Prosecutors say women befriended, poisoned elderly men for money
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Young women associated with a Gypsy clan seduced elderly men, swindled them, then killed them with a poison that mimics a natural death, authorities said.
Eight people have been indicted, and autopsies were performed on at least six possible victims, all of whom died between 1984 and 1994.
The alleged ring members are associated with the Tene Bimbo clan, which gained notoriety in Peter Maas’ best-selling 1974 book, ``King of the Gypsies,″ and in a film of the same name.
More than $1 million in cash, real estate, jewelry and automobiles was taken from the San Francisco-area victims by the extended Tene Bimbo family, said private investigators for their families.
A San Francisco grand jury indicted eight people Thursday on charges of participating in the plot. Five were being held Friday on up to $1 million bail on charges ranging from conspiracy to commit murder to passing phony checks.
The three others were being sought. A parallel probe also is under way in New York.
The indictment remains sealed and officials were under a gag order not to discuss the case. But details have leaked out since the bodies of five elderly victims were exhumed in 1994.
The case was dubbed ``Foxglove″ because the ring allegedly poisoned victims by slowly administering overdoses of the heart drug digitalis, which comes from the foxglove plant. In the right amount, digitalis helps heart disease victims, but too much is deadly. The symptoms resemble those of a natural death.
Following a tip, investigators looked more closely at the deaths of five elderly men who died between 1984 and 1994, all of whom were involved in May-December romances.
The bodies of four men _ Philip H. Steiner Jr., 93; Konstantin K. Liotweizen, 92; Nicholas C. Bufford, 87; and Stephen Storvick, 91 _ were exhumed in 1994 for autopsies. An autopsy also was conducted on a fifth man, Harry Glover Hughes, 94, when he died in March 1994.
Investigators say that in each case, younger women associated with the Tene Bimbo clan befriended elderly men of means shortly before their deaths. In two of the San Francisco deaths, Tene family women married the victims.
In the New York case, a girlfriend of a Tene family member married Andrew Vlasto, a Greek immigrant.
Vlasto lived in the same Manhattan apartment for 37 years _ his rent was $250 a month when he died _ never wrote a check for more than $275, and owned no credit cards, said his nephew, James Vlasto.
When James Vlasto found out his uncle was in a hospital, he went to visit but was turned away by his uncle’s 28-year-old wife, the former Sylvia Mitchell. She married Vlasto in August 1993.
Police say she was the girlfriend of a Tene Bimbo clan member.
``I said, `What wife? He’s 85 years old, and he’s never married,‴ James Vlasto said. ```What’s going on here?″
When Andrew Vlasto died in November 1993, James Vlasto had an autopsy conducted over the young wife’s objections. The result: Complications from a drug overdose caused the death, James Vlasto said.
He also said he discovered that $80,000 of his uncle’s $250,000 bank account had been withdrawn, with $70,000 funneled to an Atlantic City casino.
Defense attorneys claim the indictments were brought only because the high-profile case had sputtered along for years without any charges, making law enforcement officials look foolish.
``The poison murder story is fascinating,″ said defense attorney Robert Sheridan, ``but it’s missing a couple of things, like poison and murder.″