Man accused of stealing from woman he befriended; Her credit cards were used after she died, brother says


Persian rugs, a sport utility vehicle and a big-screen television.

Baltimore hairstylist Marc Mecler has told authorities he was given all of those items and more by his best friend, Harriet Rifman, while she was on her deathbed.

Baltimore and Baltimore County police have charged Mecler, 40, with burglary, theft over $300 and fraud for allegedly pilfering thousands of dollars from Rifman's checking accounts and charging at least $75,000 on her credit cards. Some of the alleged offenses occurred after Rifman, 52, died of lung cancer Nov. 1, authorities said.

Mecler, whose Baltimore District Court hearing on the charges was postponed yesterday at his request, had no comment. His lawyer, Richard Winelander of Baltimore, said Mecler was Rifman's caretaker and that all of the purchases he made with Rifman's money were gifts. "Harriet was his dear friend for 14 years," Winelander said.

The purchases were first noticed by Rifman's brother, Allan Shapiro, about three weeks after Rifman died. Shapiro, who was subpoenaed to appear at yesterday's hearing, said that after Rifman's death, he had her mail forwarded to his Ventnor, N.J., home. But only one of her more than 20 credit card statements arrived. Shapiro said he was shocked by the Visa charges, but even more alarmed that some had been authorized after his sister's death.

"It has kept me up many hours each night," Shapiro said in an interview. "My sister was a very frugal person. She was the type of person who, if she borrowed a nickel today, she would pay you back with a dime tomorrow."

Shapiro said he got in touch with the credit card companies and called the post office. Postal officials told him her mail was being forwarded to Mecler's Mount Washington address, he said.

Shapiro went to Baltimore police, who arrested and charged Mecler Dec. 23. After yesterday's hearing, Baltimore Officer Tyrone Francis said, Mecler was released on his own recognizance because he has no criminal record.

Francis said Mecler is charged with taking jewelry of Rifman's valued at nearly $11,000 and with charging an $8,000 stereo system, rugs worth $3,000, an $11,000 down payment on a 1997 Ford Expedition and other items to Rifman's credit cards. Francis said the credit card purchases were made in Baltimore and Baltimore County, which is why both departments have brought charges.

The U.S. Postal Service is investigating Mecler in the mail diversion. Spokesman Tom Boyle said postal inspectors expect to complete the investigation within two weeks and turn over their findings to the U.S. attorney.

Shapiro and police said Mecler was Rifman's longtime hairstylist. Winelander said Mecler began caring for Rifman daily about June and was given access to her Park Heights apartment.

"The jewelry was in a hidden safe in her apartment, and when we questioned him, he knew the safe was there and had access to her bedroom where she kept the combination," Francis said.

In September, Rifman was moved to the Towson hospice where she died, Shapiro said. The Pennsylvania native had moved to Park Heights in 1981, her brother said. A heavy smoker, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in March. Shapiro and his wife, Donna, said they met Mecler at the hospice.

"There are a lot of people who are all alone," said Donna Shapiro. "This could happen to anybody. She was vulnerable and really thought he was her friend."

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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