Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The only thing worse than bad salsa is no salsa – and losing tens of thousands of dollars.
A sweet-talking Las Cruces man who managed to convince a California telemarketer to fork over $65,000 for a fictitious salsa company has landed in hot water over the swindle.
Eduardo Triste, 78, was convicted Wednesday of fraud over $20,000 and securities fraud for conning Orange County resident Mary Hill out of her money.
“That guy’s a jerk,” Hill said when reached by phone Friday.
A jury in Las Cruces found Triste guilty for wooing the 70-year-old woman in 2015, filling her head with grandiose lies and convincing her to partner with him in the salsa venture. By the time authorities caught up with him, they say he had already used the money he conned Hill out of, with some of it going to pay off criminal debts from a previous grift.
Triste, who has yet to be sentenced, was booked into the Doña Ana County Detention Center but faces several years in prison.
Hill said she met Triste on a cold-call while working at a company selling pain cream in California in April 2015, and he was able to finesse her cellphone number.
“He sounded interesting, very nice,” she said.
Over the next year the two carried on a long-distance relationship and business partnership, talking two to three times a week over the phone.
At first, Hill said Triste mostly talked about himself, bragging about serving in the Vietnam War as a major in the Marines and making outlandish claims, which turned out to be lies.
“He claims when he got to Vietnam, he was a POW and he shared a cell with John McCain,” she said. “Which, you know, I thought, ‘Now this is strange.’ ”
But Triste soon convinced Hill to start a salsa company with him and invest money to pay for the trucks to transport the product and for employee salaries, among other costs.
She said the idea was to grow the pico de gallo on his land in southern New Mexico and have a military buddy, George Chen, use his plane to transport the salsa around New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada where it would be sold to restaurants.
“I found out later that George Chen was make-believe,” Hill said.
After giving Triste the money, she said he promised to come to California to touch base and discuss further plans for the company, which was supposed to be up and running.
“At any rate, he never showed up,” Hill told the Journal. “I didn’t know he was married. … I had no idea he was on probation, or parole, for the other people he defrauded.”
She said he stopped answering his phone and, in 2017, Hill flew to Las Cruces and found out the trucks, the employees, the pico de gallo didn’t exist. So she went to Triste’s home with a handwritten letter.
“I handed him this letter, letting him know how upset I was,” Hill said. “I said, ‘You don’t have the chutzpah, the guts or determination to follow through with it.’ ”
From there, she got the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office involved and an agent from the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, which showed Hill a list of all the people Triste had defrauded in the past.
“We will continue to protect the citizens of New Mexico from the nefarious actions of wrongdoers who prey on trusting individuals,” Marguerite Salazar, superintendent of the state Regulation and Licensing Department, said in a statement announcing Triste’s conviction.
Hill said she couldn’t let him go on defrauding other people.
“It’s just been unbelievable. I said, ‘It has to stop somewhere,’ ” she said.
Through authorities and NMRLD agents, Hill discovered Triste had spent all her money, using some of it to pay back a man he had defrauded in the past – a crime for which he had been convicted and sentenced to probation.
“He was very clever, very cunning, sneaky,” Hill said.
Court records show Triste was charged with fraud over $2,500, and sentenced to probation, in 2014 after swindling a man out of a $3,000 holding fee to sell a vintage 1959 Ford Sunliner that may or may not have existed.
Hill said she only wishes she could have been in the courtroom to see the look on his face when they found him guilty. But she is pleased that the ordeal is over.
“Triste, in Portugese, Spanish and Italian, it means sad,” Hill said. “In the long run, what the name actually means, is sad, and he is going to a sad place.”