Police Seek REO Scam Artist

Police in Redlands, Calif., say they are looking for a man who claimed to be a guitarist for REO Speedwagon and conned several people out of money, free meals and a hotel room September 16-17.

REO Speedwagon frontman Kevin Cronin, who’s currently on the road, said he first heard about the scheme from a news broadcast in Los Angeles.

“[My] overall thought was this guy is pissing me off. If he’s posing as one of us, the people he’s preying on, that will respond to him, are going to be fans of our music,” Cronin told Pollstar. “I felt used. I’ve worked all my life to create a reputation for REO Speedwagon, which I think in general is a positive reputation. Now here’s this guy using that to take advantage of other people. That kind of got me in the gut.”

Authorities said 47-year-old Walter Louellen Stearns, using the name Rob Valenti, posed as the band’s guitarist when filling out paperwork to buy some high-dollar properties in Redlands. In the process, local real estate agents wined and dined Stearns and arranged his hotel room for the night.

Stearns is also accused of convincing two men he met at a restaurant that he would buy them Dodge Challengers valued at about $100,000 to use as tax write-offs. He allegedly went as far as filling out preliminary paperwork. He managed to get $600 from the men under the ruse of documentation fees before he vanished, police said.

The group has a string of concerts lined up in Southern California, and Cronin said he hopes concertgoers use their own judgment regarding news of the con artist.

“Even though our only connection to this whole thing is that he used our name as his cover, it’s still the ‘telephone’ game. If word gets out and there’s a negative feeling connected to REO Speedwagon, that upsets me.”

The frontman has also extended an offer to Redlands residents caught in the scam that includes concert tickets, possible backstage passes and a copy of the band’s new album.

“I felt some compassion for the people who had been taken, especially because of our image,” the performer said. “He didn’t go around pretending he was a member of Anthrax, or something. He used REO Speedwagon.”

Stearns has previously masqueraded as a guitar player for 38 Special, a former member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the son of a Mafia kingpin and owner of several music production companies. He has also used the names Mark Gaines and Robert Bauconi, police said.

As to whether the band members will file a civil lawsuit against Stearns hasn’t been decided yet, Cronin said, but it’s possible.

“This is the first time anyone went on a crime spree using our name. I would hope the criminal law system would be able to take care of him. Personally, we’ve got bigger fish to fry right now,” he said.

“But if the District Attorney in whatever area arrests him and needs me to testify, I would certainly be happy to do that and anything I can to help prosecute this guy.”

– Tina Amendola