1988 from lung cancer, a fate for which his family successfully sued. Despite his lineage, Alvin Warrick had different plans.

Colitha Bush, known as Diane Rice or Diane Lane to her clientele, met Warrick in 1996 when she was 16 years old, a sophomore and cheerleader at Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur. He was 21; her mom was friends with Warrick’s uncle. “He was charming and good looking; he had a nice car,” Bush remembers. He drove a Jaguar he said he’d bought with his settlement money. Though he went on to create a fake identity, Warrick seemed like someone who wanted you to know his name. Bush remembers him throwing block parties in the city park with free food, prizes and dance contests. He called himself an “entrepreneur.” “He never told me a lot of his business,” Bush said. “He was kind of secretive.”

Two months after they met, she became pregnant with their first child and soon dropped out of high school. Bush had also grown up in Port Arthur, one of 11 kids, almost all one year apart. Some of her siblings work in law enforcement, while others have been caught up in the criminal justice system. Two sisters are former corrections officers in Texas state prisons. Another is a federal prison guard, and another is a cop with the Port Arthur Police Department. Two brothers have served time in Texas prisons. One made national headlines when prosecutors wanted to surgically remove a bullet from his forehead to use as evidence against him in a criminal case.

Bush and Warrick had nine children together. She has his name tattooed on her shoulder and thigh. She mostly stayed at home with the kids, she said, sometimes doing hair and makeup for friends. Bush has claimed in court filings that Warrick verbally abused her and had given her black eyes, which Warrick denies.

"Try not to worry and stay positive, don't let the devil in. We have the workers working very hard for you."

Peter Candlewood

By the time Bush and Warrick met, he had been arrested three times for drugs. According to Bush and a former DEA agent, sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, Warrick started helping the Drug Enforcement Administration bring down dealers in Houston to avoid going to prison himself. “He was very helpful, because he had a lot of connections,” said former DEA agent Robert Cartwright. “The thing about Warrick is he was smarter than the average informant. And you have to watch those guys a lot closer.”

Warrick’s criminal activity eventually caught up with him, and he was sent to prison in 2003 for dealing cocaine. Soon after he came home in 2006, he landed in court again, suspected of laundering drug money. According to court documents, Warrick would walk into Louisiana casinos and buy thousands of dollars in chips—with cash—then gamble briefly before cashing out. In total, he brought over $100,000 into casinos this way, all money he claimed he’d gotten from family members. He told the judge he was a gambling addict who needed treatment. The judge put him on house arrest.

Warrick eventually held a few odd jobs in Beaumont and Port Arthur, working at the refinery and then at an auto-repair shop. He licensed a business called High Roller Entertainment to promote events at clubs. He ran dice games with a group of friends. But his most lucrative scheme was yet to come.

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It’s not quite clear where Warrick got the idea for Private Services, though his time as a confidential informant may have inspired the framework.

While the scheme seems to have started with Betty and her friends from FCI Beaumont, Warrick’s operation soon expanded beyond Texas and grew more sophisticated. By 2012 he had adopted his alias Peter Candlewood. (Bush doesn’t know where he picked up the name, though there is a Candlewood Suites hotel near Port Arthur.) He stopped allowing customers to write checks, requiring wire transfers instead. Ronald Bennett Shepherd, Bush’s cousin, officially registered the company name in Texas. Warrick got letterhead, a LinkedIn page and a Facebook account for his alter ego. The group opened multiple bank accounts in which to deposit the money. Warrick also started paying people in federal prisons to lie about their reduced sentences.

Warrick was not quiet about his newfound wealth—he tweeted about it constantly on his personal account. “I been with BEN FRANKLIN so much he starting to look like me,” he wrote in June 2013, next to a $100 bill with his face Photoshopped onto it. When someone tweeted, “damn can I ask what you do . . . wish I was in that business,” he replied: “a little bit of this a little bit of that.”

Warrick and Bush used the money to support their kids, as well as children he had with other women. He continued gambling and spent much of his new fortune at strip clubs. Videos on YouTube and Instagram show him throwing fistfuls of cash at women, sometimes aggressively flicking it bill by bill into the air. In other videos he seems almost bored, simply letting stacks of money fall from his hand. One caption for a 2012 video claims he spent “10,000 plus” for eight straight weeks at Dreams, a strip club in Houston. It ends with one of the dancers holding a poster of Warrick’s face that reads: KING OF DREAMS, THANK U FOR YOUR CONTINUED SUPPORT. Warrick often used the nickname “King,” “King Alvin,” or “King of Dreams.” King Alvin (or Alvon) was his Instagram handle and the hashtag at the top of his Twitter page. It adorned his 40th-birthday cake. But his reign wouldn’t last forever. In September 2016 Bush tweeted a photo of Warrick with his hands up, a slight grimace on his face, along with lyrics from a Drake song: “They know . . . They know They KNOW!”

