A 69-year-old man faces nearly 20 years behind bars after pleading guilty midway through a jury trial to 76 felonies for bilking more than $200,000 from an elderly Sonora woman while posing as her handyman and friend, the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office announced Monday.
Thomas Rowelle Ricci, of Sonora, pleaded guilty to three felony counts of first-degree burglary and 73 felony counts of theft from an elder during the sixth day of a jury trial in Tuolumne County Superior Court before visiting Judge Frank Dougherty, the District Attorney’s Office said in a news release.
The plea being made in the middle of a trial was unusual but “not surprising given the evidence against Ricci,” according to Assistant District Attorney Eric Hovatter, who prosecuted the case.
Dougherty allowed Ricci to stay out on bail until he surrendered to the Tuolumne County Jail on Friday in exchange for pleading guilty to all counts filed against, the release said.
Ricci is set to be sentenced Nov. 8, after which he will serve the rest of his time in a California state prison. Dougherty already agreed to sentence him to 19 years, four months for his crimes, the release said.
The case stems from Ricci’s arrest in May 2019 following an investigation by then-officer and now-detective Ashley Brandow, of the Sonora Police Department.
Anne Buvala, the victim in the case, was reportedly 91 when she first met Ricci in August 2017 while he was working as a handyman. She died in October 2019, but not before giving recorded testimony that was used at trial.
Buvala reportedly lived alone at her home on South Stewart Street and had a rental unit in the back of the property.
Ricci was initially hired by Buvala to do minor roof repairs on the rental unit and then began doing other work for her. Between August 2017 and February 2019, she wrote him more than 100 checks totaling more than $220,000 for supplies and services.
Relatives of Buvala’s visiting from another county in February 2019 found her to be frail and in need of medical attention.
Buvala reportedly told the relatives that the rear unit was a “palace” and that Ricci was helping her make it ready for renting, though the relatives observed that the unit was not in habitable condition and called the Sonora Police Department to investigate.
Brandow found Buvala to be “very unsteady and forgetful,” the release said. Buvala also reportedly insisted at the time that Ricci was her friend and helper and had done “incredible work” to her house.
The release noted that Brandow was able to enter the rear unit because the front door had no doorknob, and she found very little furniture, no electricity and conditions that were “completely unfit for living.”
Further investigation uncovered that Buvala had written checks to Ricci sometimes on consecutive days ranging from $170 to $5,280 for such items as a 1989 Chevy engine, several transmissions, taxes (not Buvala’s), funeral expenses, and airline tickets, the release said.
One check written in January 2018 for $3,000 had a notation in the memo line as being for a “garage door remodel,” but Brandow found the garage was full of junk and had shower curtains for doors.
More than half of the checks didn’t have any notations, the release said, and Buvala told Brandow she wrote checks for whatever Ricci said he needed.
Ricci spoke with Brandow several times and had explanations for all of the checks, many of which he described as loans or gifts.
Brandow set up two appointments for Ricci to provide receipts and invoices that supported his claims, but he didn’t show up both times. He also claimed to have lost, or had stolen, his briefcases that contained the documents.
After several failed attempts at having Ricci procure the promised documents, he was arrested May 1, 2019, at his home on the 500 block of South Shepherd Street.
A Black Oak Casino Diamond Club Players Card was found in Ricci’s wallet at the time of his arrest, which prompted additional investigation that revealed he was a frequent gambler and had sunk $379,760 into slot machines in 2018.
Ricci’s trial began on Sept. 21 and featured testimony from Buvala’s relative and caregivers, a representative of her bank, a representative of Black Oak Casino, and Brandow. The jury was shown the victim’s check-writing history and photos of the inside and outside of the rear unit.
One of the people hired by Ricci also testified that she was generously paid by him for relatively minor work and was asked by him to call Buvala and pretend to be a prospective tenant so she would write him more checks.
One of Buvala’s caregivers also testified that she overheard Ricci coaching the elderly victim after the investigation had begun to say that she gave him the money because he was facing time in prison.
Buvala was questioned in court for more than four hours prior to her death and testified that she never saw any of the work Ricci claimed he performed on the rear unit and just took his word for it.
Ricci was convicted in the late 1990s of diversion of construction funds.
Hovatter said at the time of Ricci’s arrest that the number of charges in this case is unusual for Tuolumne County, but he has seen similar cases in other jurisdictions.