Monday, November 2, 2009

Those who deal with Gypsies question Valley icon's allegations

Gypsies have lived for more than a century in the shadows of American society, their culture hidden from outsiders. Some are law-abiding Gypsies who, while proud of their heritage, conceal it out of fear of discrimination. Some follow traditions of bilking the gullible through insurance scams or other forms of fraud.

But even Gypsies who have operated on the wrong side of the law, as well as those who prosecute them or observe their community, say they were dumbfounded by the allegation that Gypsy families took money from a former Madera County supervisor in exchange for sexual contact with a 13-year-old girl.

Harry Baker, 81, who owns Sierra Telephone Co. based in Oakhurst, is charged with molesting a young girl in Fresno and also faces a potential molestation charge in Las Vegas. Authorities say Baker was videotaped fondling the girl in a Fresno hotel room in May 2007. Baker, whose lawyer said he was too ill to appear in court Wednesday, denies that his contact with the girl was sexual and claims the girl's family demanded $250,000 in an extortion scheme.

Johnny Sterio, a former Fresno resident who said he was at one time part of a Gypsy family involved in insurance fraud, said he was shocked by the allegation that Gypsies are offering teenage girls for sexual favors.

For Sterio, it's personal. He said his daughter told him she was molested by Baker in a Las Vegas hotel room when she was 13, also in 2007. Nevada authorities confirm that Baker is a suspect in a sexual assault investigation.

Rick Berman, Baker's lawyer, said his client denies Sterio's allegation and contends that it's another attempt by Gypsy families to get money from Baker.

He describes Sterio as a convicted Gypsy scam artist. "This is just another Gypsy jumping on the bandwagon. It's been two years and there is no credible evidence of this happening," Berman said.

Berman said he expects Sterio will file a civil lawsuit against Baker.

Using young Gypsy girls to make money through sexual favors "is very unusual," said Anne Sutherland, an author and professor from the University of California, Riverside, who has researched Gypsy life for 40 years.

Girls are sometimes married soon after they reach puberty, but to sell their sexual services would be against Gypsy codes, she said. The girls, Sutherland said, should be virgins when they are married.

Some destitute Gypsy families in Europe have used girls in prostitution, Sutherland said. But she said this allegation was the first she has heard of something similar happening in the U.S.

Greg Ovanessian, a fraud inspector with the San Francisco Police Department, said he also was surprised by the allegation because such behavior in traditional Gypsy families would cause the young girls to become outcasts.

If girls are touched sexually by an outsider they are called marime, a term for impurity, Ovanessian said.

"It was absolutely unheard of for any outsider to touch or have a liaison with a Gypsy girl," he said.

Enslaved, persecuted

Gypsies, also known as Roma, are descendants of clans that left India in the 1300s. For centuries, Gypsies were enslaved and persecuted as they moved from Asia into Europe, where they were described as nomads, thieves and scam artists. They initially were thought to be Egyptians, the derivation for the word Gypsy.

Their civil rights were revoked in Germany, which opened an office in 1936 to "combat the Gypsy nuisance." It was not long before they were being shipped to concentration camps. During World War II, the Nazis killed up to 500,000 Gypsies.

Gypsies arrived in the U.S. in the late 1800s as immigrants from Romania and other parts of Europe.

Even today, they are subject to discrimination. As a result, many don't want to be known as Gypsy, Sutherland said.

"They don't really want to be spotted and even when they have a fortune-telling place, they may say they are American Indian, Hispanic or Romanian because it's been so stigmatized," she said. "They find it's to their advantage to not let on that they are Gypsy."

Those Roma who are successful often hide their heritage, and their ethnicity is only revealed if they commit crimes, said Carol Silverman, a professor in cultural anthropology at the University of Oregon. Silverman has written a book on Gypsies in Europe, as well as articles and book chapters about Balkan folklore and Gypsy communities in the U.S. and abroad.

But, she said, "The law-abiding activities of 90% of Gypsies never gets reported."

Many who have come to America from Europe in the past 20 years want to blend into American society, Silverman said.

They are not the Gypsies as stereotypically portrayed in movies, where women wear flowing dresses, head scarves, large earrings and have long dark hair, and men wear untucked puffy shirts open at the collar and a sash around their waists.

"There are many who are professionals, lawyers and working-class people," she said. "Many are still suffering from stereotypes. In Europe, they have been victims of arson attacks and police brutality. There is less overt discrimination in the U.S."

There are many well-known Roma descendants, including English actors Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins, jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, and even possibly Mother Teresa. Roma have also been Nobel Prize winners, two former presidents of Brazil, athletes, fashion designers and writers.

But then there are also law-breaking Gypsies, whose illegal activities help keep alive the notion that the Roma are a thieving tribe.

Gypsy groups have bilked elderly people out of money and pulled insurance, home-repair or run fortune-telling scams on the unsuspecting.

Kathy Boyovich, who has investigated scams for the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, said there are many better ways for them to make money with far less risk than offering a teenager for sex.

Boyovich said her cases range from elder abuse t fortune-telling fraud investigations. Most frequent, she said, are the psychic frauds, residential distraction burglaries and home-improvement scams.

She said a common crime is the so-called "sweetheart swindle," placing a young adult woman -- not an underaged girl -- with an elderly man to take his money. In the cases she has investigated, there has not been a romantic link, but the victim often believes the relationship could ultimately result in marriage.

"I can't think of one time where they procured one of their kids" for sexual purposes, Boyovich said. "I think that would be looked down upon even by their own people."

Of those she has put behind bars, some have dozens of aliases and she has drawn up baffling family trees with all the fake names attached.

In one case, she said, a girl had so many aliases she could not recall her real name.

Boyovich said these groups exist in the shadows and have no legitimate source of income besides welfare checks. She describes them as "nomadic predators."

"They go from one jurisdiction to another. They don't work in a job, they don't file taxes, and they don't send their children to school. ... For most of them, it's here today, gone tomorrow."

Times change

The traditional ways of the gypsies -- staying with family, working, not putting children in school and marrying in their early teens -- are starting to fall by the wayside as new generations become assimilated, observers say.

"Many of them are rebelling because they are seeing that's not how American girls are treated, and the young men are also defying the elders," Sutherland said.

Gypsies have their own local courts composed of a council of elders who try to keep control over younger generations, Sutherland said, but as more young people become Americanized, the system has started to break down.

The Gypsy culture, Sterio said, has lost much of its tradition.

"There is nothing old-fashioned or sacred anymore," he said. "Everyone is breaking our rules and our laws to make a fast dollar."

Sterio, 44, knows something about making a fast buck.

He said he was serving seven years in San Quentin State Prison for burglary and fraud when his daughter allegedly went to Las Vegas to meet Baker and another woman who had set up the liaison.

Sterio said he stole and scammed to feed a drug habit. His brother, Dino, died in a Parkway Drive area hotel room in 2005 from a cocaine overdose, the Fresno County Coroner's Office reported.

In prison, Sterio said, he "cleaned up. I found God."

Sterio said that when he learned about the Las Vegas trip shortly after his release from prison, he filed a police report that was forwarded to Las Vegas police.

The District Attorney's Office in Clark County, Nev., is reviewing the case. Charges have not been filed.

Sterio, who now has custody of his four children, operates an auto body shop and wants no part of his former criminal life. He says he is trying to part from the Gypsy culture.

Sterio says he wants Baker, as well as the woman who took his daughter to Baker, prosecuted -- and convicted.

"God is telling me to handle this the legal way and this guy will go to prison where he belongs," he said. "We will leave it in God's hands."

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