NEW ORLEANS ― When Shawn Arthur’s family sent police to his apartment on Feb. 25, 2017, the last thing they’d expected was for him to be found dead.
His body, cool to the touch, was sprawled out on a mattress next to a small puddle of vomit. A police officer who had been called to check on his well-being said there were no obvious signs of violence. The death certificate said Arthur, 40, died of acute hemorrhaging of the pancreas associated with the use of grain alcohol ― an accident.
Arthur’s wallet and television were missing. Security video later showed three men and a woman using his bank card at a nearby Walmart. Hours before police arrived at the apartment, surveillance footage showed someone driving away in his pickup. The truck was found abandoned on a New Orleans street weeks later, with 2,500 fresh miles on the odometer, according to his family.
A liquor bottle in Arthur’s apartment contained the fingerprints of Dominique Berry, a 27-year-old woman with a long criminal record.
A Jefferson Parish sheriff’s detective investigated, but closed the file three months later, concluding there was no crime.
Berry, now jailed in Georgia pending further proceedings on charges stemming from a different incident, told the story of what she said really happened to Arthur in a series of interviews with HuffPost. Her account, along with other evidence uncovered by HuffPost during a lengthy investigation, shows how she and a partner skipped across the country on an alleged crime spree while local investigators failed to connect the dots.
“I didn’t know he was dead,” Berry said of Arthur, whom she remembered meeting through a dating app. She said she spiked his drink with a powerful cocktail of drugs that she and her partner used to knock out their victims before robbing them but had left him alive.
She had this message for Arthur’s parents: “Tell them that I apologize, and I want to make sure they get justice for their son no matter what.”
Berry said she agreed to tell her story because she “don’t have nothing to lose.”
“It’s just going to be, like, at that point either they’re going to kill me or I’m just going to die in prison … so I just don’t care anymore,” she said.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Berry claims Arthur was one of an estimated 100 victims of a scam that spanned California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Georgia.
Berry said her cross-country partner was Randy “Ru Ru” Schenck, 36, who, like Berry, is also locked up in Georgia pending further proceedings on multiple charges that the two face related to alleged thefts. Schenck also faces a charge of pimping.
They met in New Orleans’ French Quarter in January 2013, she said. Within weeks, Berry quit her job as a hospice care nurse and moved in with him.
“I was proud at one point in time to be dating him,” Berry said. “I didn’t want to be with nobody else.”
She began working as a call girl for an escort agency and then in the streets of the French Quarter, where she was arrested so many times she was banned from the area. Schenck wouldn’t let her quit sex work, she said.
“He spit in my face before, he hit me with a gun, dragged me out of cars, beat the shit out of me … and nobody would do anything,” she said.
Schenck couldn’t be contacted in jail, and Georgia authorities declined to allow him to meet with HuffPost. His attorney in Georgia, Kome Akpolo, said his client denies the charges and Berry’s accusations.
“He is entitled to the presumption of innocence,” Akpolo said. “All allegations made by Dominique Berry are allegations ― nothing more.”
“The hangover the following day was disconcertingly extreme, one of the worst we’ve had,” one of the men told HuffPost, asking not to be named. “Unfortunately, it was a real blur, and she simply walked away with our possessions.”
Berry mistakenly left her jacket and wallet with the victims, and they turned the items over to the sheriff. Berry was charged with theft and prostitution. She posted bond but failed to appear in court, and a warrant was issued for her arrest.
A NEAR-PERFECT SCAM
Berry said she posted ads on free dating sites like Backpage and Craigslist, and used fake identities on hook-up apps like Tinder and MeetMe to meet men and arrange dates. Schenck, she said, typically posed as her Uber driver, dropping her at the men’s homes, where she’d introduce herself and slip drugs into their drinks.
Schenck was in charge of drugs, Berry claimed. He’d get prescription pills used to treat schizophrenia and panic disorders, crush them up and put the mixture into empty capsules.
Once her date passed out, Berry said, she’d send a text to Schenck and he would join her at the victim’s location. They’d scoop up cash, jewelry and other valuables, and deliver vehicles to a New Orleans chop shop.
They would target up to three men a night, according to Berry. Victims often failed to report the crimes, she said, perhaps for fear of embarrassment.
The couple narrowly escaped police in Sacramento, California, a few days before Christmas 2016. A man placed an ad on Craigslist “looking for someone to join me and my girlfriend … and become friends.”
A woman claiming to be a nurse from Louisiana answered the ad, the man told police, and showed up at his house. He told police the last thing he remembers is taking two shots of liquor that she poured for him. His girlfriend, who asked HuffPost not to publish her name, found him unconscious when she got home from work, and he was rushed to the hospital.
The woman said the hospital determined her boyfriend had been drugged. The house had been ransacked; credit cards, cellphones and $300 were stolen. Sacramento County authorities filed felony complaints against Berry and Schenck, but they vanished before police could arrest them.
“They told us the perpetrators were from out of the area, and we never heard back after that,” the woman said.
SHAWN ARTHUR’S LAST DAYS
A work project brought Arthur to Louisiana in 2015.
Arthur, a certified water technician from Missouri, anticipated a short stay in New Orleans, but that changed when he became smitten with a local woman. They were soon engaged and living together, but the romance didn’t last ― Arthur broke things off and moved to a different New Orleans apartment in December 2016.
On Feb. 25, 2017, Arthur had an appointment with an attorney to discuss breaking the lease on that apartment.
“He decided he’d much rather move back to Missouri with us,” his father, Bob Arthur, 69, told HuffPost. “He was having a rough time. This was very upsetting to him that he broke off the engagement, but they had different values.”
Arthur told his father he’d call after the meeting, but didn’t. When his dad tried to get in touch, Arthur’s cellphone was answered by a voice he didn’t recognize.
