Earlier this month, Heidi Muth, a 68-year-old retired fourth-grade teacher from Southern California, boarded a flight to Montego Bay, Jamaica. A few days later, on Sunday, Sept. 10, a runner out for a morning jog through an upscale neighborhood near the airport discovered Muth’s body lying facedown in a pool of blood on a dirt path. She’d been stabbed multiple times in her head and upper body.
Authorities in the U.S. and Jamaica are still trying to piece together exactly what happened. The killing remains unsolved, but it appears Muth was a victim of the Jamaican lottery scam, a fraud scheme that has become pervasive on the island, especially in the tourist hub of Montego Bay.
The scammers typically target elderly Americans, calling them on the phone and convincing them they’ve won a huge cash jackpot in a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-style sweepstakes contest. Victims are then tricked into paying thousands of dollars in supposed taxes and fees in order to claim their nonexistent prize. According to one estimate cited by the Justice Department, the scam nets more than $1 billion annually, and Jamaican police have blamed a surge in homicides on the island in recent years on scammers fighting over the illicit cash.
A U.S. law enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly but agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity said Muth had been getting scammed since 2010. The source said U.S. investigators suspect that Muth had become “a bridge,” meaning scammers had convinced her, perhaps unwittingly, to receive money from other U.S. victims and send or carry it to Jamaica.
Kevin Watson, a Montego Bay-based investigator with Jamaica’s Major Organized Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency, which handles lottery scam investigations, said it’s possible that Muth came to Montego Bay in hopes of collecting money she was owed.
“The police are theorizing that she was a lottery scam victim and she came here to collect her prize or claim some money,” Watson said. “Then the perpetrators picked her up from the airport, carried her away, and killed her.”
A spokeswoman for the Jamaica Constabulary Force, the country’s national police agency, said the exact circumstances of Muth’s death remain unclear, and investigators are still trying to determine who she was meeting and whether she was lured to the country by scammers.
Muth’s family did not respond to phone messages seeking comment, but her brother told a local CBS News affiliate in Los Angeles that Muth went to Jamaica alone and didn’t tell anybody that she was leaving. The Jamaican police spokeswoman said Muth hadn’t booked a hotel reservation.
Sarah Schiermeyer, a friend of Muth’s who lives in Shrewsbury, Vermont, declined to comment when reached by VICE News, but she previously told the Orange County Register that Muth had complained she was owed money by someone in Jamaica.
“The police are theorizing that she was a lottery scam victim and she came here to collect her prize or claim some money.”
“That would be enough for her to go down there,” Schiermeyer told the paper. “Everyone said she was throwing good money after bad money. But Heidi would get a bee in her bonnet and was very stubborn about stuff. It’s absolutely horrid what happened to her.”
A widow with two sons, a daughter, and one grandchild, Muth lived in Santa Ana, California, and taught history in Orange County schools for 37 years. She was extremely active in her community. According to her obituary and local news reports, Muth served on the board of directors for a local hospital’s philanthropic foundation, volunteered as a basketball coach at Catholic schools, and taught confirmation classes at a Catholic church in Tustin, California, where her funeral service was scheduled to be held Tuesday afternoon.
Jamaican lottery scammers tend to target retirees who live alone, and they often convince victims not to tell friends and family members about the scheme. The scam first emerged in the late ‘90s in Montego Bay, purportedly after several U.S. companies established offshore telemarketing and customer service operations in the city. The scammers are skilled manipulators who are frequently able to dupe victims into helping them launder money. On several occasions, federal prosecutors have opted to press charges against scam victims who refused to stop acting as accomplices even after being repeatedly told to stop.
“The only intention is to collect whatever money they can from these persons, and at the end of the day they’re going to kill them, they’re going to hurt them.”
With the victim count climbing, U.S. authorities have started to crack down on lottery scammers. In July, VICE News detailed the FBI’s investigation into Lavrick Willocks, a scam kingpin from Montego Bay who was extradited to North Dakota along with 13 associates. Since then, all but a handful of defendants in the case have pleaded guilty. On Tuesday, Jason Jahalal, a former Jamaican police officer allegedly involved in the scam, was scheduled to change his plea from innocent to guilty in federal court in Bismarck.
Watson, the lottery scam investigator in Montego Bay, said Muth would be the first American scam victim killed in Jamaica, though there have been several close calls in the past. Watson said he previously “intercepted elderly persons at the airport trying to meet with these scammers” on multiple occasions.
“We’ve saved quite a number,” Watson said. “The only intention [of the scammers] is to collect whatever money they can from these persons, and at the end of the day they’re going to kill them, they’re going to hurt them.”
Watson also speculated that the prospect of being arrested and extradited to the United States has made scammers more paranoid and desperate, putting victims who travel to Jamaica at even greater risk of violence.
“They’ll do these sort of these things, like getting rid of victims to hide their activities.”
“They’re now seeing efforts are being stepped up by U.S. authorities,” Watson said. “Many of them don’t want to be investigated, they don’t want any attention. They’ll do these sort of these things, like getting rid of victims to hide their activities. It’s really sad.”
A State Department official declined to comment on Muth’s death, except to offer condolences to her family and friends and to say the U.S. Embassy in Kingston “stands ready to provide consular assistance.”
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which often handles lottery scam investigations because the cases involve mail and wire fraud, declined to comment.
The Department of Homeland Security said an investigation into Muth’s death is ongoing. A spokesman said the agency is “working with our Jamaican counterparts to provide any assistance we can to ensure the perpetrator of this heinous crime is brought to justice.”