A Beast Among Us

by , Dec 13, 2004, 12:00 AM
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Reality TV had nothing on the Web last week as I watched an edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting story unfold: a story worthy of anything shown on "Law and Order." The story has everything: celebrities, alleged fraud, a world-wide community duped out of tens of thousands of dollars, retribution, multiple identities and aliases, and the alleged perpetrator on the run.

But unlike any reality show, this whole show is still playing out in real time for all to witness. The story also shows how easy it is for fraud to take place in our cyber world and how poorly the systems designed to protect us online really work.

Our story takes place in an obscure, yet tightly knit corner of the musical universe: players of a relatively little-known instrument played almost primarily in Bluegrass music generally known as a Dobro. (Or at least it was known as a Dobro until the Gibson Music Company who purchased the rights to the name began enforcing their trademark. Manufacturers of similar looking instruments had to come up with another name for their product: "Squareneck Resonator Guitar" - or "Reso" for short - is now the usual appellation given to the strange looking instrument.)

Unlike a regular guitar, the Dobro is played flat on the lap and is played using a steel bar as opposed to fretting the fingerboard with your fingers. It is the grandfather of the modern day Pedal Steel found in country music and its sound is often associated with Hawaiian music found in Max Fleischer cartoons from the 1920s and 30s.

The current superstar of the Dobro world is an artist named Jerry Douglas who is best known for his playing with Allison Krauss' band and his work on the movie "Oh Brother Where Art Thou."

Like most sub-cultures, the sense of community within the reso world is strong and trusting. Add to this the fact that the Bluegrass community at large has deep protestant-based religious underpinnings, and you have a musical fraternity based on faith, trust, and helping out your neighbor.

Now drop into this mix one Matt Roe and his wife Monica, a couple with three children and an unusual series of misfortunate events in tow. Over the course of a few years, "Matt" built a small empire catering to the reso community's needs: workshops, a festival, a magazine, a calendar, a popular Web site, and a company putting out resophonic guitars under the name Ashley Guitars - all created by "Matt" and supported enthusiastically by the reso community.

"Matt was the kind of guy who would get lost in his hometown," says Jimmy Hefferman, a 30-year veteran of the Nashville music scene who taught a series of Dobro workshops sponsored by Matt's company, Resonator Guitarist Publications, based in Grand Prairie, Texas.

"If he was supposed to be going East, he'd go West. We started calling him Wrong Way Roe." In the end, Jimmy would be one of many alleged victims (personally out $7,500) of Resonator Guitarist Publications many entrepreneurial activities.

Things began to unravel on December 2, when someone posted on the Jerry Douglas Web site a warning that they had paid "Matt" full payment for one of his Ashley Guitars and after a long wait, had never received it.

Matt had apparently been the unfortunate victim of series of horrendous events that had delayed shipment including the death of his father, the death of his wife, a series of strokes, as well as an automobile accident that destroyed seven guitars that he was about to ship out.

Over the course of the next week, a series of fresh revelations were uncovered via the Jerry Douglas site including a vast array of alleged victims who reported payments made for guitars never received, other guitars sent in trade (that may have been auctioned off on eBay by someone using the user name monicaroe in November at a fraction of their worth), bounced refund checks for workshops that never took place, money spent on subscriptions for a magazine that was never produced, and so on.

Over the next week a new Web site was formed, www.reso-nation.org, in order to explore these new revelations and a private Yahoo! group began to document how much money was lost in total and to join forces in tracking "Matt" down.

One of the biggest revelations was Internet research that seemed to link "Matt" with someone named Raymond Boze who had allegedly pulled a similar scam on the reso community nearly 10 years ago. Soon documents were posted, including Raymond Boze's drivers license which seemed to prove that Matt Roe and Raymond Boze where in fact the same person!

Almost hourly, new developments were uncovered by a community that felt used and taken advantage of (even by those who did not suffer any financial loss), including allegations that Monica, the wife, was still alive along with his father.

At this point, total loses are in excess of $60,000 and growing. Victims are reporting in from across the country and as far away as Europe. Tied to the feeling of anger and helplessness is the sinking realization that the chance of there being anything left to recover grows dimmer with each passing day.

Now the community ponders what to do next. The local police departments have been notified, but there may be little that they can do, something that Jimmy Hefferman discovered in talking to friends in the police force. And so, here we have an alleged scam involving more than $60,000 in losses, dozens of victims across the country and Europe, and potentially the use of the U.S. Postal Service, the Internet, and perhaps eBay, and yet there appears to be no place for the victims to turn for help.

"If someone came to your home and stole $7,500 the police would come and arrest the guy," says Hefferman. "Why is this so different?"

If any readers out there have any thoughts on what can be done for the alleged victims or similar groups that find themselves in a similar situation, please e-mail me at bill@emerging.com and I will publish your suggestions next week.

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