HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Henrico County is home to one of the largest jail systems in the state and one filled with a growing number of inmates battling substance abuse.
The alcohol treatment program at the jail is considered one of the best in the nation.
But recently, someone tried to take advantage of several inmates fighting addiction.
Deputy Casaundra Allen says that three female inmates were preparing to be released, but each woman needed to find a peer recovery house to move into.
A peer recovery home is where recovering addicts re-entering society pay to live.
They often have curfews and mandatory drug testing and are supposed to provide daily counseling and services to help keep residents clean and sober.
The problem is, peer recovery homes can be expensive, especially for someone re-entering society.
Which is why Allen says the women were all ears, when they learned of a man with a surprisingly affordable offer.
“Through what we believe to be his wife, who’s also an inmate here in our jail, she would tell these females that they had a recovery home and that they could come stay there when they got out,” explained Allen.
Investigators say the man told the women he would only charge them a couple hundred dollars each.
He even vouched for himself before a judge.
“He did go before the court and let them know that he had this recovery home and that this individual could come and stay there,” said Allen. “But he did not return the second day with the proper paperwork.”
The judge, curious about the legitimacy of the man’s peer recovery home, asked the sheriff to have someone check it out.
The man told the inmate and the judge that the peer recovery house is in the 5200 block of Boston Avenue in South Richmond.
Only problem is that block does not exist and neither does the house.
“This is the first type we’ve had like this,” Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade said of the recovery home that doesn’t exist.
In fact, Sheriff Wade said he has never seen a scam like this before.
But he says it was easy to pull off, because of the way the system is set up.
“Part of the problem is the peer recovery house industry in itself, you know, they’re protected by federal law, so you can’t regulate them,” he explained.
Sheriff Wade says that federal protection means these homes don’t even need a license, so there’s nothing state and local lawmakers can do.
“You can’t open a boarding house in the county, but you can open a recovery house,” said Sheriff Wade.
With the opioid epidemic being declared a public health crisis in Virginia, the pressure is on judges to get more addicts out of jail, and into treatment centers.
“I know the general district judges here are still with the stigma that they had from 2016 in the first six months of the year, 14 people died between the time they were in court and the time they were supposed to come back for trial of overdose,” explained Sheriff Wade.
The scam could have a tremendous impact on victims with a history of substance abuse.
That’s one reason why this new scam has investigators so upset.
“It will definitely be a setback for their recovery, it’s very traumatic to them, it’s a traumatic situation for everybody involved,” said Allen.
There is now an active manhunt for the suspect, a convicted felon identified as Delmer Carl Phillips.
“He’s getting a fraud charge, had the judge sworn him in, he could have charged him with lying to him under oath,” said Sheriff Wade.
But the sheriff says they’re lucky they can charge him with anything at all.
“If he had a house, if there was a real address, I’m not sure it would have been a fraud, because we couldn’t have proved he wasn’t gonna let her stay there,” he said.
But there could be good news for the victims.
Investigators say there’s a chance they could get their money back, because of the way they paid Phillips.
“The individual had a few money orders so there was a receipt involved, so we’re trying to go off that to get the money back,” said Allen.
Investigators say they believe Phillips is still in the area.
They also say there is a chance his wife will be charged as an accomplice.
So, what should an inmate who needs to find a peer recovery home do?
Sheriff Wade says they should get their family members, friends, or lawyers to do a little investigating.
“Do some background, go look at it before you go there… Make sure it`s providing the services that you actually need, and it’s not just somebody that’s got a house and wants to throw people in it and charge them.” explained Sheriff Wade.
Otherwise, you have no idea what you're getting into.
“You could pay, a couple thousand dollars to get in a place and find yourself sleeping on the couch there, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”
Sheriff Wade says he believes it would take an act of congress to regulate the peer recovery house industry. He says right now, people just can’t tell the good ones from the bad ones.
But he says he’s working on a solution.