New Yorker Jerry Needleman became a widower in his 80s in 2008 when his wife of 40 years passed away. The couple never had children, and now at his late age, he settled into a quiet and lonely life. Meanwhile, in Florida, a woman named Sylvia was pursuing a relationship with a retired man who had already spent thousands of dollars on his younger girlfriend. Once they got engaged, the man’s son stepped in and, in 2012, the man’s family successfully sued Sylvia for fraud.
A year later, Jerry went on one of his daily walks when he stumbled upon a distraught woman crying on a park bench. Yes, it was Sylvia. The old man with a good heart asked her if she was okay, which, in retrospect, was the wrong move. What he should have done was keep on walking.
The story begins at a Dunkin’ Donuts. On a warm October afternoon, a young man in a baseball cap sat alone in his convertible – top down – in the drive-through lane. He was waiting to order some Munchkins and a coffee. He didn’t seem to notice, though, that behind him, a man was approaching, carrying a baseball bat.
Suddenly, the stranger smashed the bat right into the back of the young driver’s head and fled. The driver was left there, dazed and bleeding. He managed to steer his car out of the drive-through lane and proceed onto the street. It wasn’t long before he crashed his convertible into another vehicle on Bergen Boulevard.
The attack was as brutal as it was brief, but what isn’t brief is the chain of events that led to the attack, which was actually a long time in the making. What led to and followed that seemingly random attack is a twisted series of bizarre actions and reactions. The road that led to that drive-through incident begins with an old man and his money.
A lonely, old man (and his money) met a younger woman who wanted only to separate the two. Jerry Needleman, a retired builder and a widower was 84 years old when he walked out of his Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan on August 5, 2013.
On his routine stroll through Central Park, something out of the ordinary happened. He came across as a woman crying on a bench. She stopped Jerry in his path, introduced herself as Sylvia Anderson, and started to confide in this older stranger about how she was at the end of her rope.
“She had just left her husband that used to beat her. She had two young teenaged children. She was broke, sleeping on the floor, and she was going to look for a place, an apartment to live in,” Jerry, now 92, recalled. She then asked him if he could help her find an apartment.
Out of all the people then Sylvia saw in Central Park, she chose the right person. Jerry isn’t the kind of man to leave a woman crying alone. He’s was basically the perfect stranger. She told Jerry that she was in and out of hospitals and was desperate.
“I’ve helped people all my life,” Jerry said. He had a sister that he cared for throughout her life. He also took care of his mother and others in his life. “This is my nature. I just wanted to help her, she sounded like she needed help, and I didn’t think beyond that.”
And so, Jerry helped Sylvia find an apartment. Not only that – he had to guarantee the rent and pay for the first several months since she claimed that she was broke. Within a couple of weeks of the two of them meeting, Sylvia settled into her new apartment on East 95th Street, just a mile away from Jerry.
He checked in on her regularly and was amazed to see just how little the 38-year-old woman seemed to know about the modern world. The pair struck up a friendship, and Jerry learned details about Sylvia’s life… well, the ones she wanted him to know about.
She told Jerry that she became a mother at the age of 19 and that she was already a grandmother. To Jerry, she was “entirely different than everything” he had ever known. He recalled how whenever he talked about something she didn’t know, she got very excited.
One time, he laid out a map of the world on the table. And, apparently, she didn’t know what she was looking at. She told him that she was Kalderash, which is a part of the Romani community that’s usually referred to by the derogative term Gypsies.
Sylvia might not know have known how to read a map, but she knew how to read Jerry. Before long, she was asking him for even more favors. It’s not like Sylvia was a stranger anymore. She knew that he was a giver. To her, he was gullible and generous. To him, she was naïve and uneducated.
The two became close. She would come to visit Jerry almost every day and bring her grandchild. And Jerry was impressed with her kids, especially her son Geno who was 19 at the time and seemed to have real ambition.
Jerry learned of Sylvia and Geno’s side business: buying, fixing, and selling used vans. Jerry loaned them money. Sylvia told him that there were jewels that her grandfather left her – diamonds, rubies, gold, and platinum – that her ex-husband pawned.
Sylvia’s story was that the pawnshop insisted she redeem the valuables, or they were going to sell them. She pleaded with Jerry to give her the money. He then asked her, “how much?” She told him: “$86,000.” Luckily for Sylvia, Jerry had deep pockets, built from a lifetime of frugal living.
Jerry recalled that when he was a young man, he had no money. But once he became successful, he continued to live modestly. “I had 2½ million dollars when I met her. I couldn’t have spent 2½ million dollars the way I live, no matter how long I live.”
Jerry also took a liking to Sylvia’s son, Geno, who told him that he had met a girl and was hoping to marry her. He just “needed” $60,000 for a dowry for her family. And, of course, Jerry handed over the money. Over the following two years, Jerry opened his checkbook to whatever Sylvia asked.
