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May 14th, 2014 KATE WILLSON | News Stories
 

A Fortune Felled

A decade of deception against a local Timber heir is the largest “sweetheart” scam investigators say they’ve seen.

news1_4028ILLUSTRATION: Drew Bardana
Ralph Raines Jr. led a fantasy life.

At 66, the heir to a third-generation Washington County logging company had once faced the prospect of a lonely existence. He was without close family and, as prosecutors now say, he was a bit socially awkward.

But he had found a beautiful young wife—or she had seemed to find him, actually. Mary Marks was thin and  blond and preferred heavy makeup. She had presented Raines with a baby boy she said was their son, a child who sat on his lap and called him “Daddy.”

What’s more, a devoted caregiver named Rachel Lee, who had looked after Raines’ father, was now helping Raines handle the millions of dollars that came from the family’s timber company.

Raines’ life had gone on like this for nearly a decade—until March, when police told him the life around him was a hoax.

Mary wasn’t really his wife, and the boy wasn’t his son. And Rachel, the caregiver? She was, in reality, Mary’s mother and the architect of a yearslong scam that, authorities say, drained Raines of at least $12 million and as much as $20 million. Prosecutors say Raines is left with $200,000.

It’s a classic con called the “sweetheart swindle”—a younger woman ingratiates herself with an older, vulnerable man so she can get access to his money.

Investigators say these scams are on the rise as the population ages. “Once you get your hooks in, it’s easy money,” says Jay Pentheny, the elder-abuse detective for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, who has investigated many “sweetheart” cases. “This is very prevalent, and it’s getting worse. I guarantee there are so many more cases going on in Portland that we don’t know about.”

Prosecutors say they’ve never seen a “sweetheart” fraud as large or as egregious as the one waged against Raines. The scammers allegedly bought luxury cars and financed trips to Las Vegas by liquidating Raines’ bank accounts and selling off his properties—all while keeping Raines isolated and confused.

Rachel Lee, 43, and her daughter, Porsha Lee, 24, who played the wife “Mary” in the alleged scam, were arraigned May 9 in U.S. District Court in Portland on charges of wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy.

Rachel Lee’s boyfriend, Blancey Lee, and another daughter, Samantha Lee, are also named in the 13-count indictment.

“The defendants, their family and their friends lived a lavish lifestyle on the back of this victim,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Maddux told a federal judge at the Lees’ arraignment. “In terms of sweetheart scams, it was like winning the Powerball.”

Raines declined to be interviewed for this story. His attorney, Brett Hall, says investigators are still trying to understand what happened, and that includes helping Raines figure it out himself.

“This is devastating,” Hall tells WW. “He believed that Rachel [Lee] was helping him. She created a dream state and kept him there.”


Left: Rachel Lee; Right: Porsha Lee
IMAGE: Multnomah Co. Sherriff’s Dept.


An only child, Ralph Raines Jr. grew up logging with his father, Ralph Sr., and his mother, Helen, on their 1,300-acre tree farm overlooking Gaston. Ralph Sr., a World War II veteran, had inherited the former Carnation Logging Co. from his father.

The family lived modestly, rarely giving hints of how rich the timber business had made them. When Helen died in 2001, she left tens of thousands of dollars to local libraries in Gaston and Forest Grove, news reports say, and $375,000 for a library at Pacific University. The family also gave $400,000 to Tuality Forest Grove Hospital for the Raines Dialysis Center.

Raines served a tour as a sailor in Vietnam, and then earned an associate’s degree in forestry from Clatsop Community College. He never married, and he had no children.

In 2004, Raines traveled to Bend for a conference of tree-farm owners, where he met Rachel Lee, then 32, a slender dark-haired woman with large, vulnerable eyes. Raines confided to her that his mother had died a few years earlier. Lee said she could relate—she too had lost her mother recently. The two quickly bonded. (Prosecutors say Rachel Lee’s mother was actually alive and living in California at the time.)

Over the next two years, prosecutors say, Lee gained the trust of Raines and his father. “It was his understanding that [Lee] was there to help them, to guide them through their finances,” Maddux told a federal judge last week at Lee’s arraignment.

