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NEW YORK (AP) — A Florida woman who drained an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor’s life savings by posing as a love interest and then lived lavishly off the $2.8 million she got was sentenced Thursday to over four years in prison.
Peaches Stergo, 36, of Champions Gate, Florida, was described by U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos as “unspeakably cruel” and motivated by greed as he announced the sentence in Manhattan federal court.
Given a chance to speak, Stergo said: “I'm sorry.” She pleaded guilty in April to wire fraud, admitting that she drained the life savings of a man she met on a dating website seven years ago.
Stergo began asking the once successful businessman for money in May 2017, claiming she needed money to pay a lawyer who was refusing to release the payout from a bogus injury settlement, prosecutors said. He paid her $25,000. Over the next four years, she used lies to coax the man to write 62 checks totaling over $2.8 million until he was broke, they added.
She got him to send as much as $50,000 at a time as she told desperate lies and faked letters from a bank employee to back up her claims, prosecutors said.
They said Stergo traveled to New York to visit the victim in his Manhattan apartment, falsely claiming she was a Florida nanny and her name was “Alice” and failing to reveal that she was in a long-term relationship with another man and had two children.
As the victim lost his life savings and was forced to surrender his apartment, Stergo used his money to live a life of luxury, traveling on expensive trips to Europe and Las Vegas when she wasn't living in her gated community or using her boat and numerous cars, including a Corvette and a Suburban, prosecutors said.
They said she spent nearly all of the man's money, including thousands of dollars for expensive meals, gold coins and bars, jewelry, Rolex watches and designer clothing.
As part of her sentence, she faces a $2.8 restitution and forfeiture order.
“Peaches Stergo callously defrauded an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor who was simply looking for companionship," U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement. "But she did not get away with it. As today’s sentence demonstrates, perpetrators of romance scams will be held to account for their crimes.”
Prosecutors said Stergo had mocked her victim when she told her real lover in a message that the victim had said he “loved” her. They said she followed that message with “lol.” And they said that when he ran out of money, she convinced him to sell his inventory of diamonds and borrow from others.
Prosecutors did not identify the victim, but they said he suffers from cognitive decline, among other health issues, and is frail.
In a letter to the judge, the victim, who was 6 when he lost both of his parents in the Holocaust and who moved to the United States in his early 20s, wrote: “As a Holocaust survivor, I have endured unspeakable pain and loss in my life, but never did I imagine that I would be subjected to such a heartless betrayal in my old age.”
Stergo's lawyer, Ann Marie Fitz, wrote in a sentencing submission that Stergo is a partner to her long-time boyfriend and mother to two teenage boys and that her boyfriend describes her as a great mother and a born-again Christian.
“She is not the cold-hearted person the government and media have made her out to be," the lawyer wrote. "There was a genuine, caring relationship that Ms. Stergo had with the victim in this case — she spent holidays with him, she took care of him when he was ill and, as the victim’s cousin described, she was ‘doting’ on him.”