In addition to the $60,000 for her son, there was another $50,000 for her daughter, who was having custody issues. Then there were the expensive clothes, the furniture, the jewelry, phones, and vacations – all for Sylvia alone. What did Jerry get in return? Her enthusiastic gratitude… at first.
As time passed, Geno’s wedding fell through. Then Geno met another girl, which meant another $60,000 dowry to be paid. Yes, Jerry handed him the money again. And when that engagement failed, and a third girl came along, Jerry paid that dowry, too.
To most of us, red flags and full-on alarm bells would be ringing, but Jerry either ignored them or simply wasn’t listening. “I’m all alone,” he said. He and his late wife, Gitti, had no kids. Jerry was part of a group of retirees that gathered in Central Park every Saturday.
These men learned about this woman who was becoming a regular presence in their dear friend’s life. “He introduced me to her. Said he was dating somebody and wanted me to meet her,” 78-year-old Mike Stern, a retired jewelry manufacturer, said.
Stern recalled: “Immediately my defenses went up. Jerry is not a young man, and this girl is attractive, let’s put it that way.” But Stern felt that it wasn’t his place to say anything. Others in the group, however, were less reserved. “They thought I was crazy,” Jerry said.
“Jerry, this girl’s not for you,” was the message they conveyed to him. One day, he opened his door to a New York City police detective. The detective told Jerry that he had reason to believe – based on another investigation – that he was the victim of a “sweetheart swindle.”
The detective then asked Jerry if he would make a complaint. “Can’t help you,” is what Jerry told him. “I’ve thought about what you’ve said to me, and I believe I can correct everything,” is what Jerry said at a later meeting with the detective.
He told the detective that Sylvia had been through a hard life, “and given the opportunity to live a proper [one], she would turn out to be a good lady.” For Jerry, he was thinking about Sylvia in the long term. He saw in her the kind of companionship he was missing.
As Jerry recalled, at some point, she began to express her love for him, “both verbally and in writing.” She told him of her “eternal love” for him – that when he died, she would “jump in a box.” She wrote him greeting cards and letters with promises of eternal love and care.
The more Sylvia asked for, the more Jerry was happy to give. And about two years after their fateful meeting in the park, Sylvia made her biggest request yet. “At some point, she pleaded with me to marry her.”
And when she did, he told her that he wasn’t interested in marriage. He even admitted that he “didn’t find her attractive, certainly, there was no romantic interest… at 85, I was not looking for a hot young dame.”
But Sylvia’s pleas were convincing, and little by little, Jerry started to consider the idea that maybe after all these years of giving to people in his life, it might finally be his turn to get something back. “I was growing old, frail, and I didn’t want to end up in a nursing home.”
Rather naively, he thought Sylvia would be the woman he was hoping would “take care of me because of what I’ve done for them.” And if he took care of her and her children, “she would keep her promises and take care of me in old age,” he admitted to having thought at the time.
So, in the end, he gave in. On September 8, 2015, a mild and sunny Tuesday, Jerry and Sylvia arrived at the New York City Clerk’s Office. The civil ceremony was short and sweet. Sylvia wore a matronly blue skirt suit with a blue necklace to match. Stern, Jerry’s reluctant friend, was his best man.
“You’re thinking to yourself, ‘Jerry, what are you doing? What are you doing?’ But he did it,” Stern said. And I know what you’re also thinking: Was their relationship sexual? According to Jerry, they had sex twice before they married, “when she talked me into it.”
After the ceremony, they never slept together again, “never, never,” as Jerry reiterated. He said she would stay out until three in the morning. Sometimes never even came home. She never made breakfast for him and very rarely cooked dinner. And if she did, it was a “Gypsy dish that made me sick,” he said.
It became very clear that the marriage and the care he was hoping he would get from their arrangement wasn’t coming to fruition. Sylvia’s moods were also unpredictable and unsettling. To make matters worse and more complicated, she got back together with her ex-husband.
Shortly after their wedding, Sylvia moved to Bowie, Maryland, for a year. Why? Because apparently, her son was (finally) getting married. Two weeks after she left Jerry in New York, she posted a photo of her and her husband celebrating their 23rd wedding anniversary on Instagram.
Even though Sylvia was hardly present in Jerry’s home, the drama went on and on. There were arguments, pleading, and reconciliation. She redecorated his apartment – the same one he had lived in since he married Gitti in 1958. With Sylvia now in the picture, a bulky, fake-jeweled white sofa with matching chairs adorned his living room.
Above them, a new chandelier that didn’t turn on. It was just for show. As Jerry watched his home transform, other events were happening outside of his home – and his awareness. Not only was she meeting her ex, but she also reunited with a man she had known when they were teenagers.
