Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Man Fakes Retardation For 20 Years

For nearly 20 years — ever since Pete Costello was 8 — his mother has collected disability benefits on his behalf. In meetings with Social Security officials and psychologists, he appeared mentally retarded and unable to communicate. His mother insisted he couldn't read or write, shower, take care of himself or drive a car.

But now prosecutors say it was all a huge fraud, and they have video of Costello contesting a traffic ticket to prove it.

"He's like any other person trying to get out of a traffic ticket," Assistant U.S. Attorney Norman Barbosa said Tuesday.

Pete and Rosie Marie Costello were indicted in September on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government and Social Security fraud, and the case was unsealed Tuesday. The Vancouver pair pleaded not guilty in federal court in Tacoma on Tuesday after the case was unsealed. The traffic ticket was deferred.

Barbosa filed with the court two videos of Pete Costello taken this year: In one, he allegedly feigns retardation during an interview with Social Security workers; the other is of him contesting the traffic ticket in a courtroom earlier this year.

The indictment accuses Costello of faking — or at least exaggerating — retardation since August 1997, because that is what prosecutors are confident they can prove, Barbosa said. But the pair first received benefits 10 years before that.

The benefits cited in the indictment totaled $111,000.

Barbosa said the government does not know whether Costello is retarded to some degree, but he clearly has been "exaggerating whatever he may have, if any."

Pete Costello sat in court Tuesday and said nothing. Instead of living with his mother, he works as an auto-body repairman and lives with a girlfriend and two of her children, prosecutors said.

"Obviously his mother did get him involved in this ... but he's been an adult for many years," Barbosa said.

Court documents indicate prosecutors believe his mother, 46, pulled the same trick with a daughter, whom officials have been unable to locate. All told, she raked in $222,000 on their behalf, according to the documents.

Attorneys for the Costellos declined to comment after the hearing.

"This person isn't being honest with the government about his condition," Barbosa said. "It makes it impossible to sort out."

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Why Lousy Business Prospers

For M. Evan Parker and Frank Campos, business is pretty lousy these days — and that's just fine.

The Pasadena pair started their in-home lice removal service, Lousey Nitpickers, in July, budgeting $8,000 to launch a website and buy a supply of hair care products, towels and nit combs.

Six months later, the company's revenue is still very small. And like most fledgling entrepreneurs, Parker and Campos face several tough challenges if they are to establish a sustainable and profitable venture, business consultants said.

But with sales steadily expanding, Parker and Campos are optimistic that their business will continue to grow, given the demand from frantic parents who discover their children have head lice.

The firm fields an average of 10 calls a day, some days as many as 25. Most are direct referrals from past customers.

"People don't tend to book us in advance," Parker said. "By the time they call, their child's been sent home from school and they want treatment that day."

Accommodating as many as 90 itchy customers a month can keep Campos, the firm's chief nit-picker, another full-timer and three part-time employees busy from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., shuttling to homes across the Los Angeles area. The two men, who have known each other for a couple of years, found their nit niche after years in the hair care business. A licensed cosmetologist, Parker, 43, had earlier developed and marketed a line of hair products. Campos, 21, had worked at a children's hair salon in Los Angeles. Neither is a stranger to lice.

The bugs are as old as civilization itself, with references in the Old Testament to "the plague of lice." The insects pick no favorites or seasons and plague people of any age, said Vermont pediatrician Barbara Frankowski, who is chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' council on school health. But infestations spread most easily among preschool- and school-age children who touch one another a lot, she said.

"Little kids hug each other and snuggle up close on the beanbag chair in the classroom to read together," she said.

The result: 6 million to 12 million Americans are infested with head lice each year, according to the National Science Foundation.

Given a permanent bull market for nit-pickers, Parker thought an in-home service would be a more cost-effective business than a salon with fixed overhead. His idea is not new. The LiceSquad is a similar service headquartered in Ontario, Canada, and Parker says wealthy families have long been able to afford hairdressers who will make discreet house calls.

He figured there would also be a market among middle-income families.

The strong demand for nit-pickers is also because of the development of so-called super lice, which have grown resistant to commercial and prescription products in recent years.

Lice have built a tolerance to insecticide-based shampoos because the products have not always been left in hair long enough or been repeatedly used as directed, Frankowski said.

That's why Campos and his colleagues rely more on painstaking nit-picking to end the infestation.

Parker initially expected that the company's printed materials and website,, would be its best marketing tool. But by the third month, he said, referrals from customers and schools began multiplying almost as fast as lice themselves and now generate at least 40% of new customers. In hindsight, he said, he wishes he hadn't ordered so many pamphlets.

Jim Lee found Lousey Nitpickers — and his family's deliverance from weeks of lice — by going online.

