Fraudster took over home of man who later died, dismembered body and dumped parts in bay

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Caroline Herrling allegedly defrauded Charles Wilding, inset, of his multimillion dollar California home. After he mysteriously died, his body were parts chopped up and dumped into the San Francisco Bay. (Herrling: U.S. Attorney; Wilding: LAPD)

A woman will spend the next 20 years behind bars for defrauding a California man of his multimillion dollar house and later having someone chop up his body and dispose of the parts in the San Francisco Bay after he died under mysterious circumstances.

According to the U.S. Attorney with the Central District of California, 44-year-old Caroline Joanne Herrling, also known as “Carrie Phenix,” would research homes in affluent neighborhoods that looked unkempt in hopes that she could take advantage of the owner. In 2020, she found such a home in Sherman Oaks owned by Charles Wilding who was in his late 60s.

Neighbors told the Los Angeles Times Wilding lived in the home his entire life with his mother, who died in 2017. After his mother’s death, he became more reclusive, rebutting neighbors’ offers of help to keep up the property.

Prosecutors say Wilding died at some point in September 2020, though investigators don’t know how. Herrling and her co-conspirators moved into the home as Wilding’s body decomposed. They stole jewelry and other valuables in the home and Herrling fraudulently signed over the property to herself and made herself power of attorney so she could steal his assets, prosecutors said.

Herrling even sent neighbors a letter introducing herself as Wilding’s power of attorney and said he had moved to a beach house near Santa Barbara.

According to a 55-page complaint, the Los Angeles Police Department received an anonymous tip in October 2021 that Wilding was possibly dead and a group of people were living in the home for financial gain. Detectives learned that in December 2020 a neighbor called LAPD and asked cops to do a welfare check on Wilding because he hadn’t been seen in three months.

Officers went to the home where they met with Herrling and her “assistant” in the driveway. She relayed the story about Wilding moving to the Santa Barbara area, but she didn’t have the address. She gave them a phone number for Wilding but cops could not get in touch with him. The cops looked in the house but did not find anything.

Meanwhile, Adult Protective Services also was looking into the matter. An investigator in January 2021 got in touch with a man who claimed he was Wilding who said he was in the Santa Barbara area. The APS case was closed.

Armed with the information that Wilding may be dead and the victim of fraud, detectives on Oct. 11, 2021, contacted Herrling who reiterated her story about her being the trustee of the estate. Cops told Herrling that if she did not give them a good number or address for Wilding, they would have to open up a missing persons investigation. Detectives got on the phone with a man who claimed to be Wilding and they asked him to give them his Social Security number or driver’s license number but “Wilding” couldn’t provide it, the complaint said.

Herrling also gave them an address but the man who answered the door said while he knew Wilding he did not live there. Investigators later learned that Herrling had paid the man to say he knew Wilding. Investigators had long become wary of Herrling.

“If you have any life experience, and you talk to Carrie, you immediately pick up on her inauthenticity,” LAPD Det. Mark O’Donnell told The Times. “I think she tries too hard to be convincing.”

LAPD enlisted the help of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service which helped them unfurl the money laundering scheme Herrling and others were running along with the financial documents they were fraudulently signing from the Wilding trust.

As police were closing in on her, Herrling and others moved Wilding’s body to her apartment in West Los Angeles where they tried to “dissolve his body in a concoction of chemicals,” prosecutors said. When that failed they dismembered Wilding’s body. Herrling then convinced someone with a sailboat to dispose of the remains in the San Francisco Bay. Wilding’s remains have never been found and thus investigators can’t say how he died.

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District Judge Maame Ewusi-Mensah Frimpong said during Friday’s sentencing that Herrling did not see Wilding as a human being and treated him “like a cash register,” according to prosecutors.

In addition to defrauding Wilding, Herrling and her co-conspirators also tricked a man into signing over his $1.5 million home to them. They then sold the home without his consent, and the man later died by suicide, prosecutors said. In all, cops believe Herrling duped her victims of nearly $4 million. Cops arrested her in January 2023 and she later pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

“This defendant’s misconduct was both greedy and grotesque, causing profound pain to the victims and their loved ones,” said United States 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.”

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