“A foreign-speaking person answered the phone,” Bob Arthur explained. “I was able to get out of him that he found the phone in Lafayette Cemetery No. 2. After that phone call … I called the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and requested the wellness check.”
Bob Arthur said he and his wife, Linda, were on their way to New Orleans when they learned of their son’s death.
“My wife became hysterical,” he said.
The Arthurs’ youngest son, 32-year-old Ryan Arthur, accompanied his parents to the sheriff’s office the following day. Detectives told the family they suspected Shawn had had a party and consumed a significant amount of alcohol, and said they “found a white powdery substance” and “a multitude” of liquor bottles, Ryan Arthur said.
“The sheriff’s department … started saying that Shawn must have been a drug user,” said Ryan Arthur. “We tried to let them know this is not the kind of person he [was].”
Berry’s fingerprint was on one of the bottles, according to a sheriff’s report, which also noted a shot glass filled with a discolored substance.
Bob Arthur said Jefferson Parish authorities rebuffed his concerns and acted defensively when he asked for updates.
“They kept telling us, ‘It’s not our job to keep you advised of what’s going on,’” he said.
Then they got an email from Sheriff’s Detective Kurt Zeagler, saying the death was accidental and the case was closed.
ON THE ROAD
It’s unclear exactly when Berry and Schenck left Louisiana, but records obtained by HuffPost place them in Houston on July 4. Those same records connect Berry to a 47-year-old man who claimed a woman he’d met on Craigslist stole his laptop, credit cards and approximately $200 in cash.
“She told me she was a nurse in town on a short contract,” the man told HuffPost. “I invited her over and we had a few drinks. She offered to give me a massage, so I laid down on my stomach. The next thing I knew a friend was shaking me awake. I was super groggy and out of it. I knew something happened ― that I had to have been drugged.”
Two months later and some 800 miles from Houston, a 52-year-old man in Acworth, Georgia, reported he had fallen victim to a woman he met through the dating app Jaumo.
“She told me that her name was Desiree and she was a nurse and new to the area,” the man told HuffPost. “She said she had been working a lot the last couple of weeks and would like to meet me for a drink.”
They had a few drinks at his home, he said, and he began to feel drowsy.
“That’s the last thing I know,” he said. “I woke up five hours later face-down in my bed. She was gone. My head hurt bad … I’m assuming I was drugged.”
His laptop, wallet, iPad, cellphone and several other items were missing. Days later, he saw the woman’s profile on another dating app and notified police. Investigators later named Berry as a suspect.
Police in Sandy Springs, Georgia, heard a similar story on Aug. 18, from a 50-year-old man who reported he was the victim of a theft by a female named Desiree he’d met on Tinder.
The man told police he had too much to drink. When he later awoke, the woman was gone, along with his wallet. Fingerprints at the scene matched Berry’s.
On Sept. 11, 2017 ― seven months after Arthur’s death ― a 53-year-old man in Sandy Springs, Georgia, met Berry through the Meetup app. They drank and had sex before he passed out. When he awoke, his car, cellphone, laptop and several bags were gone.
The man used the Find My iPhone app to track his missing phone to a Fulton County hotel, where police met him. He saw Schenck exit a room and identified him as the Uber driver who’d dropped off his date the previous day.
Police soon found Berry. According to the police report, she was “bleeding from her nose” and “the right side of her lip was swollen. She had a small puncture in her lip where her teeth had went through her lips.”
The couple’s hotel room contained more than a pound of marijuana, a .22-caliber handgun and several items belonging to the latest victim, including a safe from his residence, police said. During questioning, Berry told officers Schenck beat and choked her “because she had messed up” the previous night’s scam.
Police charged Schenck with burglary, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and pimping. Berry was charged with burglary, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. She was treated at a hospital for her injuries before she was jailed.
Berry’s charges in Fulton County were resolved in January, when she was sentenced to five years’ probation. She remains jailed in Cobb County, where she is accused of identity fraud and theft charges that carry a maximum of five years behind bars.
Schenck has pleaded not guilty in Fulton County to charges of assaulting Berry. He hasn’t entered pleas in Cobb County, where he faces four counts of identity fraud that could result in up to 10 years behind bars.
Shawn Arthur’s family remains unsatisfied.
They hired private investigator Jane Holmes in Georgia to pursue the case. Holmes said she’s interviewed Berry several times in recent weeks and suspects the scope of the pair’s doings remains untold.
“If they drugged them with [the] same stuff they drugged Shawn with, I have no doubt ― with that many victims and not knowing their conditions or medications they were on ― that there were other fatalities,” said Holmes, owner of Patricia Lane Investigations.
Arthur’s family also contacted their representative in Congress, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), who asked the FBI in November to help investigate the death. Maxwell Marker, acting deputy assistant director of the bureau’s criminal investigative division in Washington, replied in a Feb. 28 letter that agents consulted with local authorities and “no apparent federal violation was identified.”
He added: “Though the FBI may provide investigative support to state and local authorities, a formal request for assistance must be made by the investigating authority. Should the local authorities make such a request, the FBI will assist as deemed appropriate.”
Back in Louisiana, Jefferson Parish authorities last month began taking a fresh look at evidence related to Arthur’s death after HuffPost raised questions. Dr. Marianna Eserman, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy that declared Arthur’s death accidental ― and who is married to a sheriff’s deputy who assisted in the investigation ― also is taking a second look.
Michael Kennedy, the Arthur family’s attorney, said he’s cautiously optimistic.
“They’ve been given an opportunity to do the right thing, and hopefully that’s the direction it’s now going in,” he said. “Not just for Shawn Arthur’s family, but for every person who was victimized.”