Lee's 4-year-old, Karissa, started scratching first, in mid-October, then 2-year-old Micah and finally Monica, his wife, 40.

The family had tried a prescription shampoo and two commercial products to kill the pinhead-size critters. For good measure, Monica Lee cut several inches from Karissa's long hair. She also slathered her own long hair with mayonnaise and covered her scalp with a plastic bag, one of several home remedies some believe can suffocate the bugs.

When all that failed, Jim Lee searched on the Internet for lice removal services.

"I figured there's got to be someone who does this," said Jim Lee, 42, head chaplain at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village. "And if not, I said I'll start the business myself."

Campos answered the Lee family's call, in an unmarked Honda sedan. (Parker said he frequently had to reassure embarrassed customers who ask, "You're not going to show up with a big louse on the roof of your car, are you?")

Typically, Campos inspects the head first to assess the degree of infestation, then he shampoos and conditions the hair before settling down to work with his nit comb.

The firm will make a return visit within 14 days in case a nit missed in the initial treatment has hatched. The nit gestation period is a week to 10 days, and getting every last one is key, pediatrician Frankowski said.

The service costs $150 to $200, depending on the number of infested people in the household and the length and thickness of their hair.

Desperate families such as the Lees who say they're only too happy to pay have pushed the firm's revenue to a projected $21,000 in the fourth quarter of 2006 from $12,000 in its first three months of operation.

Although Parker, Campos and Campos' sister are co-owners, Campos is the only one of the three who currently draws a salary from the venture. Parker still works for a hair care products company that manufactures a line of nontoxic, botanically based shampoos his nit-pickers use and sell to customers.

Parker hopes the business will support him full time after a couple of years but acknowledges that "the reality is you have to keep your day job for a while."

Their venture is a good example of how practitioners can apply their expertise to fill another, more narrow niche, said Peter Cowen, a Westwood-based consultant to emerging companies. But having a good idea is not always enough to expand their profits, he said.

Reaching their goal will depend on the firm maintaining solid gross margins, Cowen said. Without guaranteed repeat customers, he said, Parker and Campos need to keep a close eye on their ratio of costs to fees and explore opportunities to franchise or otherwise expand the geographic reach of their venture.

Profitable margins are just one requirement for success, said Ben Martin, an attorney who advises small businesses for the Loyola Marymount University Small Business Development Center.

"Cash supply is another big one," he said. "A lot of people think it's the amount of money a business has on hand," he said, "but it's also the timing — when cash comes in, when it goes out."

The firm's growth so far is, in large measure, because of Campos. With his ready smile and playful manner, the Los Angeles native has charmed many fidgety youngsters into sitting still for the hour or two a typical treatment takes and turned several of his young customers into fans.

One boy recently presented him with a wallet he made from duct tape. Another composed a poem.

Finding employees such as Campos is one of the business' biggest challenges. Parker relies on a number of online job sites, including, to advertise for "service technicians."

"If we say 'nit-picker,' it scares them away," he said.

Securing liability insurance was the other major obstacle. Parker said he just wanted a general liability policy because the venture's risks were limited — "We're not using chemicals or sharp instruments." But until State Farm Insurance agreed to underwrite the firm, "nobody knew how to classify us."

A number of area schools have recently hired the company to screen students for lice. That service has quickly become a major source of new customers, Parker said.

Despite that demand, Martin warns that 70% to 85% of small-business entrepreneurs fail after two years. Many who shut their doors were making money, but not enough to earn a decent living. He advises Parker and Campos to be proactive: to use a bookkeeping system that shows them how well they're performing and to get outside advice.

"Business owners are often too close to the process," he said.

For the moment, however, Parker and Campos' venture often generates some awkward cocktail party talk.

"Initially people are really quiet when I mention what I do," Parker said.

"Then all of a sudden everyone has a lice story."

That's when they ask for his business card.


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Man Faces Prison Time For Having Weird Mannequin Fetish

FERNDALE, Mich. -- A man who has a history of smashing windows to indulge his fetish for female mannequins could draw a long prison term for his latest arrest. Ronald A. Dotson, 39, of Detroit faces up to life in prison if convicted of a charge of attempted breaking and entering at a cleaning-supply company in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale.

The potential life sentence is because prosecutors charged him as a habitual offender. Authorities say he has at least six convictions for breaking and entering and a stint in state prison over the last 13 years.

Ferndale District Judge Joseph Longo ordered Dotson to stand trial following a preliminary examination on Thursday, The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak reported. The judge ordered him jailed unless he posts a $15,000 bond.

Dotson was arrested Oct. 9 after police say he smashed a window at a cleaning-supply company to get at a female mannequin dressed in a black and white French maid's uniform. He had been out of prison for less than a week.

Dotson was arrested in Ferndale in July 2000 and later convicted for breaking and entering at a women's clothing shop to get at a mannequin in a pink dress with bobbed hair.

