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Police say denture maker may have victimized hundreds

Theresa Marie Gandhi said she was the victim of a scam by Oak Harbor denturist Kevin Kowalski, and wants to get the word out to other South Enders.   - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
Theresa Marie Gandhi said she was the victim of a scam by Oak Harbor denturist Kevin Kowalski, and wants to get the word out to other South Enders.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

Theresa Marie Gandhi is mad enough to chew nails and spit rust.

If only she could, that is. Gandhi has been missing a good set of teeth since the arrest of an Oak Harbor denture maker who police say may have scammed hundreds of elderly Islanders.

“I’m not vain, so it doesn’t matter how I look. But not being able to eat is killing me. Literally,” the Clinton woman said.

Gandhi is one of hundreds of alleged victims of Kevin Kowalski, a denture maker and the owner of the Oak Harbor Denture Center. Kowalski was arrested by Oak Harbor police in late June on suspicion of first-degree theft and Medicaid fraud.

He was released on bail pending further investigation by the police and state’s Attorney General’s Office.

Kowalski’s operation was the only supplier of dentures in Island County; he ran a similar business in Mount Vernon. He is a “denturist,” someone who specializes in making and fitting dentures.

Oak Harbor Police Lt. John Dyer said the Medicaid fraud unit of the Attorney General’s Office has taken over the case, which is based on a series of complaints from people who paid Kowalski thousands of dollars for dentures they never received.

Kowalski is being investigated for accepting full payments, or partial down payments, for dentures that he never made or that do not work or fit properly.

“We have at least 100 alleged victims in the north part of the county,” Dyer said. “The total runs to 266, according to the state.”

Dyer said he didn’t know how many South Whidbey residents were affected.

Multiple attempts by The Record to reach Kowalksi were unsuccessful.

Clients were usually referred to Kowalski by a friend, or a dentist sent them to Kowalski’s office, Dyer explained. Kowalski would ask clients to make a full or partial payment in cash — from $1,000 to $2,400 — for a set of dentures. Some of the dentures he made were faulty and couldn’t be used. Clients who have recently returned to the Oak Harbor Dental Clinic office have found that the premises have been vacated.

Gandhi has spent a lifetime fighting for good causes, noble work that paid poorly, she said, and now she lives on a small pension.

“All I want is for this incompetent fool to get his just rewards: a jail sentence. And I want other folks on the South End to let the attorney general know if they’ve been burned like me,” she said.

“He’s the only person on the island who makes dentures and takes Medicaid, so I had to see him,” Gandhi added.

Due to a host of medical disabilities including bone loss, Gandhi was scheduled for oral surgery at the University of Washington on April 15 but needed dentures before acceptance.

“Kevin made a full bridge but it didn’t work,” she recalled. “A second one hurt because it threw my teeth out of alignment. I couldn’t chew anything and my throat began to swell, so I had to use my tongue to chew.”

Frustrated, she returned yet again, and this time her teeth were coated with a plastic resin substance that looked bad and felt worse.

“He said there was nothing wrong and I was dismissed,” Gandhi said. “I just stood at the door and told him I wasn’t leaving until the goop on the outside was gone,” she said.

“He told me dentures are supposed to hurt ,and that’s just not true.”

She filed a report with the Attorney General’s Office the next day.

“I don’t mess around,” she said. “This guy had a license and was reimbursed by the state.”

A prolific writer and poet, Gandhi is the great grandniece-in-law of Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi.

“I met my former husband Yogesh K. Gandhi when he came to the Academy Awards presentations in Los Angeles in 1983,” she remembered. “He’d been invited as a representative of the family by the director of the film ‘Gandhi,’ Sir Richard Attenborough. I was in L.A. as the result of my work with the Unity and Diversity Council.”

Meanwhile, Gandhi is moving on. She sought a second opinion and she’ll find out next week when she can get replacement dentures.

But it has been hard on her.

“Not to have proper nutrition is very dire, at my age and being a cancer survivor,” she said. “But the operative thought is, I am a survivor.”

Spokeswoman Bev Maddox of the state’s Medicaid fraud control unit in Olympia said she couldn’t comment on the case because it’s still under active investigation.

Dyer said anyone who thinks he or she is a victim in the case should call 360-679-9567 to make a report. People can also stop by the Oak Harbor Police Department at 860 SE Barrington Drive to make a report in person.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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