Sonora, California – Tuolumne County District Attorney Cassandra Jenecke announced today that Thomas Rowelle Ricci, 65, of Sonora, pled guilty to 76 felony counts of First Degree Burglary (three counts) and Theft From an Elder (73 counts) on the 6th day of a jury trial being heard before visiting Judge Frank Dougherty in the Tuolumne County Superior Court. Due to the age of the victim, elder abuse prosecutor Assistant District Attorney Eric Hovatter filed and prosecuted the case for the People.
According to Hovatter, the plea-during-trial was unusual but not surprising given the evidence against Ricci. In exchange for Ricci’s pleading to all counts charged against him, Judge Dougherty allowed Ricci to stay out on bail until his surrender Friday, October 8, 2021. Judge Dougherty agreed to sentence Ricci to 19 years 4 months in prison for the crimes.
The facts of the case were as follows: the victim Anne Buvala was 91 when she met Ricci, who worked as a handyman in the county. Buvala lived alone in a residence on Stewart Street and had a rental unit in the back of her property. Buvala initially hired Ricci to do some minor roof repairs to the rear unit and from there Ricci began doing other work for Buvala. Commencing in August 2017, Ricci met with Buvala at her home and provided estimates for repairs to her home and the rear unit. Between August 2017 and February 2019, Buvala wrote over 100 checks totaling more than $220,000 to Ricci for supplies and services. In February 2019, out-of-county relatives of Buvala’s contacted her and found her to be frail and in need of medical attention. Upon meeting with her, Buvala told her relatives that the rear unit was a “palace” and that she had renters paying $1000 per month in rent. Buvala mentioned Ricci as the person who did the work to make the house ready for renting. That same day her relatives observed that the rear house was not in a habitable condition and called the Sonora Police Department to investigate. Then-Officer, now-Detective, Ashley Brandow responded and observed that the rear house appeared to be in poor condition and was uninhabited. Brandow contacted Buvala and found her to be very unsteady and forgetful. After obtaining consent to view Buvala’s checkbook, Brandow found many checks written to Ricci dating back over a year. At that time, Buvala was insistent that Ricci had done incredible work to the rear house and that he was her friend and helper. Ricci arrived on scene that day and gave the name of the renters. Brandow was able to enter the rear residence as the front door had no doorknob and found very little furniture, no electricity, and conditions completely unfit for living.
Additional investigation of Buvala’s financial record showed that she had written over 100 checks to Ricci, some on consecutive days, for amounts ranging from $170 to $5280. Based on notations in the “memo” portion of many of the checks, Brandow interviewed Buvala and found out that she had written checks to Ricci for such things as a 1989 Chevy engine, several transmissions, taxes (not her own), funeral expenses, and airline tickets. One check, written in January of 2018 for $3000 was for a “garage door remodel” but when Officer Brandow investigated in February of 2019, the garage was full of junk and had shower curtains for doors. Over half the checks had no notations in the memo portion and Buvala told Brandow she wrote checks for whatever purpose Ricci indicated. Ricci spoke with Brandow several times and had explanations for all the checks, labelling many as loans or gifts. At Brandow’s request, Ricci made several appointments to bring in receipts and invoices to support his claims, but failed to appear at both appointments. He also claimed to have lost, or had stolen, his briefcases that had documents relating to his work. After several failed attempts to have Ricci provide the promised documents, Ricci was arrested at his home in May 2017. In his wallet was a Black Oak Casino Diamond Club Players Club Card. This car prompted additional investigation, which uncovered Ricci was a frequent gambler at the casino having put $379,760 into slot machines in 2018.
The trial commenced on September 21, 2021 and featured testimony from Buvala’s relative and caregivers, a representative of Buvala’s bank, a representative from Black Oak Casino, and Detective Brandow. The jury was shown the history of Buvala’s check-writing history to Ricci and photographs of the interior and exterior of her rear unit to show the non-existence of and poor quality of work performed by Ricci. In addition, one of the people hired by Ricci to do work at Buvala’s property testified that she was generously paid by Ricci for relatively minor work that she was given, and that Ricci asked her to call Buvala and pretend to be an interested future tenant so that Buvala would agree to write more checks for work. One of the caregivers also testified that she overheard Ricci coach Buvala, after the investigation had begun, to say that she gave him money because he was facing time in prison. Buvala, who died in October 2019, was seen and heard by the jury through a taped conditional examination that occurred prior to her death. She was questioned in court for over four hours and indicated in her testimony that she never saw any of the work that Ricci allegedly performed on rear unit and that she took his word for it. She also said she wrote checks to him for airline tickets, taxes, automobile parts and other items because he asked for the money or claimed the work needed to be done.
Ricci remanded to the custody of the Tuolumne County Jail on Friday, October 8, 2021. Ricci will be sentenced on November 8, 2021.
For More Information Contact:
Eric Hovatter, Assistant District Attorney
Phone: (209) 588-5450