Posted on December 20th, 2013 No comments
A Broward County man accused of scheming in Key West to cash tens of thousands in fraudulent tax return checks has been arrested by undercover FBI agents, and is being detained on $250,000 bail.
Federal court records state Victor Martinez Pantoja met with undercover operatives in two separate incidents in November. He gave them U.S. Treasury checks and fake driver’s licenses and Social Security cards in order to cash the bad checks.
Pantoja was charged on suspicion of aggravated identity theft and theft of government property or money. As of Wednesday, he had not been indicted by a federal grand jury.
In the first meeting on Nov. 21 at the Marriott Courtyard hotel, 3031-41 N. Roosevelt Blvd., Pantoja told the undercover agents he and a co-conspirator had obtained the fraudulent checks by filing false tax returns using identities of people who died in 2012, according to federal court records. The FBI alleges that Pantoja got those identities from the Internet, but the five-page complaint filed in court doesn’t state how or where Pantoja might have found that information online.
“Pantoja further told the [undercover agents] that he made the driver licenses and Social Security cards on his computer and he agreed to produce counterfeit driver licenses and Social Security cards for the [agents],” the complaint states.
He allegedly negotiated a deal with the undercover FBI agents to cash three U.S. Treasury checks worth a combined $27,263 and give him $20,500 of that. The rest they were to keep as part of the scheme.
“Pantoja endorsed the back of each Treasury check by forging the names listed on the front of each Treasury check,” the complaint states.
He also agreed at that meeting to bring more checks, worth about $100,000, back to Key West for another meeting with the agents on Nov. 26, records say.
The undercover agents met with Pantoja on that date in Davie and recorded the meeting using audio and video equipment. Pantoja can be seen and heard giving them six checks worth a combined $35,547 before being arrested, according to court records.
He has a detainment hearing scheduled in Fort Lauderdale. His arraignment was set also in Fort Lauderdale.
Pantoja has been tentatively assigned a federal public defender.
Posted on October 14th, 2013 No comments
FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) – Following a two year investigation, the Broward Sheriff’s Office says it has busted a major identity theft crime ring operating in South Florida and throughout the state.
Eight people have been indicted on federal charges and six are in custody, according to BSO Sergeant Rich Rossman, of the Organized Retail Crime Unit.
“This was their business,” Rossman told CBS 4′s Carey Codd. “I get up and go to work for the Sheriff’s Office they get up commit identity theft, credit card fraud, just fraud in general.”
The ringleader, Rossman says, is Andrew Ware. Photos provided by BSO show Ware showing off his riches — cash, jewelry — along with an assault rifle at his feet.
“They’re showing off,” Rossman said. “They mention they’ve got other weapons.”
BSO says Ware and 5 others have been arrested — David Tilus, Alex Dontfred, Latanya Ware, Latonya Ware and Sherika Rowe. Investigators say they hope to arrest two others – Jaqwayn Henry and Fritznel Etienne. Rossman says the group is accused of stealing the identities of dozens of people and using credit cards in victim’s names.
The federal indictment says the majority of the crimes took place at WalMart store. Rossman says Ware and his group had inside help.
“They had people on the inside obtaining pertinent information — Social Security numbers, dates of birth all of the various things that would be necessary to commit identity theft, credit card fraud,” Rossman said.
Rossman says the group also committed tax fraud — filing phony tax returns — and in all brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Late last week BSO rounded up Ware and several others on federal charges including wire fraud. Sgt. Rossman says this case began as a routine fraud case two years ago then spiraled into a lengthy investigation.
“They’re real bad guys that we’ve just taken off the streets,” Rossman said.
Investigators say identity theft groups like this one are sophisticated and take time to take down and they warn everyone to safeguard their personal information.
“If these people get a hold of a Social (Security number), and a name and date of birth they can do a lot of damage,” Rossman said.
The suspects in the case are facing significant prison time if convicted.
Rossman says that identity theft remains a huge problem. Investigators offer a few tips — like protecting your passwords, shredding important documents and making sure you secure your wireless network at home. Also, when you use a public wireless network be careful of the websites you visit and don’t reveal any private information.
