An Ohio mother of six was on the run Tuesday after prosecutors say she and her husband conned family and friends out of $800,000 by claiming he suffered from cancer.
Melanie Chen, 29, and Phylip Chen, 38, were each indicted on counts of theft and receiving stolen property. Delaware County Prosecutor Dave Yost said the couple convinced about a dozen family members and friends that they needed the money to pay for Phylip Chen's medical expenses.
Authorities have been unable to find Melanie Chen since she failed to show up for the couple's arraignment March 2. A warrant has been issued for her arrest. Phylip Chen pleaded not guilty to the charges and was allowed to return to his children at their Columbus residence, Yost said.
The prosecutor said the couple solicited money from friends and family in California, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio from July 2005 to August 2008.
"You know, people are kindhearted. When you think that somebody you care about is ill, it's not like going to court where you want to see proof," Yost said. "You trust your family to tell you the truth."
Relatives contacted authorities after they grew suspicious and the couple were unable to produce documentation of Phylip Chen's medical treatment.
"It was face-to-face networking kinds of stuff," Yost said. "There was no softball benefit or those kinds of things."
Phylip Chen's lawyer, Keith Boger, said his client denies any involvement in the alleged scam.
"His wife has indicated that she was lying to him about the source of the money along with lying to his mother about why she needed the money," Boger said. "He believed that his mother was involved in the real estate industry in Taiwan and that his wife was working for her."
Boger said Melanie Chen told a sheriff's detective that her husband had nothing to do with the scam. The lawyer said that the $800,000 came primarily from Phylip Chen's parents and that Melanie Chen prevented her husband from communicating with them by offering various excuses.
Boger said Phylip Chen has been in contact with his wife, but Boger did not know how often.
"I believe he has no idea where she is or what her circumstances are," he added.
Phylip Chen is currently employed as a research assistant in the Columbus area, Boger said. He would not be more specific. The couple's children, who are being cared for by other family members, range in age from 18 months to 10, according to Boger.
Sometime during the alleged scam, Phylip Chen was employed at Ohio State University, Boger said.
Messages left at the Chen home were not returned. Yost did not know whether Melanie Chen had a lawyer.
Phylip Chen told The Columbus Dispatch that he knew nothing of the scam and called his wife a pathological liar. He said he was not close to his parents and believes they were duped into believing he was ill.
"For three years, they made no attempts to contact me," he said. "Why didn't they barge in and find out how sick I was?"