When he lived in Avondale and then Ahwatukee, Raheem Oliver knew how to play the angles.
He played them so well that he made an estimated $640,000 in three years off the backs of elderly people – including a 96-year-old man known for his work as a World War II Marine cinematographer from whom he fleeced $98,000 in an elaborate magazine subscription racket.
But two years ago, Oliver made a crucial mistake that put him in a Virginia federal courtroom last Friday before a judge who handed him a 14-year prison sentence.
Oliver rented a house from Ahwatukee attorney Mark Pyper.
Had it not been for Pyper’s curiosity, Oliver might well have continued what U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger called “his broad and calculated magazine fraud scam.”
Even Pyper himself was conned, though not through the magazine scam.
In 2016, Oliver offered to rent Pyper’s 7,500-square-foot house in Ahwatukee’s Equestrian Estates neighborhood. So, the attorney did a background check and learned Oliver had spent time in prison.
Oliver had served six years for a conviction on armed robbery and kidnapping stemming from a violent heist of a jewelry store in Gilbert in 2003. He’d blindfolded the female clerk and bound her in duct tape before making off with what police said at the time was a “considerable” amount of jewelry.
When he brought his prison record to Oliver’s attention, Pyper recalled, Oliver “represented that he was a ‘changed man’ with a successful business and that he even coached underprivileged teens in a competitive basketball league.”
Acting on religious beliefs that once inspired him to serve a mission in Africa as a young man, Pyper decided to give him a second chance.
He realized pretty quickly he had made a mistake.
Within a matter of months, Pyper said, he “began seeing irregularities involving Oliver and his rental payments.”
There were other problems as well – such as Pyper’s pool service company telling him that Oliver’s kids created problems with the filter system by throwing rocks into the pool.
Then there was the basketball camp.
One day, he dropped in on Oliver and found “18 kids in sleeping bags on the living room floor.” He later found out that Oliver was charging their families $5,000 for the camp, which he touted as a route to a big-name university scholarship. During his sentencing, his lawyer cited a half-dozen individuals who’d received basketball scholarships that resulted from Oliver’s work with them.
But it was how Oliver paid his rent that finally piqued Pyper’s curiosity – and eventually started the con man’s quick descent into trouble, culminating in his guilty plea to federal fraud charges earlier this month.
Rather than pay him from his own checking account, Oliver sent Pyper a check that an elderly Kentucky farmer had made out to Oliver.
Pyper tracked down the man, who talked about how Oliver had threatened him with legal action over $18,000 for unpaid magazine subscriptions. He told Pyper that Oliver had him send roughly half that amount – which turned out to be the check that Oliver simply forwarded on to his landlord.
“I’ve been practicing law for 32 years and I knew something was wrong,” Pyper said.
Pyper called the FBI, which referred him to U.S. Postal inspectors.
They began an intensive investigation that culminated in a raid on the Equestrian Estates mansion.
Pyper still remembers the call he got just before the raid: “They said, ‘If you give us the key code, we won’t have to rip out your 18-foot wrought iron front door. Otherwise, we’re going to pull up a truck to the door and rip it down.’”
“I gladly gave them the code,” Pyper told the AFN.
Investigators found loads of evidence of a ruthless, well-coordinated scam.
For at least three years, Oliver led a ring that preyed on vulnerable elderly people by “falsely representing to these individuals via telephone calls and other communications that the victims needed to pay thousands of dollars at a time for purported magazine subscription renewal fees, past-due magazine subscription balances, attorneys’ fees, fines, other legal fees and court costs,” prosecutors charged.
He threatened his victims with lawsuits and even arrests and not only pressured them into making payments, but also made illicit charges off the credit card numbers they provided him.
One victim received 100 calls in a six-month period from Oliver, who extorted sums that quickly tallied thousands of dollars.
Oliver was a classic deadbeat, too.
While stiffing Pyper on the rent, Oliver drove a new Mercedes, wore fancy clothes and expensive jewelry and often talked of the exotic trips he took with his wife and four kids.
One time, Pyper pressed Oliver about his unpaid rent. He begged Pyper to be patient, saying that fellow congregants at his church in Laveen were “passing the plate” to raise money to cover the arrearages.
“I told him, “So you live in a mansion but the peasants who live in Laveen are helping you out,” the attorney said.
Pyper said he is out thousands of dollars in property damage and unpaid rent.
And he quickly discovered he was not alone.
“He got married at my house and I got a call from a black catering company looking for him. It turned out he never paid their bill,” Pyper said.
Then there’s the company that had installed a $10,000 security system in the home at Oliver’s request. They never got paid either.
Though he had changed his life of crime from one of violence to fraud, Oliver inflicted no small degree of injury on his victims.
“By any measure, the defendant’s criminal conduct was quite serious and was motivated by greed,” Terwilliger said in a presentence report.
“The defendant deliberately targeted elderly victims, often with diminished mental capacity and physical health, and preyed upon them in order to unjustly enrich himself. He repeatedly and shamelessly lied to his victims, and he employed calculated and sophisticated tactics to mask his true identity and conceal his crimes,” he wrote, adding:
“Most importantly, as the victim-impact statements make clear, the defendant not only stole thousands of dollars from his individual victims (totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars overall), but his conduct also inflicted serious emotional harms on the elderly victims and their family members.”
One of those victims was Norm Hatch, a Marine Corps combat cinematographer during World War II who risked his life to capture some of the most iconic footage of the Battles of Iwo Jima and Tarawa. That footage helped the documentary “With the Marines at Tarawa” win the 1945 Academy Award for Most Outstanding Documentary Short Film. The story of Hatch’s experiences in World War II was later turned into a book.
Somehow, Oliver – whom Hatch had never met – managed to convinced the then-93-year-old Alexandria, Virginia resident that he owed $98,000 for unpaid magazine subscriptions. Hatch paid Oliver the money and died a year ago without ever seeing a penny back.
A friend of Hatch’s, who requested anonymity, thought Oliver’s sentencing Friday was “sort of cosmic justice.” It came exactly one year to the day that Hatch was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
There was no jewelry or fancy clothes on Oliver as he stood before the judge and pleaded for probation.
“Raheem showed up in court in oversized jeans and untucked shirt,” said the friend. “I thought it was rather sloppy of him – you’d assume one would want to look presentable in front of a judge – but later a detective told me that defendants will do that because sometimes they go right into custody and their clothes are put into storage for years.”
Ironically, that didn’t happen – at least not immediately.
Oliver said he is trying to earn money to repay the victims, claiming he was coming into the possession of a truck that would help him earn $15,000 to pay some restitution.
After his release from prison in 2010, they noted, he had been a “top salesman” for Dish 1 Up Satellite and later for Global Sales Enterprises.
Prosecutors noted that Oliver also had been a “top salesman” for all the bogus magazine companies he set up to rob his victims – companies named National Publishers Magazine, Platinum Reader Magazine, readerselection.com and Magazine Subscription Renewal LLC.
“Mr. Oliver has tried to make amends as best he can – both through continuing his worthy efforts to help underprivileged youth and by seeking business opportunities to help pay restitution to the victims,” his lawyers told the judge.
They also requested he be sentenced to a minimum-security prison in the Phoenix area “so that he may stay involved in his family’s life as much as possible.”
The judge allowed him to remain free on bond until that facility has a free bed.
Pyper is glad that Oliver at least will soon be paying the price of his thievery.
“I may not get my rent checks,” he said, “but at least I was able to do some good for society. This guy needs to be in jail.”