A close-knit English-speaking community in Ashkelon is stunned to discover a murky secret.
They were right under our collective noses and had been since June 2017. Hannah and Mark Schwartz, a lovely California couple. He, 74, a retired medical researcher, and Hannah, 67, a successful PR marketer. They were members of the (mostly) Anglo synagogue near the Ashkelon
beach across the street from the small apartment where they lived. They went to services every Shabbat and holiday in a synagogue where members from every English-speaking country in the world were represented and they fit in just fine.
They were very active in the congregation, went to shiurim (classes) and synagogue functions, and had lots of friends – all Anglos. They went out to dinner often, socialized, were very well liked and well-respected members of the Ashkelon Anglo community.
While everyone would talk about their kids and show off their grandkids, Hannah and Mark never went into any detail other than to casually mention that they had four kids and several grandkids, but never a photo was seen in their home, except for one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
, Menachem Schneerson. They were ambiguous about their lives in California, but very interested in their friends’ and their families. They had no driver’s license or a car, nor were they members of any of the country’s health funds. They were inseparable, always did things together. There was no reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary – just another retired American couple, enjoying their life in the country that they said they loved and the lovely city of Ashkelon that they had truly embraced. Mark, a former surfer, told me this city of 138,000 with its beautiful beaches and comfortable climate was pretty close to home.
Not being a member of this particular synagogue, I only met them for the first and last time in June when I was invited for lunch at a mutual friend’s house. I sat across from them and instantly liked Hannah: huge smile, chatty, smart, easy and interesting to talk to, (with almost every second sentence ending with “Baruch Hashem” (Blessed be God) accompanied with “high-fives” to the woman sitting next to me). She told me she had owned a successful PR business back in California, but didn’t mention which city, and was, in fact, helping someone here in the community get her nonprofit organization up and running.
Hannah was dressed in “toned-down chic” (you could tell there was money) wearing a huge hat to cover her face during the 15-minute afternoon walk to lunch to protect it from the early afternoon sun. “You have to take care of your skin,” she told me. Actually, no one I spoke to knew what her real hair looked like since she either covered it with a baseball cap, or a large sun hat in the summer or winter hat during the cold, or wore a wig. I was also sure she had some work done on her face but then, why not?
Mark was tall, handsome, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and reminding me of the California surfer he said he had been. He was very sure of himself to the point of being smug and borderline obnoxious, and showed a huge knowledge of Jewish history and law. The Schwartzes told me that they had been living in Guatemala before making aliyah. I thought this rather odd since they were both very religious and I didn’t think there were many Jews there, especially religious ones. They explained that land there was cheap but they ultimately decided to “come home” to Israel and came here in June 2017. Their very simple lifestyle revolved around the local temple and they were always together.
A few months before the yearly lease on their apartment was up, Hannah and Mark decided to move into another one nearby. They wanted something a little bigger “as long as it was still near the synagogue.” They called a mutual friend, Sharon, and made arrangements to check out her apartment on the following Thursday night. And that was the last anyone had heard from Hannah and Mark Schwartz.
Always reliable, it was unusual for them not to show for a meeting or a get together without phoning. When they didn’t come over or answer her many phone calls, Sharon was a bit surprised. She thought that perhaps they had suddenly moved up their planned trip back to Los Angeles, where Mark said he needed some medical work done because he had health insurance there. But neither answered their phones and no one had seen them around. They weren’t in shul for Friday night or Saturday services and didn’t answer their door when friends went looking for them. Everyone who knew them was perplexed, they had literally disappeared into thin air. Poof! Disappeared.
AND THEN, a few days later, news came that spread like wildfire and absolute shock throughout the community: the FBI had swooped into the city in the dark of night and had arrested them, Hannah and Mark Schwartz. But oops, those weren’t their real names... They were, in fact, Dr. David Morrow and his wife, Linda, dubbed “The Jewish Bonnie and Clyde” by a US paper.
According to newspaper reports garnered from all over the Internet, Dr. David Morrow was a very successful plastic surgeon from Beverly Hills who had founded the Morrow Institute. His wife was the executive director and in charge of billing. They were active and highly respected members of the Orthodox Jewish communities in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles and Palm Springs and very generous contributors to Jewish causes. So far, so good, until they were arrested in California on charges of cheating health insurance companies of more than “tens of millions of dollars for cosmetic procedures that were not medically necessary,” according to the US Attorney’s Central District of California office of the Department of Justice. Add to that a guilty plea of conspiring to commit mail fraud and filing a false tax return, Dr. Morrow was in huge trouble. He was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in federal prison and had his medical license revoked. In her ruling, Judge Josephine L. Staton noted that Morrow’s “greed knew no bounds,” and that he showed an “utter disregard for patients’ well-being and safety.”
“This defendant was a successful doctor who owned a medical clinic and multiple valuable residences, yet he engaged in a scheme designed to steal tens of millions of dollars from insurance companies by tricking them into paying for cosmetic surgery,” said Acting United States Attorney Sandra R. Brown. “After admitting guilt, he went on the lam in the hopes of avoiding the punishment that was sure to come. When he is taken into custody – and he will definitely be captured – he will serve the lengthy sentence he deserves as a result of his greed and fraud.”
According to CBS TV News Local 3 (Palm Springs, California), the case against the Morrows is so massive that it has “kept federal investigators busy for the last 10 years.” When asked how they managed to get away, Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office, said that they had no idea. In the months leading up to David Morrow’s sentencing, authorities realized the couple was missing, along with nearly $2 million in cash, (Guatemala?). Some of it may have been from the sale of the Morrows’ Beverly Hills mansion and several cars for more than $9 million.
Morrow, aka “Mark Schwartz,” and his wife, Linda, known to us all as “Hannah,” were found right under our noses here in Ashkelon. We have no idea how they got here and how they got caught. We’ll probably will never know unless, perhaps, someone makes their story into a movie.
Upon finding the Morrows, the FBI immediately extradited Linda/Hannah to the US on charges of passport forgery, fraud and identity theft. She entered Israel with a fake Mexican passport. She faces a potential sentence of 500 plus years if convicted, including charges of conspiracy, 23 counts of mail fraud, six identify theft charges and failing to report a health care scheme to authorities. As for David, as of this report, he is in an Israeli prison, still fighting extradition.
Linda and David Morrow, in the role of Hannah and Mark Schwartz played their parts well; no one remembers ever seeing them in a bad mood. Their friends describe them as always relaxed, smiling and laughing, active in the synagogue and praying there regularly. Yet they had to be looking over their shoulders almost every minute of every day, unless they were so smug and sure of themselves that they could outwit the FBI and other police agencies just like they fooled all of us.
The Morrows, who worked together as a team, were inseparable after retirement, and were always together, will most likely never see each other again, except perhaps for a fleeting few minutes in court. Somehow, I can’t see her in prison garb, but I suspect she’s doing just fine. (People here call them “chameleons” because they apparently can fit in wherever they are.) We also wonder how David is managing to successfully fight extradition and remain, at least for the time being, in Israel. It is agreed that he must have one hell of a law team.
The Schwartzs/Morrows left this community, which welcomes new people into the fold with open arms, somewhat wary and mistrustful to greet the next newcomers to Ashkelon and that in itself, is a crime. Many of their friends said it was like being in a bad play.
The Morrow Institute was located in Rancho Mirage, California, a very fitting name for them, since their lives were indeed a mirage. Ashkelon became their Act II.