SALT LAKE CITY — A convicted murderer who stole nearly $274,000 from an 80-year-old Utah widow in a case of “romance fraud” is headed to federal prison.

Frank Gene Powell, 51, of Hurricane, will spend the next 10 years behind bars, according to a sentence imposed Thursday by U.S. District Judge David Nuffer. The judge also ordered him to pay $273,849 in restitution to the victim.

Powell pleaded guilty in March to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering, two counts of destruction of records in a federal investigation, concealment of a document or object in an attempt to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding, and tampering with a witness.

“Powell is a career criminal who has fended off decades of rehabilitative attempts in the Utah state criminal justice system. He’s a convicted murderer and sexual predator who has now turned his criminal efforts to elder fraud while on state parole,” U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber said.

Powell spent 29 years in the Utah State Prison for the murder of a man in Utah County in 1987 that began as a fight over whose truck was faster. He also was convicted of sexually assaulting an inmate while incarcerated. He received a one- to 15-year sentence for that crime.

Investigators say Powell was the ringleader in the scam involving seven others, including Powell’s family members, who were indicted in the case.

“This crime is especially heinous because Frank Powell not only deceived and defrauded the victim, he made it a family affair,” said Paul Haertel, special agent in charge of the Salt Lake City FBI. 

Powell was on parole when he targeted the 80-year-old widow with a diminished mental capacity who lives in the southern Utah town of Washington in March 2019. He was arrested in California last fall on a parole violation and returned to prison in Utah.

He knocked on the woman’s door and told her he believed her home needed repairs and he was willing to do it for a fee. Jobs included painting the exterior of the house, resurfacing the driveway and doing yard work. Most of the work wasn’t completed and was extremely poor quality when it was done, according to documents.

Powell and the others convinced the woman to pay upfront by cashing personal checks and giving them the money as well as writing checks directly to them, amounting to at least $275,000, authorities say. Powell also convinced her to deed over her Kolob-area cabin. He bought a 2019 GMC Sierra pickup with some of the money.

In addition to financial fraud, investigators say Powell engaged in “romance fraud” by telling the woman he planned to marry her, despite his longtime romantic relationship with another woman. The woman, Faye Ann Renteria, of St. George, pleaded guilty to multiple charges in the case and will be sentenced in July.

Investigators say the elderly woman, identified in court documents as L.N., received a two-page, handwritten letter from Powell while he was in prison last November with smiley faces and the words “sealed with a lot of care” on the envelope.

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“Hey today I was told I took $250,000.00 from you and that you are mad and hate me. I pray that is not true and when you get this all worked out we are still getting married and you love me. Don’t give up on us we belong together in this world. Please tell me you are still with me. I don’t know if my heart will make it without you,” the letter read, according to court documents.

Seven others, including including Powell’s 74-year-old mother, Gloria Jean Powell, of St. George, and his sister, Angela McDuffie, 53, of Lehi, were charged in the case.

Gloria Jean Powell was sentenced to time served on May 1 after pleading guilty to one count of concealment of a document or object. She admitted to trading cars with McDuffie — and leaving $10,000 in cash inside — to help Frank Powell flee from police last October, according to court documents. She agreed to relinquish a 2010 Toyota Venza as a part of her plea agreement.

McDuffie pleaded not guilty and disputes that she had knowledge of or intent to receive or conceal any money from the federal investigation.

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