Lee was hired as caretaker for Ralph Sr., then 86, after he suffered a stroke in 2006. Prosecutors say Lee didn’t let on that her only work experience was as a psychic. Before long, court records say, Rachel Lee was controlling the Raines family finances. In 2006, Ralph Jr. bought a new $915,000 home in Portland’s Northwest hills, and public records show Rachel and her family moved in.

In 2008, the indictment says, Rachel Lee brought her daughter, Porsha, then 17, into the scam.

Porsha Lee put on a blond wig, large glasses and plenty of makeup. Feigning an English accent, she introduced herself to Ralph Jr. as Mary Marks, a British citizen in the U.S. illegally who needed a green card.

Raines told investigators he fell in love with Mary. Porsha Lee, disguised as Mary, told Raines she wanted to have his child, but only through artificial insemination. She convinced him to give her a sperm donation, and then told him she was going to California to have the baby.

She later returned with a little boy and told Raines this was his son. Court records obtained by WW confirm the child was born not to Porsha Lee but to her sister, Samantha, who, prosecutors say, goes by the aliases “Bubbles” and “Pebbles.” The boy’s birth certificate doesn’t list a father.

Porsha Lee then managed to convince Raines they were actually married, court records say. That was also a lie. It’s still not clear how or why Raines could have been fooled into believing this. His attorney, Hall, will only say Raines was convinced of her story by his desire for a family of his own, and by the extremes the Lees took to make the story seem real.


Meanwhile, Rachel Lee, mother of the young woman portraying Raines’ wife, had opened joint bank accounts with Raines and was funneling money to her personal accounts. Raines’ father, Ralph Sr., died in 2011. 

That’s when the money really started to fly.

Ralph Sr.’s probate file, obtained by WW, shows that Rachel and Porsha Lee, posing as Raines’ wife, inserted themselves into the handling of the estate, which was valued at $5 million.

According to court documents, Rachel Lee convinced Raines to sell the Northwest Portland home, where she lived, for $640,000. She also got him to sell his family’s tree farm for $12.3 million, telling him he needed the money to cover inheritance taxes, the indictment says.

The day after the tree farm sold, court records say, Lee and her boyfriend, Blancey Lee, went on a buying spree. Blancey bought a $200,000 Ferrari convertible and a $300,000 Bentley Mulsanne, according to the indictment and Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles records reviewed by WW. The vanity plates he put on the cars: “MRBIG” and “MRBIG1.” 

The indictment says Rachel Lee and Blancey Lee took Raines’ money to Las Vegas, where they stayed and gambled at the Wynn, the Venetian and the Bellagio hotels. They bought rental properties and opened psychic businesses in Bend, Canby, St. Helens and Portland.

Last fall, court records say, Rachel Lee told Raines he was broke and would have to file for bankruptcy.

Porsha Lee, still posing as his wife, Mary Marks, called a real-estate agent and put Raines’ last two properties on the market: a 1930s family homestead and a dilapidated A-frame cabin near Gaston where Raines continued to live. The cabin had once been surrounded by woods his family owned. After the sale of the tree farm, the house stood isolated and exposed in the middle of a clear-cut.


Investigators say the scam unraveled when someone—authorities won’t say who—tipped the Canby police, who joined with the Internal Revenue Service to build the case against the Lees.

When agents told Raines he had been scammed, he was skeptical. After checking back with Rachel Lee, Raines explained to agents he had given her $4 million as a gift. Agents told him she had taken much more than that.

Federal agents arrested Rachel Lee and Porsha Lee at their psychic shop in Bend last week. According to prosecutors, the Lees had traded their iPhones for disposables and had suitcases packed next to the door. When she was arrested, Porsha Lee had $40,000 in cash hidden in her underwear.

Investigators say Raines tried to cover for Rachel and Porsha Lee, something that Pentheny, the Multnomah County detective, says is common in such scams.

“The men who have been victimized do not want us involved,” he adds. “They don’t want friends or family to know about what happened to them.” 

Prosecutors say Porsha Lee told authorities after her arrest that she made only $500 a month as a psychic—which didn’t explain why she was driving a new Mercedes.

Neighbors of the Lees’ psychic business in Canby tell WW that Rachel Lee had recently met an older man who owns lots of land. The man has since told investigators he plans to marry Rachel Lee and, as a sign of affection, recently bought her a Mercedes of her own. 

 
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