A West Hills woman allegedly forged power-of-attorney documents to steal millions of dollars in real estate assets from at least two men who reportedly died under questionable circumstances, including one victim whose body has never been recovered, according to federal prosecutors.
Caroline Joanne Herrling, 43, also known as Carrie Phenix, was charged earlier this month with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and possession of controlled substances with intent to distribute. She remains in custody following a lengthy investigation that also involved the U.S. Postal Service.
Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office allege Herrling, along with unnamed co-conspirators, stole the identities of victims who owned real estate, disposing of the body of at least one victim to make it appear that he was still alive.
Deaths of victims hidden
“Defendant Herrling would also attempt to hide the death of one of her victims by hiring persons to impersonate him and to falsely claim to have seen him alive,” according to charging documents.
Authorities confiscated digital devices from Herrling that allegedly contained internet searches for “millionaire” and “obituary,” suggesting she was looking for rich, dead individuals as potential targets, Los Angeles police homicide Detective Mark O’Donnell said in a 55-page probable cause affidavit.
One of Herrling’s alleged victims was 71-year-old Charles Howard Wilding Jr. of Sherman Oaks, described by neighbors as a recluse who mysteriously vanished from his Kingswood Road home sometime in the fall of 2020.
Two LAPD officers who responded to a missing person report went to Wilding’s home on Dec. 21, 2020, where they encountered Herrling, who identified herself as Wilding’s trustee, the affidavit says.
Herrling allegedly told the officers Wilding was staying with friends in Carpinteria in Santa Barbara County, while she worked to get the house back in order, as it was in disarray and contained black mold.
Herrling was unable to provide a current address for Wilding, but gave the officers his purported phone number. The officers called the number but no one answered.
The missing person case remained cold until Oct.6, 2021, when O’Donnell received an anonymous phone call from someone who said Wilding was possibly dead, and that dangerous drug users had stolen his identity for financial gain.
O’Donnell pulled the earlier LAPD welfare check report on Wilding and contacted Herrling, who again claimed to be the trustee for his estate. He told Herrling that if she failed to provide a valid phone number and address for Wilding, a formal missing person investigation would be initiated.
Herrling soon called O’Donnell back and put a male on the line who identified himself as Wilding.
“I asked the male if he knew his social security number or his California driver’s license number, which he did not,” O’Donnell wrote in the affidavit.
O’Donnell said he also went to a phony address for Wilding in Simi Valley that Herrling had provided. A man who answered the door said he knew Wilding vaguely, but hadn’t seen him in years and that he didn’t live there.
Later, the man admitted to O’Donnell that he didn’t know nor had ever met Wilding, the affidavit states. Herrling allegedly had paid the man $5,000 and provided him a script on what to say to anyone who inquired about Wilding.
Several forged or falsified probate documents obtained by O’Donnell listed Herrling as trustee and beneficiary of the Wilding Family Trust, the affidavit states.
Hadley Pelletier, who had been Herrling’s assistant since 2020, told O’Donnell he believed Herrling was an attorney who specialized in probate and estate law. The State Bar of California has issued a cease-and-desist letter to Herrling.
Another woman allegedly told O’Donnell she gave Herrling a $6,075 cash down payment to rent Wilding’s home.
O’Donnell said he believes that Wilding is dead. The LAPD did not immediately respond to an inquiry from the Southern California News Group as to whether Wilding’s case is being investigated as a homicide and if Herrling is a suspect.
In addition to stealing the estates of the deceased, Herrling also has allegedly used identity theft to acquire real estate from the living.
Herrling used forged documents to sell property belonging to Encino resident Robert Tascon for nearly $1.5 million, the affidavit states. She allegedly used the sale proceeds to buy her West Hills home.
On Sept. 11, 2022, Tascon, who suffered from mental illness and had filed a fraud lawsuit against Herrling, fatally shot himself in the head in Abilene, Texas, according to the affidavit. There was no witness to the shooting and Tascon did not leave a note.
Elaborate identity theft operation
Law enforcement officers searched Herrling’s home in the West Hills area of the San Fernando Valley on Jan. 12, discovering an elaborate identity theft operation inside, says the affidavit.
Numerous fake and stolen driver’s licenses, credit cards, Social Security cards, birth certificates, sheets of counterfeit U.S. savings bonds and passports that were not in Herrling’s name were recovered.
Authorities also found a device that makes documents look older, which could be useful in forging wills and trust documents, according to O’Donnell. Also seized was a router drawing robot kit that allows a computer to forge exact copies of signatures.
Authentic-looking federal law enforcement and Beverly Hills Police Department badges, assorted drugs and 16 firearms, including assault rifles and ghost guns, many of which were loaded, were confiscated.
Replica law enforcement badges allegedly were found at the home of Caroline Herrling, who is accused of fraud. (Courtesy of Department of Justice}
During the search, Herrling’s boyfriend, Samuel Shtolzberg, told authorities the residence doubled as a sober living home.
“Shtolzberg said that the sober living residents were primarily fentanyl addicts and that they are not allowed to have drugs in the house,” the affidavit says. “Shtolzberg said that when Herrling and he smoked methamphetamine, they did so out of sight of the fentanyl addicts.”