They did know, long before Bush tweeted. Many of Warrick’s clients had been paying Candlewood for months or even years and still weren’t reunited with their locked-up loved ones. Several people realized that the address they’d been given for Private Services was simply a mailbox at a postal center. A few clients asked to meet at the company’s office and were told they couldn’t because someone had recently thrown a Molotov cocktail through the window.

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One by one, Warrick’s customers started to catch on.

After Cathy Zuniga’s son transferred out of FCI Beaumont, she received a letter and phone call from a former inmate. He told her Warrick was a con artist and that her money—some $300,000 from emptying her 401(k) and borrowing money from her parents—was gone. All was not lost, the inmate said. He could help. She was about to send him $25,000 to start a new 35(b) deal when the man she’d been speaking with was arrested in Mississippi for running a similar scheme. Zuniga then reported Warrick to the FBI, but it would take many more complaints to bring him down.

Tony Martinez—the prison guard in New York—called the prosecutor in his son’s case in 2016, asking about the agreement with Private Services. The office told him they had never heard of a Peter Candlewood and would never work with a for-profit third party to dig up criminal intelligence. The agreement letter his son was given had been forged. “I can’t describe to you the lows that you hit when you find out it’s all a scam,” Martinez said. “I wanted it to be true.”

Sue Wade soon made a similar connection. She had received a message, supposedly from the assistant to the judge in her son’s case. When she called the number back, the judge told her his office had never contacted her and wasn’t working with Private Services. Wade believes the company spoofed the call, making it appear as the judge’s number on her caller ID. Wade then requested copies of check stubs from her bank and realized the checks she’d sent to Private Services had been signed by Alvin Warrick.

For Rhonda Peck, discovering her mother’s box of receipts convinced her that Betty had been the victim of a major scam. Rhonda knew she needed to call the cops, in case Warrick was pulling a similar trick on other families. She tried local law enforcement, but their response was underwhelming. “They kept saying, ‘It sounds like nobody forced her to do anything,’” Rhonda says. “That didn’t sit well with me.” (A spokesperson for the Austin Police Department said in an email that the department “couldn’t proceed without a victim” because Betty had already died.) One day, Rhonda was sitting on her porch drinking wine with a friend when she saw her neighbor, who she knew worked for the FBI. Rhonda ran over and explained the box and the money and the phone calls. He told her to drive to the FBI office in Austin the next day.

Rhonda grabbed the box and drove to an unmarked building in a large generic office park in the northwest suburbs. The FBI was on the fourth floor, behind a windowless wooden door and an intercom. She rang and told them she was there to talk to someone about a possible crime. They ushered her into a tiny room, where two agents asked her to explain while glancing through her mother’s receipts. The meeting lasted just 15 minutes, but they kept the box.

"I would have done the same thing if it was my kid. I would have spent every dime if I thought I could get him out."

Rhonda Peck

Roughly two weeks later, Rhonda got a call from Agent Tracy Masington with the Beaumont FBI office. Masington had been with the office since 2001 and worked mostly on counterterrorism; the Warrick case landed on her desk after another agent retired. Tips had been coming in from law enforcement agencies around the country—New York, Florida, across Texas—and it was her job to put the pieces together.

The name Tracy Masington didn’t mean anything to Rhonda at the time. But she was the same FBI agent who had served a warrant to her brother Rob and put him in prison. Rob pointed out the uneasy connection later, when his sister filled him in on the case.

“Did I know she was the woman that broke down my mom’s door? No. I might have been a little cooler to her if I [had],” Rhonda said. She tried to keep the situations separate in her head. “It was a little weird . . . [but] she’s doing her job. It’s two different deals.” Masington had been one of the first people in law enforcement to acknowledge that Rhonda’s mother had been a victim. And after Rhonda learned there were others who’d fallen into the same trap, she was committed to seeing the case through.

Masington also tried to maintain that mental separation. “It didn’t matter to me who the victims were. It mattered to me that the law was broken,” she said. The nature of Warrick’s scheme felt like an insult to how federal law enforcement really worked. “This was an attack on the integrity of the justice system.”

As the case developed, it became clear that the network operating Private Services went far beyond Warrick and Bush. There was Bush’s cousin, Shepherd, who licensed the business and opened a bank account. Other acquaintances of Warrick—Larry Lee Stephenson, Alvin Turner, and Wilbert Brown—also took part, doing things like opening accounts, collecting cash, and coordinating with customers. Agents discovered that the documents supposedly signed by federal prosecutors were forged by one of Warrick’s girlfriends, Tanya Richard, who worked as a guard at the federal prison in Beaumont. Richard also accessed inmates’ presentence investigation reports, which are sealed, to give Warrick details on their cases and their families.

