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Police say woman victimized companion

He was 73, lonely, and crippled with diabetes. He needed a woman, someone to cook warm meals and make trips to the grocery store.

So Alexander Strategos sat down at his computer and logged on to a dating Web site. Although he could type only slowly, he met a woman who described herself as a 69-year-old brunette from Canada.

She arrived soon after in a brand new Cadillac. They met for dinner, and she followed him home, unpacking in his Pinellas Park condominium.

Over the next two months, police believe Melissa Ann Friedrich drugged Strategos, took control of his condominium, stole more than $18,000 and was already searching for her next victim on Internet dating sites.

After police arrested Friedrich on charges of exploitation of the elderly last week, they learned she has a criminal past that stretches back three decades and includes a conviction for killing a former husband in Canada. Another husband, an 84-year-old Bradenton man, died in 2002, and family members suspect Friedrich in his death.

"She is the Internet black widow," said Strategos' son, Dean, of Pinellas Park.

Strategos is doing fine, recovering in a local nursing home, his son said.

While Friedrich remains in jail in lieu of $10,000 bail, Pinellas Park police are delving into her past and suspect she may have befriended other elderly men on the Internet and defrauded them.

Strategos met Friedrich online in the fall. He had trouble walking, and was looking for a woman his age to take care of him.

Friedrich volunteered.

Strategos thought she was a bit forward, but agreed to meet her.

She arrived in her Cadillac, and they had dinner at a Greek restaurant on Ulmerton Road. She followed him home and moved in that night.

"She was nothing but helpful," said Dean Strategos. "She was cooking for him, gave him ice cream every night."

The first night, the elder Strategos fell down and hit his head. Over the next few months, he kept falling down at random moments, slurred his words and seemed confused, his son said.

Strategos had a history of strokes, and his son thought he was deteriorating. He didn't immediately suspect Friedrich.

"She did everything to gain his trust," his son said. "She had him thinking she loved him more than any woman ever could."

She wore a tidy auburn wig and stylish outfits, and claimed to be a devout Christian, said the son.

After one hospital visit, Strategos, a former tax collector from Pittsburgh, moved into a nursing home to recover. Nurses there got suspicious of Friedrich, who started identifying herself as Strategos' wife, his son said.

She had Strategos sign over power of attorney, took control of his condo and began draining his bank accounts, police said.

Strategos' son got suspicious. He examined his father's blood tests and found traces of drugs he knew his father wasn't taking _ chemicals typically found in prescriptions such as Xanax or Valium.

He called the Pinellas Park Police Department, and they arrested Friedrich on Jan. 6.

After Friedrich was in jail, Strategos went to his father's condominium. He says he found a suitcase filled with pills and also saw that his father had a new Internet home page on his computer _ a Christian singles site.

Friedrich has at least 13 aliases and was convicted of manslaughter in 1992 after running over her 44-year-old husband on a dirt road near the Halifax airport in Canada. She told police her husband had raped her and she accidentally ran over him while trying to escape.

Prosecutors believed that Friedrich, who has at least 30 prior convictions for fraud dating back to 1970, planned to murder her husband to get his pension benefits. She was sentenced to six years in prison, but she got out early on good behavior.

She met 83-year-old Robert Edmund Friedrich from Bradenton in 2000, his family said. She sent him a picture in the mail and claimed she had seen him at church, and felt as though God wanted them to be married, according to Friedrich's son, Dennis, of Massachusetts.

Friedrich, a retired engineer who was a devout Christian, had lost his wife of 53 years a year earlier, and was grieving and lonely, his son said.

She traveled from Nova Scotia to meet Friedrich, and they were engaged within three days.

"I tried to talk him out of it," Dennis Friedrich said. "I said, "Dad, at best, she's a kook. At worst, she's a conniver and a gold digger.' "

His father didn't listen. The couple eloped at a little chapel in Canada.

Robert Friedrich's children say he rapidly deteriorated, slurring his words and falling.

"She spent all his money, and when most of it was gone, he died," Dennis Friedrich said.

Friedrich's children think his wife drugged their father, and ultimately killed him. Their father's body was cremated, and no autopsy was performed.

"If she's not put in jail for the rest of her life, she'll be doing this again," Dennis Friedrich said. "She's a mastermind, and she's gotten away with so much. We've tried too hard to get someone to pay attention to this."

Police ask anyone with information about Melissa Friedrich to call Pinellas Park Detective Michael Lynch at (727) 541-0797.

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Jamie Thompson can be reached at (727) 893-8455 or at jthompsonsptimes.com.

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