Caroline Herrling: West Hills woman steals millions in real estate assets in fraud scheme that involved disposing man’s body

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LOS ANGELES (KABC) — A West Hills woman who authorities say acted “greedy and grotesque” was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for a bizarre crime that involved identity theft, forgery, and disposing the body of a man and making it look like he was still alive.

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According to the Justice Department, Caroline Joanne Herrling, 44, was sentenced to 240 months in federal prison for fraudulently obtaining ownership of real estate and money through identity theft and forged power-of-attorney forms.

Authorities said it was a nearly $3.9 million scheme.

“This defendant’s misconduct was both greedy and grotesque, causing profound pain to the victims and their loved ones,” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada. “There must be serious consequences for those who prey on vulnerable communities, such as older adults, and my office will remain steadfast in bringing these offenders to justice.”

Preying on vulnerable homeowners

According to court documents, Herrling, who also went by Carrie Phenix, would look for properties in affluent neighborhoods that appeared “unkempt.”

She and her co-conspirators would visit nicer neighborhoods to search for things like algae-filled pools or homes with overgrown shrubs to ultimately track down people “who were unable to care for their properties.”

In 2020, they found a home in Sherman Oaks.

“After finding such a home … Herrling and her co-conspirators broke into the residence, where an elderly victim resided,” said the Justice Department in a statement.

Sometime in September 2020, that man, identified as Charles Wilding, died.

Investigators aren’t sure how he died but believe Herrling and others “took over the property while his body decomposed in his home.”

“Rather than reporting his death, Herrling and others in the conspiracy left his body in his house while they looted his assets,” said the Justice Department.

Authorities said Herrling used a forged power-of-attorney form so she could pretend to act on Wilding’s behalf while stealing his real estate and financial accounts.

Police begin missing person investigation

In October 2021, law enforcement launched an investigation when neighbors reported Wilding missing.

According to court documents, Herrling identified herself to police as a “close friend” of Wilding and his family. She was also listed as the trustee of his family trust, which, according to the DOJ, purportedly had been created by the victim’s mother, who died in June 2017.

However, that was actually forged. She told police Wilding had moved to Carpinteria.

“She stated that Wilding was not home and was staying with friends in the City of Carpinteria, while she was working to get the house back in order, as it was in disarray and contained black mold,” read the complaint obtained by ABC7.

Herrling obtains new phone, paid man to pretend he was Wilding

According to authorities, after Herrling found out about the police investigation into Wilding’s whereabouts, she “executed an elaborate scheme” to ensure his body would never be found and his death would remain unreported.

According to the complaint, Herrling got a new phone and paid a man to use it so that he could pretend to be Wilding.

“This to support the idea that the victim agreed to distribute his assets to Herrling and her co-conspirators,” said authorities.

Body moved across California

The DOJ said Herrling and her co-conspirators moved Wilding’s body to her apartment in West Los Angeles, where they tried to dissolve it in a “concoction of chemicals.”

When that didn’t work, authorities said they dismembered the body, placed the pieces in vacuum-sealed bags and moved it all to the Bay Area.

“Another member of the conspiracy who owned a sailboat assisted in disposing of the mutilated remains of the deceased victim into San Francisco Bay, the investigation revealed.” Investigators said Wilding’s remains were never found.

During Friday’s sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Maame Ewusi-Mensah Frimpong said Wilding was “a man and a human being,” but Herrling “did not see that” and instead treated him “like a cash register.”

More forged documents

Wilding was the listed executor and beneficiary to the will of another victim, but that document was another forgery that Herrling claimed to have “discovered” in a safe deposit box rented by the deceased victim’s mother, court papers state.

“Based on this forged will, the missing victim was to inherit an estate worth more than $1.7 million – assets that ultimately fell under Herrling’s control as the trustee for his estate,” said the Justice Department.

Third victim had home sold without his consent

Authorities said Herrling also defrauded a third victim and sold his home without his consent by “using a conspirator with fake identity documents” to pose as the victim.

Herrling set up accounts to get the money from the sale, which was approximately $1.5 million.

According to court documents, this third victim, who was already suffering from mental health issues, took his own life after losing his home. Herrling later used that money to buy a house in West Hills.

The DOJ said the total loss amount in the cases was $3,887,051.

Herrling pleads guilty

Herrling pleaded guilty in March 2023 to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The 44-year-old has been in federal custody since January 2023.

One of Herrling’s accomplices, identified as 50-year-old Matthew Jason Kroth of Tarzana, pleaded guilty in October 2023 to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.

He faces up to 20 years in federal prison for wire fraud, and up to 40 years for meth trafficking when he’s sentenced in June.

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