Ferndale police also arrested Dotson in 1993 after finding him in an alley behind a woman's store with three lingerie-clad mannequins. He also has similar convictions in Detroit and suburban Oak Park.

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Spanish Police Identifies Fake Goya Paining

Spanish police have seized a painting they suspect was falsely attributed to Goya before it was put up for auction, they said Thursday.

"Saints Adoring the Holy Sacrament" was seized Friday before it went under the hammer in Madrid with a reserve price of 1.2 million euros ($1.6 million), a police statement said.

Agents acted to head off "a possible major fraud," police said, adding experts doubted the painting was by Goya.

Francisco Goya, one of Spain's most renowned painters, who influenced much modern painting, died in 1828. Much of his work is displayed in Madrid's Prado museum.

Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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Thirsty man sells beagle to buy beer

A thirsty German sold his 6-year-old step-daughter's pet beagle to the owner of a bar to pay for beer, the Bild newspaper reported Friday.

The unemployed man offered to take the dog for a walk and then stopped at a bar where he convinced the owner to buy the 3-year-old dog for 40 euros ($53).

The man spent the proceeds quenching his thirst for beer. The bar owner has now returned the dog to its owner.

Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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Britney collapses in New Year stupor

Britney Spears has been rushed from a New Years Eve party after collapsing on the floor of a Las Vegas nightclub.

Eye-witnesses reported seeing the pop star downing glasses of Dom Perignon champagne before she fainted.

On-lookers claimed a hoard of bouncers covered the star in a blanket before carrying her out of Pure nightclub, where she had been hosting a party to bring in 2007.

A clubber who witnessed Spears' collapse said: "It was crazy. Britney had been on the roof watching fireworks bring in the New Year.

"She seemed to be having a really good time, laughing with her friends. "But then less than half an hour later, the security doors for VIPs at the back of the club flew open.

"Britney's body-guards were trying to stop any photographers taking pictures and shining torches in their eyes.

"But we saw Britney being carried out by about five bodyguards with one of their jackets over her head.

'It appeared that she couldn't walk on her own and had to be physically carried out of the nightclub."

The club, in Caesar's Palace, had reportedly paid Spears $300,000 to appear at their party.

Spears — with her long blond hair extensions in place — arrived on the red carpet wearing a skimpy black sequined mini-dress designed by Chloe.

She was also adorned with jewels by Cartier and Jimmy Choo heels.

Accompanied by an entourage of 27 groupies and security guards, Spears had started her evening of revelry by eating lobster curry and Kobe beef burgers at the Social House restaurant in nearby Treasure Island hotel and casino.

Fans went beserk as she appeared at Pure, and hundreds of people crowded around the star with their camera phones taking pictures.

Britney was drinking champagne and singing along to tunes picked by DJ Hollywood, who was on the turntables Actress Shannon Elizabeth and Desperate Housewives actor Jesse Metcalfe, along with his British girlfriend Nadine Coyle, were in the neighboring VIP cabana bed and showered Spears with hugs and kisses, according to Las Vegas columnist Robin Leach.

Leach reported on his website Luxe Life: "When her hit song I'm A Slave for You was blasted over the sound system she went to the railing overlooking the dance floor and danced for the crowd.

"Then she began the first of her two countdowns.

"Inside the club she yelled 'What happens in Vegas always stays in Vegas' and after the countdown she wished everybody a Happy New Year.

"Immediately she went up in the club's elevator for the outdoor upper terrace to watch the fireworks exploding on seven hotel rooftops.

"As 2007 officially began, Britney and her friends popped the cork on a massive $5,000 supersized bottle of Dom Perignon in front of a gigantic Happy New Year cake that was layered in Swarovski diamonds.

"Britney, with champagne in hand, led her friends in the open-air toast and then retreated downstairs back to her VIP cabana bed.

"And it was there just 50-minutes into the New Year, at exactly 12:50am, that she collapsed and was dramatically carried out of the club hidden under a hooded black poncho behind a screen of 12 burly bodyguard bouncers."

According to an eye-witness who spoke to Leach, Britney told staff she wanted to leave before falling onto the floor in a "dead faint."

Leach added: "Her group pulled her up and lay her on the bed at the same time as her personal security asked for the club to provide at least 10 other security managers to "get her out as quickly as possible."

News of Spears' collapse comes on the back of heavy criticism suggesting the mother-of-two should cut back on her wild nights out.

Ever since splitting from her husband Kevin Federline, Spears has been partying hard in clubs in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, often with hotel heiress Paris Hilton Attracting criticism for exposing herself by wearing tiny mini-skirts with no underwear, the star even posted a message on her official website admitting she may have been burning the candle at both ends.

She is currently recording a new album.

Splash News/Snapper Media

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