Posted on October 14th, 2013 No comments
A Miami cop who stole 1,000 identities from a police database to score fraudulent income-tax refunds was found guilty in federal court Thursday.
Malinsky Bazile, 28, collected about $140,000 from the scam in 2011-12.
Bazile, who joined the Miami Police Department in 2008, was immediately taken into custody while he awaits sentencing.
Bazile’s prosecution marked the first time a South Florida law enforcement officer was convicted of identity theft and tax-refund fraud, a crime that has spread across the state.
The 12-person federal jury in Fort Lauderdale took less than one hour to convict Bazile, whose trial started Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Berger prosecuted Bazile’s case, which was investigated by an FBI anti-corruption task force, including Miami internal affairs detectives.
Before his arrest earlier this year, Bazile had helped the FBI target another Miami cop, Vital Frederick, suspected of committing the same type of crime. Frederick, 27, was standing trial this week in Miami federal court, with closing arguments on Thursday. A jury will begin deliberations Friday.
After stealing the identities of several South Floridians — including a former owner of the New York Mets — Jeffrey Emil Groover made it seem like he was truly sorry for his crimes.
He even testified to a U.S. Senate committee while he was serving a federal prison term in 2004 and offered some helpful suggestions to lawmakers about how to stop people like him from victimizing others.
But on Thursday, Groover admitted that he again used other people’s identities to steal money by claiming the victims had signed over checks to him for pre-paid pest extermination and disinfection services.
Groover, 52, who recently was listed at addresses in West Palm Beach and in Broward County, had no comment after the brief hearing in federal court in Fort Lauderdale. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines when he is sentenced in August.
Records show he was released from federal prison in 2006 after serving a four-year term for credit card fraud that involved stealing the identities of several people, including Nelson Doubleday, the wealthy Jupiter Island resident who formerly co-owned the Mets.
Groover went on a yearlong spending spree at the time on lines of credit he obtained under other people’s names. Doubleday tipped off authorities, and when they investigated further, they found Groover also had used Palm Beach philanthropist Donald Burns’ identity to buy a BMW, a Rolex watch and rare coins, according to court records.
Groover also was ordered to pay more than $270,000 in restitution.
While Groover was serving his prison term for those offenses, he addressed the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging in March 2004, telling senators that he had used the internet to obtain personal information about wealthy targets, open credit card accounts and even tap into his victims’ bank accounts.
“I came here to assist my country, and in some small way to find redemption for what I’ve done,” Groover testified to the committee. “I lost my home, my business, my freedom and most of all my wife and children for what I did. The punishment is severe, and rest assured that I will not do it again. However, that will not stop other people from continuing to do this type of crime due to the ease in which it can be done.”
He went on to outline his suggestions for curtailing such opportunities and apologized to his victims. He blamed the failure of a small internet service provider that he owned in the late 1990s for putting him in financial difficulty and said he resorted to fraud to keep his business going and support his family.
Groover’s more recent crimes came to light when a check-processing service noticed and reported suspicious activity in a merchant account he opened in March 2012. According to court records, Groover had set up a West Palm Beach-based corporation called Affordable Pest Protection Inc., which IRS criminal investigators and federal prosecutors said “purported to be a provider of pest extermination and disinfection services.”
Analysts at the check-processing service became suspicious of Groover’s transactions within days of him opening the account and they notified authorities. Groover had attempted to cash several U.S. Treasury tax refund checks, records show.
When the company asked him to explain the activity, Groover told them he had met with each of the people named on the tax refund checks and they had agreed to turn the proceeds of those checks over to his business.
“Groover further explained that he was trying to mimic automobile dealerships’ promotions by allowing clients to bring him their tax refund checks and apply the refund amounts to pre-paid pest control services,” agents wrote.
When agents tracked down the people identified on the checks, they found that none of them had filed the income tax returns or authorized anyone to use their information.
One of the victims was a man who had died in Broward County in April 2008, and other victims included an Oregon man and women from Tampa and Michigan, according to the criminal complaint.
Groover pleaded guilty Thursday to four counts of making and presenting false claims to the IRS. He reached a plea agreement after learning prosecutors planned to file more charges, including several counts of aggravated identity theft, against him, according to court filings.
