Woman takes 30,000 victims for millions of dollars in "oil" fraud

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- It ranks as one of the all-time biggest scams in U.S. history. The promise is a share in the millions made in an oil boom more than 100 years ago -- and this scam took over 30,000 victims.

The story begins in the 1900s when oil was discovered on Spindletop Hill in Texas -- the first major gusher of the Texas oil boom.

Investors at the time made millions of dollars.

Then, in the 1950s, as time went by, a myth emerged, alleging the government had stolen profits from Spindletop.

That's when Jewel Robbins came into the picture, with her pitch. Robbins told distant heirs of the oil fortune she was willing to fight for what was believed to be "trillions of dollars" still owed to descendants -- and Robbins didn't stop with getting heirs to invest.

"She got other people to help finance because she claimed it would take a lot of money to hire these lawyers, to go through the court process, in order to get the money back," Kelly May with the Kentucky Department of Financial Institutions said.

"In this scam, they would send out letters saying the money is coming, the money is coming, we need more donations to support this lawsuit," prosecutor Andrea Williams said.

Tens of thousands of families invested millions of dollars into what they thought was a legal battle over these oil royalties.

"In truth, it is an urban legend. There is no money that the government has pending or on hold or anywhere," May said.

Several state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Postal Inspection Service began tracking Robbins and this case and found no government conspiracy -- simply greed.

"All of this money was going to her bank account to support herself and her various children, which was supposed to be part of the investment," Williams said.

Some families lost their live savings.

"The people who shamed them have already spent the money and done everything with the money. By the time they are prosecuted, all of the money is gone. Victims are out in the cold," Williams said.

In 2009, 76-year-old Robbins was sentenced to five years of probation for violating securities laws related to the Spindletop oil case. This year, Robbins died at the age of 80.

In the nine months since her death, thousands have filed claims seeking a piece of her estate in return for the money they gave her.