Police have yet to tally a final count, but they said hundreds of people in Richmond and Columbia counties might have been deceived into giving Cynthia O'Tyson money.
It was a scam that sustained itself on the goodwill that Ms. O'Tyson had accumulated in the years since her first arrest on similar charges, police said.
In the scam, which investigators now say involved almost $300,000, perhaps more, Ms. O'Tyson used people in her church and the numerous civic organizations in which she served, including the Columbia County chamber, to pass along information about her falsified company, Wholesale Liquidators. She promised expensive flat-screen televisions and laptop computers at cut-rate prices, but she only delivered a few to keep up the appearance that her outfit was legitimate, Richmond County Investigator Anita Hopson said.
"She established herself in the community by portraying herself as a good Christian person with morals," she said.
Ms. O'Tyson was not available for an interview because she is in jail, and efforts to reach an attorney representing her were unsuccessful.
In the months leading up to her arrest July 19, Ms. O'Tyson spent her time working as an advertising sales representative for the TranterGrey Media Group in Evans, Investigator Hopson said. She was a member of the Augusta Advertising Federation and an organizer for its 2007 ADDY awards, a national advertising competition, according to the group's Web site. In her time off, she was a youth organizer for her church and a mentor for an underprivileged girls group.
Behind the scenes, however, police suspect Ms. O'Tyson began enacting a plan to steal thousands of dollars.
Tiffany Robinson, of Evans, said she never received a computer and 19-inch, flat-panel TV that she ordered in March from Ms. O'Tyson for $600.
Mrs. Robinson, a member of the Columbia County chamber, said she heard about Ms. O'Tyson and her offers through an e-mail sent to chamber members. She said she contacted Ms. O'Tyson, who sent her an e-mail showing items for sale at a wholesale rate. "It was weird. It was an e-mail that just had the names, the model number, the price of different things," Mrs. Robinson said. "And it said that she'd place the order through the same people that Best Buy places the order through."
Mrs. Robinson said she gave Ms. O'Tyson a $600 check and was told that she would receive the computer and TV within two weeks. Mrs. Robinson said her check was cashed immediately, but when weeks went by without receiving her order, she left phone messages for Ms. O'Tyson at her workplace.
"She called me and told me this story about how there was a court case, this guy in Dekalb County that took off with her money, and that she would know something - this was on a Friday - that Monday morning or Monday afternoon," Mrs. Robinson said.
She said she eventually had her husband visit Ms. O'Tyson's workplace to get their money back. She said Ms. O'Tyson told her husband that she didn't have the money but would call him back.
"So the next day she called and said she'd have a check on Friday, to come by the office, but she was never there," Mrs. Robinson said.
She said she doubts she'll ever get her $600 back.
Pat VanHooser said she met Ms. O'Tyson at a business luncheon about two years ago. During their conversation, Ms. VanHooser said she floated the idea of starting a reading club for underprivileged young girls and that Ms. O'Tyson jumped at the chance to help. The two quickly became close friends and founded the Smart Girls book club.
"The next thing I know, she was involved and I was happy to have her," Ms. VanHooser said. "She was enthusiastic and well connected. The Smart Girls really took off because of her efforts."
Ms. VanHooser said she was "shocked" when she found out that Ms. O'Tyson was a convicted felon. Later, she said, she learned that more than $4,000 was charged to the Smart Girls' account for purchases at Best Buy.
She has since filed charges against her friend and questions whether Smart Girls, which she said operated on a shoestring budget, will be able to go on. Still, Ms. VanHooser said she thinks Ms. O'Tyson's actions were not driven purely by greed.
"I think there are two sides to her, and one of those was the one I saw," she said. "The other - and I'm no psychiatrist - but I think that there was a mental illness to her."
A 51-year-old Evans woman, who wished to go unnamed because her job prohibits communication with the media, said her dealings with Ms. O'Tyson have shattered her family's trust in others.
The woman's daughter and son-in-law lived in the same neighborhood as Ms. O'Tyson and had developed a friendship with her. They watched her dogs while she was on vacation and even prayed with her when she called their home sobbing. When they were asked whether they wanted to buy a television worth $1,400 for $550, the price didn't seem too far-fetched, the woman said.
The woman and her son-in-law each received their TVs. Ms. O'Tyson told them that she was able to get the items at low prices because she had a distributor in Atlanta who was eager to rid himself of the products before April 15 - the federal income tax deadline. But police think she went to stores and simply bought the items.
The woman said word of their great deal brought a flood of calls from others.. Ms. O'Tyson began receiving orders for larger and larger quantities, knowing full well that she wasn't able to fill them, Investigator Hopson said.
"It just went out of control, but she still didn't mind collecting the cash," Investigator Hopson said.
When the Evans woman noticed that the deals were falling through, she alerted investigators at the sheriff's office, she said.
Ms. O'Tyson is being held at the Charles B. Webster Detention Center on Phinizy Road. She has been charged with three counts of theft by deception, two in Richmond County and one in Columbia County, but more charges, including racketeering, are pending, Investigator Hopson said. Her previous conviction on forgery and theft charges and the fact that she was on parole at the time preclude a bond hearing.
Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHO TO CONTACT
Those who suspect they are victims in the scam are asked to call Richmond County sheriff's Investigator Anita Hopson at (706) 821-1080 or the Columbia County Sheriff's Office at (706) 541-2800.