Groover admitted he had targeted more than 10 victims and the intended loss was between $200,000 and $400,000, U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum said in court.
Coral Gables police arrested convicted felon Mark Lodigensky in connection with a number of apartment burglaries in the city.
Lodigensky, 59, faces a series of charges, including numerous counts of burglary of an occupied dwelling, trespass, third-degree grand theft and criminal mischief. He was arrested on June 5.
In May, the police department released images of a man caught on surveillance video at an apartment complex in Coral Gables as he peered through the front glass doors. Residents from several high-rise complexes had complained of thefts since the new year, including a break-in in February at a building on Madeira Avenue that led to the loss of $10,000 in jewelry, a Rolex watch and $1,500 in damages to an apartment’s front door.
Police arrested Lodigensky, who has a criminal record dating to the late 1970s, including a series of break-ins in Fort Lauderdale and Miami-Dade in 1986, after receiving a tip. An individual said he called Crimestoppers when he recognized the man from an image that ran with a Miami Herald story in May on the apartment break-ins.
“I don’t know the guy, per se, but I’m good with faces,” the caller said Tuesday, asking that his identity be withheld.
Lodigensky was last released from prison in December. He is being held at Metro West Detention Center. His bond totals $250,000 on the Gables charges but, in addition, there is a federal marshall’s hold on his release and more charges are expected, said Gables police spokesman Dean Wellinghoff.
“This was a good case, a good arrest,” Wellinghoff said Wednesday.
The arrest of Jerry Frank Townsend on Sept. 5, 1979 ended the hunt for a brutal serial killer and rapist who had terrorized a predominantly African-American neighborhood in northwest Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
But it began an enduring miscarriage of justice.
Townsend spent 22 years of his life in prison until he was exonerated by DNA tests that did not exist when he was arrested. Eddie Lee Mosley remained free to continue to rape and kill until his 1987 arrest and confinement in a state hospital for the criminally insane.
The deaths of 10 women and children who were murdered after Townsend’s wrongful arrest have been linked to Mosley by DNA testing or other evidence.
Now, relatives of three of those victims are calling on longtime Broward State Attorney Mike Satz – who is up for re-election – to finally investigate the actions of police detectives whose testimony convicted Townsend.
“It matters a hell of a lot,” said Clarice Tukes, 72, whose 20-year-old daughter, Arnette, was raped and strangled five months after Townsend’s arrest. “My daughter would still be alive if they hadn’t arrested the wrong man.”
“I want this reopened,” said Jacquelyn D. Miller, the daughter of Geraldine Barfield, whose body was found in a field adjacent to the Immanuel Church of God in Christ near Sunland Park on Dec. 19, 1983. She was 35.
“I’ve carried this with me 28 years. I want Michael Satz to tell me why he allowed this to happen, why a killer was allowed to remain on the streets,” she said.
Compared to Jack the Ripper
Satz was in his first term as Broward’s top prosecutor when Townsend was arrested.
The case captured the public’s imagination: A black serial killer compared by police to Jack the Ripper. Townsend, they said, had admitted to wanting to “rid the world of prostitutes.”
The victims, however, were not prostitutes.
Townsend, a grown man with the mental capacity of a child, was led by detectives to confess to a string of rapes and murders he did not do. He was convicted of six murders and a rape in 1980 and sent to prison for life.
In 2009, eight years after DNA proved his innocence, the Broward Sheriff’s Office agreed to pay $2 million over five years to settle a civil rights lawsuit alleging that its detectives fabricated evidence, concealed exculpatory evidence, tampered with witnesses and coerced false confessions out of Townsend.
Miami, where city detectives were accused of similar wrongdoing against Townsend, paid $2.2 million to end another suit before trial in 2008. Taxpayers spent at least $1 million more to pay lawyers to defend the police.
Broward Bulldog reported in 2009 that transcripts of Townsend’s Broward trial and hearings contain disturbing evidence of crimes like perjury and the falsification of police reports by BSO detectives and other officers. Several relatives recently saw the story.
For example, BSO detectives testified that Townsend led them to the scene of four Broward murders, and provided them with details only the killer would have known.
