Home Repair Scam Leads To Twenty-Five Year Jail Sentence


Virginia Detlefs, 81, was living in her own home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when she first met Mark Olsen. In September, 1996, Mr. Olsen contacted Ms. Detlefs and offered to evaluate her home to see if it needed any repairs.

With the help of his live-in girlfriend Jennifer Wagner, Mr. Olsen ran a home improvement business. He also had a substantial cocaine habit to support. Ms. Detlefs was exactly the kind of “client” Mr. Olsen preferred—she was, as the Iowa Supreme Court later noted, “susceptible to suggestion and influence.”

Mr. Olsen’s initial appraisal of Ms. Detlefs’ home was that it needed finishing work on the wood trim and floors, carpet cleaning and window washing. He estimated that the job would cost $6,000 and Ms. Detlefs authorized him to begin the work.

That contract was just Mr. Olsen’s way of getting his foot in the door. Over the next nineteen months he and his girlfriend persuaded Ms. Detlefs to pay them more than $200,000 for various home improvement jobs. In fact, however, the couple performed almost no actual work on Ms. Detlefs’ home.

Iowa, as it happens, was the first and only state (so far) to adopt a version of the Model Ongoing Criminal Conduct Act initially proposed in 1993 by the national President’s Commission on Model State Drug Laws. The Act is similar to laws in a number of states (including Arizona) which prohibit racketeering, but the new law is more comprehensive.

Mr. Olsen was convicted and sentenced to a term of incarceration not to exceed twenty-five years, and ordered to make restitution to Ms. Detlefs. He appealed his conviction and sentence.

Mr. Olsen’s argument on appeal was not that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. Instead he argued that just operating a two-person scam did not amount to “ongoing criminal conduct.” The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed, and his conviction and sentence were upheld. State v. Olsen, October 11, 2000.

Perhaps more interesting than the result in Mr. Olsen’s case is how his activities came to the attention of the authorities in the first place. One of the persistent problems in dealing with financial exploitation of the elderly is that abuse usually takes place in secret. Frequently there is no one involved enough in the victim’s life to be aware of the exploitation.

In Ms. Detlefs’ case an alert neighbor saved her from further losses. Noticing that Mr. Olsen and Ms. Wagner visited Ms. Detlefs’ home regularly for short periods, and that no repair work seemed to be undertaken, the neighbor asked Ms. Detlefs to show him her check register. When the neighbor saw the pattern of payments to Mr. Olsen and Ms. Wagner, he called police. Once investigators were involved Mr. Olsen’s conviction was assured.

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