MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. (ABC7) — Woodchucks of the human variety are about to emerge from their winter hibernation, and in doing so, will sink their teeth into the pocketbooks of vulnerable adults across the Washington metropolitan area.
"It's easy money, and their victims are elderly and very trusting," said Lt. Mike Hartnett of the Montgomery County Police Department. "They're getting away with far more than we're seeing."
Woodchuck is a term used by law enforcement to describe a close-knit group of handymen and handywomen who use charm, deceit and scare tactics. They’ll convince a homeowner that his or her 80 foot maple tree needs to immediately be cut down or that their roof needs to be patched at risk of imminent leaks. The jobs are often unnecessary, and always grossly overpriced, police assert.
"For the elderly, their house is their castle, they don't want anything to go wrong with it," Hartnett said. "It's not uncommon for a woodchuck to come in and say, 'Oh my God, you need to do this right away!' So they really feed on that fear."
Hartnett, who joined Montgomery County Police in 1983 as a patrolman, is considered by his peers to be the “resident expert” on woodchucks. The distinction isn't an official title. In fact, Hartnett is one of the top brass in the Bethesda district station. Instead, cracking down on woodchucks has long been a passion project for Hartnett, rooted in his respect for the elderly.
"They've put their kids through school. They're in their retirement years, and really they should not be victims. It's just maddening that these guys are doing this, and depleting their savings."
Hartnett has a white binder in his office. It contains the names and mugshots of around 370 known woodchucks. Almost all of them hail from Culpeper, Madison and Rappahannock Counties in northwestern Virginia. Their ancestors were honest, skilled, hardworking lumberjacks. Yet, recent generations have taken a more unscrupulous approach.
"They have no remorse, they have no remorse whatsoever about taking your money,” Hartnett shared from his experience interviewing woodchucks.
During warmer weather months, woodchucks hop into their landscaping vehicles and make the journey to the middle and upper class suburbs of DC. Bethesda, McLean, Potomac, Rockville and Silver Spring are hotbeds for victimization. Woodchucks will cruise leafy neighborhoods looking for wheelchair ramps, handicap placards, older-style vehicles, overgrown grass and shrubs — anything that shouts "elderly homeowner."
"They came from the road and just said, 'You need to take that big tree down,'" 72-year-old Marty Johnson of Potomac told ABC7.
Johnson was working in her front yard along Hackamore Drive in December 2017. Jason Rosser and Michael Stringfellow, both 39, and both from Rappahannock County, convinced the retired mother that an approximately 100 foot tree in her backyard was at risk of toppling over. Johnson, who lives alone with her pet cat, took the men at their word and agreed to have the tree removed.
It wasn't long before an entire crew of laborers arrived and spent three days tackling the project. In the end, Rosser and Stringfellow billed Johnson $25,750 for the work. A reputable tree company would later opine that a project of that scope should have only cost around $7,000 – around 73 percent less. There’s also sincere belief that Johnson's tree was perfectly healthy.
"What can I say? I wish I had been smart enough to just tell them to leave," Johnson said. "They pressured me though. 'We need a tip for this guy, a tip for that guy. You know? This is a really dangerous job.' That sort of stuff."
Although woodchucks tend to favor the DC suburbs, Hartnett explains they have conducted business as far south as Richmond, as far north as Pennsylvania and as far east as Delaware. Woodchucks drop into fourth gear following bad storms when respected companies are swamped with repair and tree removal work.
“They go where the money is,” Hartnett said.
The crews typically consist of a company owner, a tree climber/cutter, a door-to-door solicitor and a handful of day laborers. The owner will slice a big cut of the profit right off the top, handing sizable percentages to the tree climber and door knocker. The day laborers get the scraps left behind, and are often literally left on the side of the road when the job is done.
Each year, local woodchucks rake in millions of dollars performing their shoddy, overpriced work... and that's only taking into account the cases police are made aware of. In the worst incidents, victims have been fleeced of more than $300,000. Hartnett says that windfall is often used to feed addictions to drugs including heroin. Some woodchucks have been known to use the money to purchase property and luxury vehicles.
"I've been to a couple of search warrants where the houses are very nice — things I would like to have myself — but can't afford legitimately."
Woodchucks have gone so far as to purchase mealybugs from pet stores with the intent of planting the insects in trees to trick homeowners into thinking their beloved elm, oak or evergreen is infested. Woodchucks have also been known to use religion to their benefit.
"They'll pull the Christian, God-fearing card. 'My dad was a preacher,' that kind of stuff," Hartnett explained.
Although a cliché, police recommend people keep an eye on their elderly and disabled neighbors. Looking out for work vehicles with Virginia tags can also prove fruitful.
"If you see something, say something," Hartnett suggested. "There's plenty out there that we don't know anything about — and by the time we find out — it's way too late."
In October, a Montgomery County District Court judge sentenced Michael Stringfellow to 30 days in jail and two years probation. His accomplice, Jason Rosser, is scheduled to be sentenced this Wednesday on a charge of obtaining property from a vulnerable adult between $25,000 and $100,000. Meanwhile, Marty Johnson continues to live in her Potomac home of 35 years, but is now leery of opening her front door.
"It's disheartening to have people do that... I learned the hard way," Johnson said.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources maintains an online database of licensed tree experts. The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (DLLR) also operates an online database of nearly two dozen professions including electricians, plumbers and home improvement experts.