The man’s name was Danny Eli, but people called him Danny Champs. Sylvia had secretly rented out an apartment a few blocks away from Jerry’s (and Sylvia’s) apartment. It was there that she had her secret rendezvous with Danny Champs.
Eventually, Jerry found out, and enough was enough. Jerry may have been lonely and naïve, but he wasn’t dumb. The problem was that he had gotten himself into this mess, and he needed to find a way out. “All my relatives had died. All the good friends, three of them, all died in one year,” Jerry explained.
His retiree friends, or “acquaintances,” as he referred to them, all thought he was “nuts.” Those who knew Jerry’s first wife just couldn’t understand how he could put up with someone like Sylvia. Jerry was now thinking more clearly, and he decided to file for divorce in May 2017.
He cited his wife’s “paramour” in his court filing. He also accused Sylvia of stealing his money. “Defendant scammed me out of at least $1,836,725,” he wrote. And so, nearly two years into the marriage, Jerry was ready to say goodbye to his swindler. And it caught her attention.
The divorce was granted, but Sylvia stayed put. She pleaded with him to remarry her, promising that she would fix everything – that she would take care of him. I’m sorry to say that her begging worked. They remarried on August 24, 2017, at the same City Clerk’s Office, but with no best man.
Six days after, Jerry filed for an annulment. “She was lying again,” he recalled. Things went right back to the way they were, including her regular pleas for money. Sylvia then moved out of the apartment during the first week of November 2017. “She fled in anger. I never saw her again after that.” She left her ugly furniture behind.
After four long and confusing years, the reality of it all hit Jerry like a ton of bricks. “She pretended to love me. The whole purpose is to get my money. My judgment was terrible,” he confessed. “But judgment is not criminal. What she did was criminal.”
Once he realized that he had fallen victim to the “Sweetheart Swindle,” as that detective had once warned him about, Jerry started looking for help. That’s when Bob Nygaard, an ex-cop turned private investigator, entered the picture. Nygaard’s specialty was investigating fraud and especially sweetheart scams.
But let’s rewind for a second…
Sylvia’s stay in Manhattan actually set in motion a drama beyond the Hudson River involving another man who had a history with her. Sonny “Gordo” Nicholas, 47, Geno’s father, was Sylvia’s common-law husband. They eloped when she was 18 after his family paid her dowry.
Gordo was apparently enraged, but not because of her marriage to Jerry (which was an open secret in their family), but rather her affair with Danny Champs and their secret apartment. He took to Instagram to express his rage: “Nothing but a pure garbage Jezebel.”
Well, Gordo and Geno decided to pay Danny Champs a visit. They drove to Ridgefield, New Jersey, to the small house where Danny lived, and they waited outside, watching, according to the police report. Next door, which shared a wide common driveway with Danny’s, lived a medical assistant in the house.
That man’s name was Charbel Chaoul, aged 28, and he lived there with his parents. That afternoon, Chaoul’s sister dropped by with her daughters. Chaoul then offered to head over to Dunkin’ Donuts to grab them some coffee and Munchkins…
Chaoul got into his convertible, ball cap, and all, and since his side of the driveway was being blocked by his sister’s vehicle, Chaoul had to swerve his way into his neighbor’s (Danny’s) side to get out. To an observer – like Gordo and his son – it appeared as though the convertible was leaving Danny’s house.
Mr. Chaoul drove a mile to Dunkin’ Donuts and drove into the drive-through lane. “It felt like an asteroid hit my head,” Chaoul later recalled. After he hit the other vehicle, emergency responders thought he was injured from the car accident instead of the bat to his head.
Chaoul was taken to the hospital, but doctors quickly recognized that something else was going on. “Serious skeletal and soft tissue injuries, which were inconsistent with a motor vehicle collision,” the Fort Lee police reported.
The poor guy spent two weeks in intensive care as doctors had to remove a portion of his skull due to his brain’s swelling. Two months later, he underwent another surgery in which they installed a titanium plate in his head. The results? He said he gets confused and can’t focus for too long. “My mind’s been so ruffled up,” Chaoul said.
Nine days after the violent attack, Gordo and his son were arrested as video evidence showed Gordo fleeing the area and getting into a vehicle where Geno was waiting. They were then charged with attempted murder, and both pleaded guilty.
Months later, as Chaoul was still recovering at home, the police paid him an unexpected visit. Chaoul was arrested for not only having more than 10,000 inappropriate images of children on his computer but also for sharing them. Chaoul blamed the assault for his behavior. “You drop into a different world,” he stated. “My mind wasn’t exactly there much of the time. I tripped into this weird world I wish I never found.”
