Memphis man accused of conning businesses and social services
THAYER -- A Memphis man pretending to be a victim of Hurricane Katrina to bilk businesses and social service agencies has been living in the Thayer/Mammoth Spring area for months, according to law enforcement officers in Missouri and Arkansas. Thayer Police Chief Gene Hatman said Byran Gross could face charges.
Hatman and Mammoth Spring Police Chief Michael Davis said help agencies, businesses and residents of the area need to be on the lookout for scams and scam artists in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Thayer Mayor Allen Deckard called the South Missourian News office in Thayer Sept. 7 concerned that a local business had taken advantage of Gross.
Gross said he had paid local businessman Bob Crase $145 to stay at the Tally-Ho Motel in Thayer for five nights. Gross said after the first night Crase discovered he and his girlfriend had a dog with them and told them they would not be able to stay at the motel and he would not refund their money.
Gross said that the incident occurred at the Tally-Ho Motel on Sept. 1 or 2, he could not remember which.
Bob and Linda Crase, owners of the motel, said no one had been registered at the Tally-Ho fitting the description of Gross or his vehicle, a Ford pickup truck, in September. After reviewing her books, Linda Crase did say there had been an incident with a man, a girl and a dog in early June.
"They had paid for two nights. The morning after their first night at the motel our daughter heard a dog barking in their room and they were told if they stayed the second night the dog would have to stay in their truck," she said. Crase said Gross and the young woman with him decided not to stay at the motel. She said the Tally-Ho policy is posted in the front office of the business that no refunds are given for early departure.
But Gross, his girlfriend and their dog had been staying at the Highlander Motel just north of Thayer on Highway 63 since mid-June but had been evicted for non-payment of their room a few weeks ago, according to Highlander owner Vicki Bingham. Bingam said in the beginning she had become friends with Gross and his girlfriend but the friendship faltered after Gross would not work and pay for living at the motel.
"We tried to help them any way we could. He came up with hard luck stories like someone had cleaned out his bank account in Mississippi. We tried to get him jobs to pay for his room but he would not work. Never once was anything about a hurricane mentioned," Bingham said.
Gross visited Sept. 8 with Donna Martin, secretary of the First Baptist Church in Thayer, where Deckard thought he might have gone for help. Martin said, "Our church helps a lot of folks. Some are local and some are traveling through the area." She said the church policy is not to disclose who it helped, when or why.
Mammoth Spring City Hall worker Renea Busch said after Gross applied for assistance Friday morning, an official with Ozark Action in West Plains instructed the city to hook up the mobile home where Gross is staying to city water and Ozark Action would pay the $85 hookup fee. Gross and his girlfriend were staying at a mobile home owned by Shiela Gill in the Old Town section of Thayer. The mobile home is in the Thayer city limits but would be hooked up to Mammoth Spring city water.
Busch said Sept. 12 she did not have the water hookedup Friday because she had received information in the office questioning the verocity of Gross' story. She said she had made a call to Ozark Action and her calls had not been returned.
Home Town Energy Gas Company of Thayer delivered 100 gallons of gas to the mobile home Sept. 8.
An office worker at the business said she was told by an Ozark Action official that FEMA would pick up the tab for the gas and they did receive payment.
Ozark Action was contacted regarding the incidents where the two businesses said the help organization would foot the bill for the gas and the water hookup. Ozark Action Director Paul Clark said it was the policy of the agency to protect their clients and they would not disclose who they had helped or why.
Gross later denied ever saying he was in need of help because of Hurricane Katrina. "We were camping up here when the hurricane hit in Mississippi. I talked to my sister who lives where I do in Mississippi and she said we might as well stay here and camp because our property was destroyed in Mississippi," Gross said. He added that he knew he was not eligible for hurricane assistance and that he had not been trying to get it. Ozark Action Director Clark said Gross could not receive assistance.
Thayer City Attorney Ray Lee Caskey said charges could be filed against Gross. Caskey said the case is still under investigation but charges are possible for committing fraud by obtaining money under false pretense.