But Townsend wasn’t the killer. So the detectives’ damning testimony takes on new meaning.
There is no statute of limitations on perjury in an official proceeding that relates to the prosecution of a capital felony. Whether the law could be enforced regarding original police testimony against Townsend is unclear because today’s statute is somewhat different than what was on the books in the 1980s.
Nevertheless, neither Satz, Broward’s state attorney since 1976, nor the Broward Sheriff’s Office has investigated the actions of the BSO detectives whose testimony sent Townsend to prison, Mark Schlein and Anthony Fantigrassi.
The settled lawsuit contended those detectives framed Townsend to advance their careers. Schlein has declined to discuss the case. Fantigrassi has said he never lied to convict Townsend.
Fantigrassi retired as head of BSO’s Criminal Investigations Unit in 2005. Schlein retired in 1993 as a lieutenant colonel, later worked for the state and is today an attorney in private practice in Tallahassee.
The lawsuit said Mosley is believed to be responsible for 41 rapes and 17 murders between 1973 and 1987, when he was declared incompetent to stand trial for the 1983 Christmas Eve rape-murder of Emma Cook, 54.
Victims and their families Katrenna Bentley, a hedge fund accountant, was 11 years old the day her grandmother died. She still vividly recalls seeing her battered body on a slab at the Mizell Funeral Home.
“I remember her laying on the table and seeing skin under her nails and hair in her mouth. They said she fought back, bit him in the head,” Bentley said. DNA from that trace evidence was matched two decades later to Mosley.
Katrenna and her mother, Mary Bentley, Emma Cook’s daughter, both said they want the state to investigate the actions of the police who handled the Townsend case.
“Every Christmas I relive this and get a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach,” said Mary Bentley, 61. “If they had investigated it properly from the beginning they could have caught Mosley earlier and he wouldn’t have ended up killing my mom or the other people. They should pay.”
“I would love to see that happen,” said Calvin Sapp, 68, a semi-retired construction worker and older brother of victim Geraldine Barfield. “It seems like very seldom that people of color get the type of justice that they give everybody else.”
The victims’ relatives are not alone in wanting an investigation.
Broward’s elected public defender, Howard Finkelstein, said, “The fact that these officers were allowed to lie and cheat to frame an innocent man, and then were allowed to go on with their lives as though they did nothing wrong and nothing happened is not only illegal, it’s a sin.”
Finkelstein said Townsend’s case is “the best example” of a local criminal justice system where authorities have for decades often ignored the crimes of police officers that plant evidence or commit perjury to make cases against suspects.
“That they turned a blind eye to such a heinous crime is the exact reason that most minorities in Broward feel they don’t get a fair shake – and they’re right,” said Finkelstein said.
Satz, who rarely talks to reporters, referred a request for comment to a subordinate who said prosecutors reviewed the Townsend case before the DNA tests were done and found insufficient evidence of perjury.
“In regards to the officers involved in that case, we know what it takes to charge someone with perjury,” said Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann. “People on the outside don’t know about the elements of the crime. They just think that if it smells bad and looks bad it’s a crime. In a perfect world, that would work. But we have to follow the law and can’t just harass people.”
Broward prosecutors, however, have made little effort to actually make such a case. Asked if her office ever confronted Fantigrassi or Schlein about their graphic testimony at Townsend’s trial, McCann said, “Not that I’m aware of.”
A study released in May by the National Registry of Exonerations showed that Broward accounted for nine of Florida’s 32 exonerations since 1989 – more than twice as many as any other county in the state. Most of those exonerated defendants were black.
Townsend, who lived in Hallandale Beach at the time of his arrest, is one of two Broward men cleared of murders now attributed to Mosley. Frank Lee Smith spent 14 years on Death Row for raping and killing 8-year-old Shandra Whitehead in her bed in 1985. He died of cancer on Jan.30, 2000, less than a year before DNA tests identified Mosley as the girl’s killer.
Three weeks before Townsend’s 1979 arrest, Fort Lauderdale police Det. Doug Evans identified Mosley – known around his northwest area neighborhood as “The Rape Man” – as the prime suspect in the rape-murders in his jurisdiction. Evans based his case on witness testimony and physical evidence, but the BSO detectives blew him off.
