Dec 16, 2007 04:30 AM
Lucy Da Silva. Lucy Couto. Lucy Alves.
Convicted fraud artist. Illegal immigrant smuggler. Deadbeat mom.
Whatever the alias, the Toronto woman has always lived life on the edge. Now she's on the run from a court order for child support, and maybe even the mob.
Once a smuggler of illegal immigrants, Couto (her real name) has vanished. The 40-year-old's last known whereabouts: a $3,600-a-month Montreal penthouse she shared with a man who was murdered over a drug deal in August. It's just her latest brush with the criminal element. A Toronto Star investigation 16 years ago detailed her role in an international people-smuggling ring.
Among those looking for Couto is Don Morrice, the father of their 9-year-old daughter. The two met after the convicted fraudster completed her jail sentence in 1993.
Today, Morrice is struggling with cancer (he lost a kidney recently) and is worried time will run out before he finds his ex-lover, who owes $50,000 in child support.
"If something should happen to me, I want to make sure that my daughter is looked after," Morrice, 47, said in an interview at his home in southwest Ontario.
It's a tough slog. Couto, a walking Rolodex of aliases and social insurance numbers, is one of the more than 185,000 active cases of deadbeat spouses in Ontario who collectively owe more than $1 billion in child and spousal support. Less than 10 per cent are women.
In 2001, Morrice, a former assistant manager with McDonald's, was awarded sole custody and child support of $543 a month, based on Couto's income at the time. But she has never paid a cent. With court-ordered interest of 7 per cent per year, her debt to her daughter now tops $50,000.
Couto has a checkered and colourful past.
The beautiful, self-assured woman burst into the headlines in January 1991, when the Toronto Star detailed a trip to Mexico she organized to get landed status for a planeload of refugee applicants from Portugal and Brazil, most of whom had been living in Toronto for years.
Couto had charged each of her clients $2,000 plus airfare. Her plan was to bring them to Canada via the Canadian embassy in Mexico City, under a federal program that allowed them legal re-entry from a Canadian consular post as long as they had guaranteed offers of employment in Canada.
The trip turned into an international fiasco when the Canadian embassy turned 31 away, saying Couto (then going by her married name of Da Silva) did not have job appointments for them.
Along with Manuel Da Silva, her husband at the time, she then tried to get them to Dallas, Texas, by bus.
Suspecting a smuggling operation, American officials stopped them at the Laredo border crossing and handed them over to Mexican authorities who jailed them all – including women and children. After a week in jail, (Lucy later told a press conference that jail guards offered to set her free if she would strip for them) her clients were deported to their home countries.
A year later, the RCMP charged Couto with 21 counts of fraud and eight counts of aiding and abetting in the making of false statements – using bogus Canadian immigration documents attesting that her clients had jobs in Canada.
She pleaded guilty to 16 charges and was sentenced to 90 days in jail, a $4,000 fine, probation and ordered to stay away from immigration work for a year. In passing sentence, the judge noted she had already spent more than $45,000 making restitution to the immigrants she ripped off.
After jail, she changed her name to Couto and found a new job – selling beer at SkyDome during sporting events.
That's where she met Morrice, who was her boss. They had a baby girl. (Couto had two teenaged daughters from her previous relationship.) Life appeared to be good again.
Five years later, Morrice ended the relationship. He says he couldn't get Lucy to abandon her previous life, which was bringing so much turmoil, heartache and even death threats into their lives.
The family court custody order signed in 2001 gave "Lucy Couto, a.k.a Lucy Da Silva" access to Mariah on alternate weekends.
That never happened. Couto dropped out of sight. And Morrice believes he knows why.
Court documents filed in support of his custody application detail alleged criminal activity he says he witnessed while the two lived together in Toronto, Oshawa, and for a brief time, in Montreal.
In the affidavits, which have not been tested in court, Morrice claims his ex was involved with organized crime figures smuggling people into Canada and scams involving phony bank drafts and the manipulation of stocks and bonds.
But these get-rich-quick schemes ultimately ended in failure, leaving the couple drowning in a mountain of debt and fighting off bailiffs, bill collectors and angry family members.
The home they shared in Oshawa was lost in a power of sale in 1998. After the phone and water were cut off, Morrice says he had to use a neighbour's garden hose for household water while caring for their daughter and Couto's daughters from her previous marriage.
In a desperate attempt to get money to pay bills, Morrice alleges that Couto got one of her associates to stage a break-in at their home so she could file an insurance claim. But the plan backfired when the thief demanded $6,000 to return the jewellery.
Nine months after they moved to Montreal in the fall of 1998, ostensibly to start a new life, they were evicted from their rental house in Île Bizard, and all their furniture and belongings were seized.
Landlady Constance Lalonde told the Star she padlocked the home when the rent was three months in arrears. The couple shared the home with Couto's latest business partner, Lanny Joseph, who had an immigration consulting business.