Many of the parents who thought they were paying for confidential informants to free their kids from prison soon became a kind of informant themselves. Agents approached both Rhonda and Martha Highfill about wearing a microphone while meeting in person with Bush or Warrick to discuss their next payment. Rhonda agreed, picturing spy-movie scenes of agents threading a wire under her shirt. “I was all ready. My friend was like, ‘I have a black turtleneck—can I go, too?’” Rhonda said, laughing. Masington told her the meeting would be somewhere like a pancake house and that agents would be waiting nearby in case anything happened. But Rhonda could never get Warrick to agree on a time to meet. So she downloaded an app on her phone to record all their calls.

Martha Highfill cashed in her own savings bonds and certificates of deposit and withdrew from her retirement funds to pay Warrick.

Martha also considered going undercover to meet Bush. She consulted a family friend who was a lawyer, but he talked her out of it. “He was afraid there might be some bloodshed,” Martha said. She shared with the FBI the records she kept from her dealings with Warrick and Bush. It became clear that the details of Private Services’ alleged drug deals had been fabricated. (The names Bush provided Martha included athletes, Houston-area rappers, Carlos Santana and the namesake of a Port Arthur high school. None of them appear in federal court records for the crimes Bush claimed they had committed.)

Sue Wade did meet in person with Bush and tried to gather evidence for the FBI. “I may be blonde, but I’m not your ordinary dumbass,” Sue said. She drove to Houston and told Bush that she wasn’t leaving until she saw someone to discuss her son’s case. Bush agreed to meet her at a Starbucks near Beaumont. Sue’s youngest son waited in their truck in the parking lot, writing down the license plate of the red Cadillac Bush arrived in. After chatting about Bush’s new baby, Sue handed Bush her phone to read some of the messages she’d received from Private Services. Sue then sealed the phone in a plastic bag and drove it to the FBI office in Beaumont, hoping they could use it for prints. She was disappointed when the agents told her that wasn’t going to work, but the license plate and text messages were useful.

Several families hoped that this could be the case that brought their loved ones home. Maybe if they cooperated with the FBI to bring Warrick and his friends down, they would be rewarded with shorter sentences. “Before I even gave them any information I said, ‘You know what? I got into this and lost all my money because I was told it was gonna help my son out,’” Sue said. “‘I know for a fact if you help the FBI, they help you. I just want you to promise me that you’re going to look into his case.’”

But Sue soon found out that wasn’t how it worked. She felt like she couldn’t trust anyone—including the government. “I just think people are evil. They tell you things they don’t follow through with,” she said.

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When Betty dropped hints to Rob about her project, he tried to talk her out of it. He had heard about similar schemes from other inmates and suspected that was what she had been roped into.

But Betty was stubborn and secretive. “She would do anything for her children,” Rob said. “I had no idea it had gotten that bad.”

Betty kept up her visits to FCI Beaumont even as her health faltered. She started coming with a cane, then with a walker, which the guards diligently inspected. Eventually Betty was too frail to live on her own. Rob opted to transfer to a prison in Virginia, knowing that would free his mother to live with Rhonda in Austin. “I could tell it was getting harder for her to come to Beaumont,” Rob said. “And I know as long as I’m here, she’s gonna stay here.”

After Betty moved in, Rhonda became more aware of her frequent dealings with Warrick. Her mom slowly offered more information, saying she was working with the FBI to get Rob out early. Betty started asking Rhonda to wire Warrick money, which sparked fights. “She begged me, with tears in her eyes, please go send this $3,000 dollars,” Rhonda remembered. “I said, ‘I might as well ride down the street and throw [that money] out the window.’” Her mother responded in an uncharacteristically stern voice, “It’s my money.” Rhonda ended up wiring the cash, knowing that if she didn’t, Warrick would be calling in an hour asking where it was.

After speaking with FBI agents, Rhonda Peck downloaded an app on her phone to record calls with people from "Private Services".

Betty’s marriages had left her with a comfortable retirement fund, but her kids remain confused about where she got most of the money to pay Warrick. They suspect she borrowed from wealthier friends. “They just sucked her in, man,” Rhonda says. “I’d be like, ‘Mom, nothing’s happening. You keep saying he’s gonna be out any day. You need to stop, this is not how the system works, you can’t do this.’ [But] she was totally convinced.”