Evans later helped catch Mosley and free Townsend. Before his death in January 2011, Evans told the Broward Bulldog that he was disappointed authorities had never investigated police misconduct that had caused Townsend’s wrongful arrest and conviction.
Evans’ friend and colleague, ex-Fort Lauderdale Det. Roy Brown, said, “Doug always pushed for an investigation, always wanted one, but it’s been a hard rock. They let it sleep, they let it lay and they moved on and there’s no justice and nobody is held accountable for it. You’ve got to want to pursue them.
“The public should have a right to know this stuff: A serial killer running around killing people and nobody cared,” said Brown.
Clarice Tukes, whose daughter Arnette was murdered not long after Townsend’s arrest, was Doug Evans’ cousin.
“They knew who it was that did it. They knew Townsend didn’t do it, Mosley did. Doug told the whole family he did it. He said he didn’t know why they won’t take his word. That hurts,” said Tukes.
Her grandson, Dominick Richardson, was 3 years old when his mother died. He’s grown now, with three children of his own. His daughter Arnette is named in his mother’s honor, Tukes said.
Authorities in Central Florida suspect three Broward County men of being part of an infamous “felony lane gang,” one or more groups of South Floridians who travel far from home to commit car burglaries, bank fraud and identity thefts.
Ench Smith, 33, and Guercy Smith, 26, both of Pompano Beach, and Traver Paul, 19, of Fort Lauderdale, are among the latest suspects accused of such schemes across Florida and the rest of the country.
The trio was more than 220 miles north of Broward on Tuesday, when police in Casselberry arrested them each on charges of burglary, criminal mischief and petty theft. Patrons at an LA Fitness in Casselberry, northeast of Orlando, reported their vehicles were burglarized, and police said they caught the suspects as they drove away.
The men were in a rental car, and their actions were similar to those committed by other suspected felony lane gang members, Casselberry Police Capt. David Del Rosso said. Police said they are not sure if the men are members of an elaborate crime ring or merely a group of petty criminals who adopted the scheme for a quick and easy score.
“It could be something they learned to do in jail, or they are a spinoff of other groups,” Del Rosso said. “Bottom line is they were doing the same type of crimes associated with a felony lane gang.”
Even though “felony lane gang” suggests one group, it actually is more than one ring of thieves carrying out such crimes, officials said. While gang cells may not be working together, their schemes usually take on similar patterns.
In most cases, those arrested have South Florida addresses and travel in rental cars. They target cars parked at state parks, day care centers, gyms, supermarkets and cemeteries. Their loot usually includes wallets or purses containing credit and debit cards and checkbooks.
The thieves later drive to the victims’ banks to cash stolen checks, often wearing wigs and sunglasses for disguises. They often use the farthest drive-through teller lanes to avoid surveillance cameras. Thus the term “felony lane.”
In Broward, Ench Smith has primarily dealt with traffic offenses. His short prior criminal history excludes any arrests consistent with being part of a large-scale organized crime group, records show.
His alleged accomplices have a more serious criminal history, records show.
Since 2008, Guercy Smith has pleaded no-contest and been sentenced to probation on several charges, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and drug possession, state records show.
Paul was most recently arrested in Miami-Dade County on March 22 on charges of fleeing police and reckless driving. He is awaiting trial in that case. Since 2008, he has pleaded no-contest and been sentenced to probation on several offenses, including firing a gun into an occupied dwelling and battery.
Authorities say those involved in felony lane-type crimes have distinct roles, and the crimes often are aimed at stealing victims’ identities. Some act as organizers and recruit other members, some conduct robberies to obtain identification documents, and others go to banks to cash fraudulent checks.
In recent months, federal officials say they have made some progress in cracking down on felony lane suspects from South Florida.
In December, a grand jury in Pennsylvania returned a four-count indictment, charging 10 people with conspiracy to commit fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. With the exception of a Texas woman, all the alleged group members reportedly were from Broward.
In that case, federal officials said group members committed crimes in Pennsylvania from August to October 2012. During that time, they allegedly broke into numerous vehicles and stole the identities of more than 100 people.
