‘Cyber Grave Robbers’ Accused of Stealing Identities of Surfside Condo Victims

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Three radical were charged with pilfering tens of thousands of dollars by obtaining recognition successful the names of 7 residents of the Florida condo that collapsed.

A makeshift memorial adjacent   the tract  of the Champlain Towers South condominium illness  successful  Surfside, Fla.
Credit...Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Patricia Mazzei

Sept. 8, 2021, 6:44 p.m. ET

MIAMI — In the acheronian days pursuing the Champlain Towers South condominium collapse successful Surfside, Fla., the sister of Ana Ortiz, who died successful the tragedy, noticed unusual fiscal enactment successful Ms. Ortiz’s accounts.

A notification that Ms. Ortiz’s mailing code had been changed. Requests for replacement recognition cards to beryllium mailed to a caller address. Unauthorized ligament transfers. Purchases charged to her cards.

The sister, Nicole Ortiz, notified the police. It was July 9, hardly 2 weeks aft the June 24 illness — and the time of Ana Ortiz’s funeral.

The results of the investigation, which grew to impact respective section and national instrumentality enforcement agencies, were revealed connected Wednesday, erstwhile prosecutors successful Miami-Dade County announced that they had charged 3 radical for stealing the identities of astatine slightest 7 Champlain Towers residents. Five of them, including Ms. Ortiz, had been killed successful the June 24 collapse. Two had survived.

“They’re professionals,” Katherine Fernández Rundle, the Miami-Dade authorities attorney, said successful a quality league astir the accused thieves. “It was truly horrible what they did, to prey further connected the household members of the deceased.”

She called them “cyber sedate robbers.”

The authorities charged Betsy Alexandra Cacho Medina, 30, and Rodney Choute, 38, some of North Miami, and Kimberly Michelle Johnson, 34, of Miami, with organizing a strategy to defraud and with aggregate counts of individuality fraud. Prosecutors identified Mr. Choute arsenic Ms. Medina’s fellow and Ms. Johnson arsenic her associate.

In all, the 3 stole astatine slightest $45,000 and attempted to bargain an further $67,000, Ms. Fernández Rundle said. Among the high-end purchases made successful Ms. Ortiz’s name, according to an apprehension affidavit for Ms. Medina, were a $1,658 Versace purse bought successful Miami’s Design District and a $374 brace of Medusa sandals bought astatine a Nordstrom successful Aventura Mall.

James E. Lee, the main operating serviceman of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization, said individuality thieves person learned to pounce aft tragedies wherever radical go displaced, specified arsenic the condo collapse, oregon successful the aftermath of hurricanes, wildfires and floods.

“They person a crippled program that they rotation retired each clip there’s an lawsuit similar this,” helium said. “They volition effort to impersonate idiosyncratic who’s been incapacitated oregon wherever determination has been a fatality.”

In the quality conference, Ms. Fernández Rundle showed a video clip from a surveillance camera wrong a Bloomingdale’s. The clip showed a woman, whom the authorities identified arsenic Ms. Medina, clad successful a look disguise and a chapeau — and carrying the fraudulently purchased Versace purse — arsenic she bought 3 pairs of shoes.

Frequently Asked Questions

It could instrumentality months for investigators to find precisely wherefore a important information of the Surfside, Fla., gathering collapsed. But determination are already immoderate clues astir imaginable reasons for the disaster, including plan oregon operation flaws. Three years earlier the collapse, a advisor recovered evidence of “major structural damage” to the factual slab beneath the excavation platform and “abundant” cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and walls of the parking garage. Engineers who person visited the wreckage oregon viewed photos of it accidental that damaged columns astatine the building’s basal may person little alloy reinforcement than was primitively planned.

Condo boards and homeowners’ associations often struggle to person residents to wage for needed repairs, and astir of Champlain Towers South’s committee members resigned successful 2019 due to the fact that of their frustrations. In April, the caller committee seat wrote to residents that conditions successful the gathering had “gotten importantly worse” successful the past respective years and that the operation would present outgo $15 cardinal alternatively of $9 million. There had besides been complaints from residents that the operation of a massive, Renzo Piano-designed residential operation adjacent doorway was shaking Champlain Towers South.

Entire household units died because the illness happened successful the mediate of the night, erstwhile radical were sleeping. The parents and children killed successful Unit 802, for example, were Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, a instrumentality of the stone set Kiss and the University of Miami Hurricanes; Anaely Rodriguez, 42, who embraced tango and salsa dancing; Lucia Guara, 11, who recovered astronomy and outer abstraction fascinating; and Emma Guara, 4, who loved the satellite of princesses. A floor-by-floor look astatine the victims shows the grade of the devastation.

Ms. Fernández Rundle besides played 2 audio recordings of Ms. Medina calling a Barclays lawsuit work enactment and impersonating Ms. Ortiz. She requested replacement recognition cards and a idiosyncratic recognition number. In 1 of the calls, she identified herself arsenic a unfortunate of the Surfside collapse.

Arrest affidavits amusement that the constabulary tracked down Ms. Medina utilizing surveillance footage that led officers to 1 of her vehicles, a 2019 Mercedes-Benz. They recovered that she, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Choute had routed their fraudulently obtained recognition cards to an code successful Hallandale Beach, to a vacant flat with a damaged, unlocked mailbox that they utilized arsenic a “drop box.”

Eventually, officers recovered the residences wherever the 3 accused truly lived and learned they had presented immoderate counterfeit recognition documents to their landlords.

The individuality theft victims included Frank Kleiman, Ms. Ortiz’s husband. Nicole Ortiz, Ms. Ortiz’s sister, did not respond to requests for remark connected Wednesday. Two radical unrelated to the Champlain Towers besides had their identities stolen successful the scheme, according to the police.

One of the Champlain Towers survivors targeted by the strategy had applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The thieves had changed her code truthful her payments would beryllium redirected to the Hallandale Beach apartment.

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