Sonora handyman pleads guilty mid-trial to 76 felonies for stealing over $200K from elderly woman | News
A 69-year-old man has been behind bars for nearly 20 years after pleading guilty to 76 crimes in the middle of a jury trial for ceding an elderly Sonoran woman for more than $ 200,000 while serving as her handyman and friend, the Tuolumne District Attorney said on Monday.
Thomas Rowelle Ricci, of Sonora, pleaded guilty to three first degree burglaries and 73 crimes of theft by an elder on the sixth day of a jury trial in Tuolumne County Superior Court prior to visiting Judge Frank Dougherty, the prosecutor, in a press release.
The plea, made in the middle of a trial, was unusual but “not surprising given the evidence against Ricci,” said Assistant District Attorney Eric Hovatter, who was prosecuting the case.
Dougherty allowed Ricci to remain bailed until he surrendered to Tuolumne County Jail on Friday to plead guilty on all charges, the release said.
Ricci is due to be sentenced on November 8th, after which he will spend the remainder of his time in a California state prison. Dougherty had already agreed to sentence him to 19 years and four months for his crimes, the release said.
The case dates back to Ricci’s arrest in May 2019 after then officer and current Detective Ashley Brandow was investigated by the Sonora Police Department.
Anne Buvala, the victim in the case, was reportedly 91 years old when she first met Ricci in August 2017 while he was working as a craftsman. She died in October 2019, but not without recorded testimony that was used in the trial.
Buvala reportedly lived alone in her home on South Stewart Street and had a rental unit at the back of the property.
Ricci was initially hired by Buvala to do minor roof repairs on the rental unit and then began other work for her. Between August 2017 and February 2019, she wrote him more than 100 checks totaling more than $ 220,000 for supplies and services.
Relatives of Buvala’s visit from another district in February 2019 found she was frail and in need of medical attention.
Buvala reportedly told relatives that the rear unit was a “palace” and that Ricci helped her prepare it for rental, even though the relatives noticed the unit was not in a habitable condition and called the Sonora police to investigate.
Brandow found Buvala “very insecure and forgetful,” the statement said. Buvala also reportedly insisted at the time that Ricci was her friend and helper and had done “an incredible job” on her home.
The press release states that Brandow was able to enter the back because the front door had no doorknob and there was very little furniture, no electricity, and conditions that were “totally unsuitable for living”.
Further investigation revealed that Buvala Ricci sometimes wrote checks for $ 170 to $ 5,280 on consecutive days for items such as a 1989 Chevy engine, multiple gearboxes, taxes (not Buvalas), funeral expenses, and plane tickets.
A check for $ 3,000 issued in January 2018 had a note on the memo line for a “garage door remodel,” but Brandow found the garage was full of trash and had shower curtains for the doors.
More than half of the checks were blank, the press release said, and Buvala told Brandow she wrote checks for anything Ricci said he needed.
Ricci spoke to Brandow several times and had explanations for all of the checks, many of which he described as loans or gifts.
Brandow made two appointments for Ricci to come up with receipts and bills to back up his claims, but he didn’t show up either time. He also claimed to have lost or stolen his briefcases containing the documents.
After several failed attempts to get Ricci to get the promised documents, he was arrested on May 1, 2019 at his home on the 500 block on South Shepherd Street.
At the time of his arrest, a Black Oak Casino Diamond Club Players Card was found in Ricci’s wallet, leading to further investigation, which revealed that he was a frequent gambler and had dumped $ 379,760 in slot machines in 2018.
Ricci’s trial began on September 21st and included testimony from Buvala’s relatives and caregivers, a representative from her bank, a representative from Black Oak Casino and Brandow. The jury was shown the victim’s check history as well as photos of the inside and outside of the stern unit.
One of the people Ricci hired also testified that she was paid generously by him for relatively minor work and asked by him to call Buvala pretending to be a potential tenant so that she would write him more checks.
One of Buvala’s caregivers also testified that she saw Ricci train the older victim after the investigation began and said she gave him the money because he was facing jail time.
Buvala was questioned in court for more than four hours before her death, testifying that she had never seen the work Ricci claimed he did on the rear unit and simply took her at her word.
Ricci was convicted of diverting construction funds in the late 1990s.
At the time Ricci was arrested, Hovatter said the number of charges in the case was unusual for Tuolumne County, but he had seen similar cases in other jurisdictions.