"She was living there with an older man, her husband was in and out. The kids weren't going to school. She went away for long periods of time," the landlady said in a telephone interview. "Something funny was going on that's for sure."
Lalonde said she allowed Couto to retrieve some clothing for herself and the children, but held on to the furniture, which she later sold and donated the proceeds to charity.
Joseph, a former Oshawa Transit bus driver who ran for Durham Regional Council in 2006, admits he was once in business with Couto but has not seen or talked to her in years and does not know where she is. Their association cost him a lot of money and played a big part in his declaring bankruptcy in 2000, Joseph said.
"I deny everything," Joseph said of Morrice's allegations in court documents. "If Don has all this stuff, he should just go to the RCMP with it."
Morrice, while still living in Montreal with Couto, said she dispatched him to Portugal to pick up $216,000 worth of bank drafts only to be told by the bank manager that they were worthless forgeries.
After returning to Canada, he insisted they move back to Ontario. Shortly thereafter, in 1999, he filed for custody saying he was concerned for the safety and well being of all three children and the environment they were being raised in. He alleges the children had been the subjects of death threats from another of Couto's associates.
Couto, he says, told him her partners tried to kill her in the Dominican Republic in an attempt to collect on a $1 million dollar policy on her life.
In her court filings, Couto acknowledges an April 1998 car accident on the Caribbean island left her with a noticeable scar on her cheek, but denies there was ever an attempt on her life. She dismisses allegations of criminal activity as "innuendo," "character assassination" and "complete fabrication".
"He would have the court believe that I am engaging in fraudulent business activities, that I associate with criminals and that my friends have made death threats against me and my family and that I have been financially irresponsible," Couto says in her affidavit. "All these allegations are false ... I do not associate with criminals."
Couto's lawyer dropped her case, citing lack of payment. Couto did not return to court; Morrice was awarded custody of their daughter and child support.
Despite strong evidence that she has been living and working in Montreal for years under the new alias of Lucy Alves, investigators with Ontario's Family Responsibility Office (FRO), whose job it is to track down deadbeats and enforce custody orders, have not been able to find her.
"I once got a call from the FRO that they had a location for her in Montreal, but when they got there she denied she was the person they were looking for," Morrice says.
Although Morrice has had virtually no contact with Couto since 2001, her two older daughters kept in touch with their step-sister by phone until the summer of 2005. The call display showed the girls were calling from a phone registered to a Hasan Eroglu in Montreal.
Eroglu, a Turkish Kurd, was shot dead in July in Pointe-Claire, just blocks from where Couto, now going by Alves, ran her latest business: "A.C.T. Immigration Services".
Eroglu's bullet-riddled body was found on the lawn of a nearby home in what police believe was a mob hit over drug turf. A gun was found beside the body. A police source told the Star that an address book found on Eroglu contains the name "Lucia" and two phone numbers.
Homicide detectives in Montreal refused to discuss the case, saying only that Eroglu, who had a criminal record for assault dating back to 1997, was not living with anyone at the time of his murder. Eroglu was one of five men arrested in 2000 when Montreal police dismantled a heroine trafficking ring, but charges against him were later dismissed.
Building manager Ogy Drumen said Alves and Eroglu lived together for several years in a posh lakefront penthouse suite they rented for $3,600 a month. They moved out more than a year ago, but did not leave a forwarding address.
The trail goes cold there.
Recovering from his cancer operation, Morrice said he has considered distributing leaflets on the streets of Toronto and Montreal in a desperate attempt to find Couto. He has documents and bills showing she has used the aliases of Fatima Da Silva, Lucia Alves and Lucy Inacio and even Lucy Joseph.
He also claims to have tape recordings in which Couto and her associates discuss smuggling illegals into Canada using bogus documents.
One additional piece of the puzzle comes from Morrice. In his family court filings, Morrice says Couto claimed she never actually served time in jail because she agreed to work as an informant for the RCMP.
Morrice says he personally met her police handlers and even drove her to a building in Mississauga to pick up her pay from the Mounties, in cash.
But the relationship quickly soured and her Mountie handler soon stopped taking her calls, and dropped her from the payroll, Morrice says.
"I was very much in love with her, that's why I stayed so long" Morrice said of the woman he hired in 1993. (He found out later she had applied for the same job a year earlier, using the name Lucy Da Silva and a different SIN number.)
Although he was aware she had been in trouble with the law, Morrice says he didn't know the full extent until years later when he was going through the custody battle and a friend showed him the newspaper clippings and the headlines she garnered in 1991.
"Lucy had this incredible ability to look you in the eye and make you believe anything she said," Morrice says. "I wanted so much to believe that she would stop what she was doing and turn her life around.
"I begged her to stop, but she told me, "Don. I can't stop."