Looking for an affordable motor home, Bill Winans of Minnesota found what he thought was a perfect match at an Internet auction.
He bid on and won a Yahoo! auction for 1984 Pace Arrow valued at $15,000. In the description posted on the Web site, the vehicle was said to be owned by the seller's uncle "who recently passed away."
The asking price was $7,000 plus shipping. Even if he didn't like it, Winans believed he could turn the vehicle into an easy profit.
"The way it was described as having been owned by an elderly couple and the fact that it was worth substantially more than the starting bid, if I was the successful bidder there would have been approximately $6,500 worth of equity in the vehicle," Winans, 31, recalled.
But Winan's profit turned into a loss of $7,500 and resulted in the arrest of a Carson City woman on two felony counts of theft.
According to Carson City District Attorney Noel Waters, Sami Marcia Louise Donovan amassed numerous online aliases and set up a handful of auctions on Amazon, eBay, Yahoo! and Auctionwatch with the intent to defraud.
Under the user name of "g777card," Donovan, 51, allegedly sold Winan a motor home that apparently she never possessed.
After the online transaction was made, Winans and Donovan made arrangements to meet in Fairbury, Neb., on Nov. 3 to exchange the motor home. On that day, Winans, his wife, Melissa, and his parents piled into his car and drove the 500 miles to Fairbury.
"For seven hours we sat in our vehicle waiting for her to arrive," he said. But Donovan never showed.
The Winans returned to Minnesota to find an urgent e-mail message from someone claiming to be an employee of Donovan's.
"I work for Sami. We received a phone call about a half hour ago from the highway patrol," the e-mail said. "She was in an accident. They have flown her to a nearby hospital."
"It's our understanding that the RV was pretty much destroyed," according to the e-mail, promising a full refund.
"We were shocked," Winans said.
Melissa Winans said the two felt guilty for being so upset that Donovan hadn't arrived in Nebraska as planned.
"We were hoping that everything was OK," she said. They were later told by telephone that Donovan's husband, Gary, had died in the accident.
"We were stunned," said Winans.
As it turned out, however, there was never an accident, and Gary Donovan was very much alive.
1979 Pace Arrow Motor Home
Fred Burgess of Arkansas couldn't pass up the bargain he found while perusing Amazon.com auctions Oct. 10.
"We thought this would give us a chance to try a motor home out before we put a lot of money into one," Burgess said.
To a seller using the alias "angelssportsshop," Burgess paid $2,550 plus shipping for a 1979 Pace Arrow Motor Home.
According to Amazon.com's database, "angelssportsshop" was registered to Sami Donovan, of 1143 Valley View Drive in Carson City.
Through e-mail, Burgess and Donovan made arrangements for her to drive to Arkansas with the motor home, arriving on Oct. 26. Burgess, deciding to take advantage of the situation, successfully bid on two more items listed by
"angelssportsshop," paying $139 for both.
In all, Burgess paid $3,489 by way of wire transfer into the account of Sami Donovan. According to Burgess, Donovan said she'd send the title and bill of sale by mail. They never arrived.
"I have heard from my other customers that the Post Office is pretty slow all over due to the terrorist and anthrax," said an e-mail signed by "Sami" on Oct. 18. "We have 15 cases right here in Carson City that haven't been reported to the media as of yet. One resulted in death -- was a friend of mine."
On Oct. 25, Burgess received another e-mail.
"I thought that you should know that Sami is in the hospital. She had a heart attack on Tuesday night and has been in the intensive care ever since," according to the e-mail.
The message said Donovan's husband, whom it identified as "G," would be spending time by her bedside at the hospital. "Thank you for your patience and understanding in this time of despair in our company."
Burgess wrote back, "Tell G to tell Sami to worry about herself first, she is a lot more important than all the rest. Our thoughts and prayers will be with her."
In Minnesota, the Winanses started to get suspicious when the messages they were getting didn't add up. "What really threw me was that she was in ICU having surgery and the next day she was home," said Melissa Winans. "As a nurse I knew that wasn't feasible."
Meanwhile, the Winanses were impatiently awaiting the return of their $7,500.
"I kept getting different stories," Winans said. "First they are going to refund my money, then they can't because it hasn't been proven Sami can't take care of her own affairs."
Winans said he was promised once again he would have a full refund by Nov. 13.
"I began to get really suspicious when they wouldn't tell me what hospital she was in," he said.
He tried to find an obituary for Gary Donovan online. He didn't find an obituary, but when he typed Sami Donovan's name into a search engine he came up with an article from the Las Vegas-Review Journal about Donovan's May 2001 trial in Carson City on charges of elderly exploitation.
Donovan is currently awaiting a retrial on charges she bilked money from a 78-year-old woman, Glenell Westphal.
By Nov. 15, Winans was convinced he had been scammed and contacted Waters, the Carson City district attorney.
Fred Burgess also became more suspicious. The information coming to him by e-mail didn't sit right.
"I kept waiting, giving her the benefit of the doubt," Burgess said.
He too spoke with Waters, who turned the case over to Carson City Sheriff's Department Detective Jim Primka. Primka waded through Web pages and compiled evidence leading to a search warrant. Officers raided the Valley View home Dec. 10.
According to Primka, the home was full of scores of baseball cards and Beanie Babies -- Donovan's main staple on her numerous auction sites.
Detectives found Donovan later that afternoon gambling at the Pi-on Plaza, with her husband, Gary, by her side. She was arrested and is being held on a $75,000 bail. Gary Donovan told investigators he had no knowledge of his wife's alleged fraud.
According to Waters, the Donovans owned a 1979 Pace Arrow but had surrendered it by July to an attorney to pay legal fees. Waters said there is no record of Sami Donovan owning a 1984 Pace Arrow Motor Home. The photographs used for the Web auctions can be found on an Internet site called People Motor Homes, a Texas-based business that sells used recreational vehicles.
The identical description can be found on a classified ad placed by a woman for her father in Arkansas.
"We sold that motor home in August," according to the woman. "We never agreed to let anyone use our photos or description. She even used the part where I said 'built-in vacuum and blender.'"
On Nov. 10, two weeks after it supposedly had been sold to Winans, the same photos and description of the motor home were listed on eBay by a seller named "angelbellesspecials," also listed as Donovan.
In addition, under the same name were auctions for two other motor homes. Their descriptions and photos also match RVs listed by People Motor Homes. A company spokesman said it had not authorized anyone to sell its motor homes.
Donovan will appear in court Jan. 24.
Both Bill Winans and Fred Burgess said they have conducted dozens of Internet transactions and probably will continue to shop for on-line bargains, despite being burned by the motor-home auctions.
"We won't get our money back," Winans said after learning of Donovan's arrest. "But at least she isn't getting away with it."