In the fall of 2013, Betty was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and as her health declined, her desperation grew. On Thanksgiving Day Betty was having a feeding tube inserted when Warrick called her cell phone. She motioned frantically for her daughter to answer. Even after Betty was put on a respirator, she would try to take off the mask to answer Warrick’s calls. “I hope you know what you’re doing to this sweet old woman,” Rhonda said to Warrick at one point.

Betty turned to a family friend to wire Warrick the cash when she could no longer do it herself, knowing that asking Rhonda would lead to arguments. Richard Stubbs had been the manager of an apartment complex that Rob owned, which Betty took over after he went to prison. Stubbs used to collect the rent from the tenants and says that Betty “was always telling me to take some money out and go to Walmart and send it to Alvin. She didn’t want her daughter to know.” Stubbs continues, “I asked her what [the money orders] were for, and she said something about [Warrick] building [her] a beach house and needing all kinds of supplies. Who am I to question? She’s the owner.” There are numerous receipts from Richard sending Warrick thousands of dollars in the months before Betty died.

On Christmas Eve Rob called from prison to talk with his mom. His brother, Larry, told him she was unable to speak but put the phone up to her ear. Though Betty was barely conscious, Rhonda swears she turned her head toward the sound of Rob’s voice. He told her they were going to be OK; it was OK to let go.

Betty died the next day at the age of 81. Rob was released to a halfway house just six months later. “She tried to hang in there for him,” Rhonda says. “I was so mad at her, but I would have done the same thing if it was my kid. I would have spent every dime if I thought I could get him out.”

The case against Warrick and Bush was prosecuted in the Southern District of Florida, where inmates and family members had the most concrete evidence against the couple. Both were convicted of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud; four others were also convicted for their roles in the scheme. In June 2017 prosecutors flew seven of their victims to Miami to testify at Warrick and Bush’s sentencing hearing.

Bush pleaded guilty but claims that she didn’t understand the full nature of the operation until she was in too deep. “The role I played was completely under the direction of Warrick . . . For years I was manipulated into believing what he was doing was legal,” she wrote in a letter. “I truly believed work was being done, until Warrick said otherwise.” Bush claims that after she realized it was a scam, Warrick threatened her into continuing to help. (In a text message relayed through his girlfriend, Warrick denied ever threatening Bush and said she knew what she was doing.)

Prosecutors estimated that Warrick and company had stolen $4.4 million from at least 22 people—the Najjar family in Lebanon alone had paid him more than $1 million. But by the time Warrick was arrested in 2016, the money was gone. Even though they were entitled to restitution, it was unlikely the families would ever get paid back.

During the sentencing hearing, Warrick’s victims stood up one by one and spoke about what losing so much money had meant for them. Tony Martinez had given Private Services $47,500; Sue Wade spent $155,450; Martha Highfill and Jack paid over $350,000. But their testimonies focused less on the financial impact of the scam and more on how it felt to watch a dream crumble and then to feel so stupid for dreaming in the first place. All of them believed Peter Candlewood because they wanted to believe, so badly, that there was a way to reunite with their children.

Prison creates the perfect fertile environment for the Warricks of the world to see that blind dedication and monetize it. Families are hungry for hope. Many are also convinced of the injustice of the system, so paying off a prosecutor or a judge doesn’t seem crazy. When their loved ones are still languishing behind bars, it’s easy to blame the system that put them there instead of the person who promised to free them. “To have my son told by you, get ready, you’re getting out soon, only later for me to have to tell him it was a lie, he’s not getting out . . . How awful for him,” William Desposito, a Private Services client, told the judge. “I don’t think I could have survived that. They sold hope.”

“The hardest day in my entire life was to tell my son that this was all a scam,” Tony testified.

Some spoke about how hard it was for them to trust anyone now. Martha conducts a background check on everyone she meets, from the new woman in her Bible study to the reporter calling to hear her story.

Even though they’d all experienced the toll of incarceration, many of the victims pleaded with the judge to hand down the maximum possible punishment.

The system that made them so vulnerable to this scam was the same one they had to turn to now for some kind of justice; putting Warrick in prison for years might be the only kind of closure they could hope for. When the judge announced Warrick was sentenced to nearly 20 years, Rhonda thrust her fist in the air, inviting a scolding by the bailiff. Bush was sentenced to eight years. Officers led Bush and Warrick out of the courtroom in handcuffs. In the gallery, their two oldest children wailed. They were losing both parents at once.

Editor’s note: Even with Alvin Warrick behind bars, the FBI says it is still getting calls from prisoners saying they, too, gave money to Peter Candlewood. Warrick and his attorney did not respond to multiple letters, emails and phone calls, except for the brief text message relayed through Warrick’s girlfriend.