The “smash and grabs” occurred at about 25 state parks and recreation centers in and around the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Heidi Havens, a spokeswoman for federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania, said the cases are expected to go to trial next month.
Agents confiscated more than $780,000
A 52-year-old Pompano Beach man was convicted of identity theft and tax refund fraud, U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer announced Thursday.
Nael Dawud Sammour was found guilty of the identity theft charges after a three-day jury trial in Fort Lauderdale federal court. Before the trial, he pleaded guilty to the eight tax refund fraud counts, prosecutors said.
Undercover IRS agents posed as Sammour’s refund check cashers. They seized 75 U.S. Treasury tax refund checks totaling $750,369 and another $30,128 in cash from Sammour during his arrest, according to court records.
Several unknown suspects used stolen identification — including the names, birth dates, and the social security numbers of unsuspecting taxpayers — to fraudulently apply for and receive U.S. tax refunds. Sammour received many of these refund checks and later gave them, along with counterfeit driver’s licenses and Social Security cards, to the undercover IRS agents who were expected to cash them, according to trial evidence and testimony.
Sammour faces up to 10 years in prison on each of the eight tax refund fraud counts, as well as mandatory two year consecutive terms on the aggravated identity theft charges when sentenced July 1, prosecutors said.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Two South Florida women have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for identity theft and tax fraud involving some 2,000 false income tax returns.
U.S. District Judge James Cohn in Fort Lauderdale sentenced 36-year-old Alci Bonannee on Thursday to more than 26 years behind bars. The judge sentenced 40-year-old Sonyini Clay to 10 years in prison. Bonannee was convicted in January of several charges and Clay pleaded guilty.
Prosecutors say the scheme operated from December 2010 to 2012 and involved returns submitted to the Internal Revenue Service seeking refunds of about $11 million. Of that, the IRS paid out about $3.5 million.
Trial testimony showed most of the stolen IDs came from a hospital nurse.
A third woman was sentenced in March to more than three years in prison.
Posted on December 17th, 2012 No comments
The arrest of a Florida woman last month and a subsequent investigation by the Winnetka Police Department has linked the crime to a group that law enforcement calls the “Florida Felony Lane Gang.”
Molly E. Meiring, 35, of 5741 N.E. 18th Ave., Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was arrested by Winnetka police at 3:25 p.m. Nov. 29 while attempting to cash a forged check with a stolen identification at Northern Trust Bank, 62 Green Bay Road.
Meiring was believed to have conducted a similar transaction the previous day at the same bank and Northern Trust employees recognized the suspect and called police. Meiring was still in the bank’s drive thru when police arrived.
“In this case they got greedy and came back the next day,” said Winnetka Police Commander Jim Christensen. “They were successful the previous day.”
An investigation by Winnetka police revealed the crime matched an operation used by a criminal operation known to police as the “Florida Felony Lane Gang.” The group recruits in Florida and operates in places like Chicago’s suburbs.
Leading up to the crime, two different women’s purses were stolen from unattended vehicles parked separately in Northbrook and Evanston. The suspects use the identification, checkbooks and other bank information to write and cash checks against each victim’s accounts.
“(The suspects) use a check and make it payable to another burglary victim of which they have a driver’s license,” Christensen said. “(Meiring) cut her hair short so she can don wigs. Through makeup and other means they try to look like one of the victims.”
Christensen said the group has ring leaders in Florida who recruit individuals, typically women who have fallen on hard times, and travel with them to the Chicago area. Crews already in Chicago break into cars and steal purses looking for identification and check books.
“(The group’s leaders) recruit these people because they are the ones they want to get caught,” Christensen said. “A lot of (the leaders) stay out on the perimeter as lookouts.”
Christensen said residents need to take precaution with their purses and personal identification. Gyms and fitness centers are primary targets of groups like these as people tend to leave their wallets and purses in their cars while working out.
“It’s a sophisticated group of felons out there looking to do more than take the cash out of your wallet,” Christensen said. “They’re looking to drain your bank account and they do it fast. Often times it’s on the same day before victims can notify their financial institution.”
Christensen said the Winnetka Police Department is working with other law enforcement agencies and the crime remains an active investigation.