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A retiree from Montville described an elaborate scheme that cost her about $40,000 of her life savings Wednesday as the trial of Joanne A. Skok got underway in New London Superior Court.
Jacqueline Becker, 75, accompanied to court by four granddaughters, sat in a wheelchair in front of Judge Arthur C. Hadden’s bench rather than on the witness stand as prosecutor Lawrence J. Tytla led her through the alleged scam.
State police in 2011 charged Skok, 62, and her husband, John R. Skok, 59, with stealing from Becker, the president and treasurer of the Montville Town Fair, whom they had met after volunteering for the now-defunct organization.
The Skoks each are charged with first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny. Joanne Skok has a history of financial crimes, including convictions for writing bad checks.
Both have pleaded not guilty and opted for trials. John Skok, who sat out in the hall during the proceedings Wednesday, will be tried separately.
Joanne Skok, who also uses a wheelchair, sat with her attorney, Theodore Koch, at the defense table, as the prosecutor started presenting evidence to a jury of six regular members and two alternates.
Becker, who had trouble hearing and admitted several times during her testimony that she could not remember certain events, said she and Joanne Skok became friends and spoke almost daily.
Becker said that when she told Skok a bank was trying to collect from her after she had agreed to co-sign a car loan for her grandson but never actually did, Skok offered to get her husband’s nephew involved. Skok said Stewart Skok was an FBI agent who could quietly investigate.
Becker said the bank came after her for money after her grandson crashed the car, which was uninsured.
“Joanne told me not to mention it because Stewart would get in trouble if the FBI found out he was working on something private,” Becker testified.
Skok called her one day and was “a bit upset,” Becker testified, because she had found out that crime boss John Gotti was one of the owners of the dealership that had sold the car to Becker’s grandson.
Becker went on to describe a fictional legal case involving courts in New York, Florida and California.
“They had to take my name off (the lawsuit),” Becker said. “It was too dangerous because he (Gotti) is a criminal.”
The Skoks asked her several times for payments for attorneys, investigators, court fees and other expenses, said Becker, who is a retired paralegal. She said she would write checks out to “cash,” endorse them, and turn the money over to John Skok.
Eventually, Becker said Joanne Skok told her that five of Gotti’s houses were being sold and that Becker would be recovering the proceeds of one of the homes.
“She asked me for more money” for closing costs and other fees, Becker testified.
Skok told her that a diplomat from South America was buying the house and that an attorney who was working for Becker had traveled there to collect the proceeds. Skok then told her the attorney had been struck by a car and that the check from the diplomat had been stolen from his briefcase.
Though the Skoks provided her very little paperwork, Becker produced an unsigned letter that she had received, purportedly from John Skok’s nephew, the FBI agent. Though Skok told her to destroy the letter after she read it, Becker said she “never” throws anything away.
The letter, read aloud by Court Officer Martha Jenssen, said that Becker would be receiving a “high six-figure settlement,” but that she needed to send $2,600 to $2,800 more for fees.
The prosecutor asked Becker if she ever asked for the FBI agent’s phone number so that she could talk to him directly and “eliminate the middleman.”
“I don’t remember,” Becker responded.
A man who was managing Becker’s retirement account and Becker’s grandchildren sensed that something was wrong and contacted police.
The jury listened to several recorded phone calls between Joanne Skok and Becker that took place after a police detective got involved. In one of them, Skok urged Becker to call her money manager and demand that he release some of her money immediately. Becker testified that the money had actually been released to her, but that several people had advised her not to turn it over to the Skoks.
“Call back, tell him whatever reason you want, but it has to be there today,” Joanne Skok said on the recording.
Becker will return to the witness stand today for cross-examination by Koch.