Private Investigator Bob Nygaard started doing some digging into Sylvia’s past. He discovered that she had used different names over the years and worked as a palm reader (her grandmother passed down the skill when she was young) in various states, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
More importantly, he found that there was a lawsuit from two years prior that had been brought against Sylvia in 2011 by an 80-year-old widower. Samuel Silver Jr., a retired executive with Shell Oil, lived in Orlando and bumped into her at a grocery store. Like Jerry, he also had stopped to hear her desperate story.
Her story was more or less the same: abusive ex, teenaged children, no home or money. Within three months, Samuel bought Sylvia an $11,000 engagement ring and a $58,000 Cadillac Escalade. He also gave her over $28,000 in cash for “food and lodging.”
His son wasn’t pleased with the whole situation and confronted Sylvia. She then broke off the engagement and went back to Massachusetts. Samuel successfully sued her for fraud. In a 2012 deposition, Sylvia declined to answer questions, pleading the Fifth Amendment. A year later, she met Jerry in Central Park.
Jerry met with the district attorney’s office and brought evidence: a written confession. In the final days of his and Sylvia’s relationship, he wrote the confession, and she signed it. The statement read: “Needleman gave me credit cards on which I spent $10,000 — $20,000 per month and sometimes more. He provided $60,000 to ‘buy’ each of three wives for her son.”
But this signed confession wasn’t very significant, he was told since he married her (twice) and did everything from his own goodwill. It would be highly unlikely that a jury would convict her.
After Jerry filed for a second divorce, Sylvia’s lawyer, Jerry D’Angelo, said he didn’t anticipate her being charged with a crime. “Their marriages were based on love and respect for the other person,” he said. Sylvia, who moved to Paramus, N.J., wasn’t home when a knock was heard at the door one morning.
Danny Champs went to open the door, and in front of him was someone who listed the chain of events that led to the beating of a man who the attacker believed was him. “Sounds like you have the whole story. I don’t know what you need me for,” Danny said. “I have no comment. I’m afraid for my life.” As for Sylvia, the very thread that connects all these stories, she wasn’t home.
Nygaard also discovered that Sylvia had a sister and that she had actually targeted Jerry first. Sandra Cooter Anderson has been arrested in the past for sweetheart swindles. Apparently, Sandra approached Jerry, he wrote her two checks for $10,000, but then he canceled them.
About two weeks later, he was approached by Sylvia, who also uses the name Sophia Anderson. She tried a different approach with Jerry and hit the jackpot. According to Nygaard, with sweetheart swindler scams, it’s not typical to work as a team. Something else that isn’t common in these types of cases is how Nygaard was able to get testimony from Sylvia’s family…
Sylvia’s (and Sandra’s) family were willing to come forward, which Nygaard says is very rare in these cases. However, with all the twists and turns involved in Sylvia’s life – the husband, the lover, etc. – her family was more willing to come forward and help with the case.
Nygaard spoke to the husband, who confirmed that the jewelry Sylvia said he pawned was just a ruse to get $86,000 out of Jerry. And it probably won’t shock any of you that those three dowry payments for Geno were also scams.
Nygaard spoke with Geno, who told him, “Bob, I was never getting married like that. I never, it was never any $60,000 dowries that were needed.” Another $180,000 down the drain. Geno claims he wasn’t aware of what his mother was doing. He stated, “Bob, my mom’s been conning this man, old man for the last couple of years.”
Geno also added that he’s “had enough of it, and I’ll go to the police with you, and I’ll do whatever has to be done to have her arrested.” In the end, Nygaard calculated a total of $1.78 million in losses for Jerry Needleman.
What does an elderly person do after being wiped out of their life savings? Well, it’s not like they can go back to work. Jerry told Nygaard that he has no choice but to look for work, but no one is will to even give him an interview because of age discrimination.
According to Nygaard, Jerry was about to get kicked out of his apartment until a long-lost relative came forward and got some other relatives together to pay his rent for him. As unfortunate and sad as it is, at least he has a home. But what about Sylvia?
Nygaard stated that Sylvia’s still out there, that “Nothing happened to Sylvia at all.” At the moment, Jerry is trying to figure out how to get his money back. Nygaard is trying to find someone in law enforcement who will agree to take Jerry’s case and prosecute it.
The real problem is that law enforcement is unlikely to take this scam case seriously, and that’s because Jerry technically gave her the money willingly. But as Nygaard points out, it’s a “total misconception.” He insisted that Jerry is “not an elderly man in these situations that is looking to pick up a hot young woman. This is an elderly person who is scared that they’re not going to be able to take care of themselves.”
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that people aged 40 to 69 lost money to romance scams at the highest level, which is more than double the rate of people in their 20s. People over 70 reported the highest individual losses.
Of all the scams out there these days, the sweetheart swindle is one of the most harmful emotionally for its victims because they’ve been deceived. It’s important to remember, folks, that such scams aren’t exclusively carried out in person as Sylvia did with Jerry. Many, many swindlers look for their pray online. So, please, be aware and stay safe!