Seven Indicted For Larceny, Identity Theft
Seven individuals and two New Jersey check cashing companies were indicted by a Queens County grand jury last week for their alleged involvement in a tax fraud ring which allegedly used the personal identification of unsuspecting victims to obtain more than $500,000 in federal tax refund checks, law enforcement sources announced.
According to prosecutors, many of the victims in the scheme reside in Puerto Rico. Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown stated that Puerto Rican residents were targeted since they “are not generally required to file federal income tax returns unless they live and work in the continental United States.”
“As a result, the numbers were not likely to show up as duplicate tax returns, nor would the actual Social Security holder likely report that a duplicate return had been filed,” Brown added.
The district attorney announced the charges last Thursday, Mar. 7, at a press conference along with Port Authority Police Superintendent Michael A. Fedorko, Port Authority Police Chief John Ryan and representatives of the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Social Security Administration, the state Department of Motor Vehicles and the Union County, N.J. Prosecutor’s office.
Brown identified the suspects in the scheme as Jose (a.k.a. Jibbe) Mercedes,
44, of Decatur Avenue in the Bronx (the alleged ringleader); Hilda (a.k.a. Adela) Baide Villatoro, 46, of Highland Avenue in Elizabeth, N.J. (the alleged money collector); three alleged runners-Stalin (a.k.a. Stanley) DeJesus, 30, of West 238th St. in the Bronx; Jose (a.k.a. Josea) A. Mercedes, 20, of Decatur Avenue in the Bronx and Jeronimo Baide Pinto, 44, of Highland Avenue in Elizabeth, N.J.-Srinivas (a.k.a. Hassan) Bikkasani, 52, of Newport Drive in Princeton, N.J. (the alleged manager of the check cashing corporations); and Satya (a.k.a. Rita) Garaga, 35, of Spring Street in Elizabeth, N.J. (the alleged teller at a check cashing company).
Also indicted were two check cashing corporations: Stonehouse Partners Inc. at 133 Roseville Ave. in Newark, N.J.; and Developers Network Inc. at 442 Spring St. in Elizabeth, N.J.
The suspects and indicted companies are variously charged in a 90- count indictment with enterprise corruption, third-degree grand larceny and fifth-degree conspiracy. If convicted, the defendants each face between five and 25 years in prison; the corporations face a fine of up to $10,000 or double the amount of the illegal gain.
Jose Mercedes and his son, Jose A. Mercedes, along with DeJesus were arrested last Wednesday, Mar. 6, and arraigned before Acting Queens Supreme Court Justice James P. Griffin. They are scheduled to return to court on Apr. 9. The other indicted suspects were arrested last week and held in Union County, N.J. pending extradiction.
“It’s appalling that these individuals would use our airport facilities as part of a brazenly fraudulent scheme to steal the identities of hard-working people as part of a get rich quick scheme,” Fedorko stated last Thursday. “These arrests are a testament to the cooperation between our detectives and the Queen’s District Attorney’s Office and we’re pleased that the case has successfully concluded with today’s arrests.”
Ryan added, “[These] arrests are the result of hundreds of hours of good police work by our detectives who worked this fraud ring. I commend our officers for their diligent, hard work in pursuing a case that will save the federal government tens of millions of dollars and will protect the privacy of innocent victims in the future.”
Brown said that the investigation began in August 2011 when the Port Authority Police Department commenced a joint investigation with the District Attorney’s Organized Crimes and Rackets Bureau. The investigation involved physical surveillance, intelligence gathering, court-authorized electronic eavesdropping and other investigative techniques.
The indictment filed in Queens County Supreme Court charges that the nine defendants were members of or associated with an organized criminal enterprise that operated in Queens County and elsewhere and that, between Aug. 19, 2011, and Nov. 6, 2012, systematically stole a total of more than $500,000 from the U.S. Government by obtaining U.S. Treasury tax refund checks by using the personal identification information of others and forged documents.
According to the charges, the thefts were accomplished through a network of individuals who supplied others in the organization with identity information used to obtain the tax refund checks and to create false documents- such as state identification cards and U.S. Social Security cards -which were then used to cash the government checks at two New Jersey check cashing establishments.
Reportedly, Jose Mercedes was the “boss” of the criminal enterprise with ultimate decision-making authority and that, in carrying out the scheme, he received the stolen identities from other members of the organization and that he also gave the Treasury checks to others to be cashed.
His son, Jose Mercedes Jr., and his nephew, DeJesus, are alleged to be “runners” who received and distributed the identities, and brought the refund checks to others in the organization.
It is further alleged that Villatoro acted as the organization’s “money collector” by bringing the refund checks obtained by the organization to the New Jersey check cashing establishments to be cashed. Pinto is also alleged to be a “runner”and brought I.D. cards and refunds checks to be cashed to the check cashing locations.
Bikkasani is the manager of defendant corporations, Developers Network, Inc., and Stonehouse Partners, Inc., which did business as check cashing companies in Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey, and were where the checks were allegedly cashed. Garaga worked as a teller at the Elizabeth, N.J. check cashing location and is alleged to have knowingly cashed the refund checks and kept aside a portion of the amount for the manager of the location, Bikkasani.
The investigation was conducted by Port Authority Detectives John F. Reilly, Anthony Greene, Christopher Martinez, Anibal Villaverde, Aida Carrasco, French Pearson, Donald Conklin and Alan Lew, Detective Sergeants Barbara Heim, Boris Perdomo and Kenneth White and Lieutenant Jose Alba.
Additional assistance in the investigation was provided by Det. Alan S. Schwartz of District Attorney Brown’s Detective Bureau, under the supervision of Lt. Franco Russo and the overall supervision of Deputy Chief Investigator Albert D. Velardi and Chief Investigator Lawrence J. Festa; the U.S. Social Security Administration under the supervision of Special Agent in Charge Edward J. Ryan; the U.S. Postal Inspection Service under the supervision of Inspector in Charge Richard Vignogna; the U.S. Secret Service; the U.S. Department of the Treasury under the supervision of Inspector General Eric Thorson, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles under the supervision of Commissioner Barbara J. Fiala; the United States Marshals Technical Operations Group under supervision of Chief Inspector Scott Samuels and Assistant Prosecutor Deborah A. White, of the Office of Union County (N.J.) Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow, as well as the NYPD Technical Assistance Response Unit and the Elizabeth (NJ) Police Department,
Assistant District Attorney Antara D. Kanth of the District Attorney’s Organized Crime and Rackets Bureau is prosecuting the case under the immediate supervision of Assistant District Attorney Catherine C. Kane, chief of the District Attorney’s Airport Investigations Unit, and under the supervision of Assistant District Attorneys Gerard A. Brave, bureau chief, and Mark L. Katz, deputy bureau chief, and the overall supervision of Executive Assistant District Attorney for Investigations Peter A. Crusco and Deputy Executive Assistant District Attorney for Investigations Linda M. Cantoni.
It was noted that an indictment is merely an accusation and that defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.