Passport Fraud Sweep Leads to Charges Against 20 in Los Angeles Area
LOS ANGELES – A joint enforcement initiative by the U.S. Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service and the United States Attorney's Office in Los Angeles has resulted in the arrest of 12 defendants who have been charged with felony violations related to fraudulent applications for United States passports. A total of 20 defendants have been charged in the crackdown, with the 12th arrest coming early this morning at the United States-Mexico border. Authorities are continuing to search for seven fugitives.
During the law enforcement operation, which began three weeks ago, federal prosecutors obtained 19 indictments and filed a criminal complaint against a 20th defendant. All of the defendants are charged with making false statements in relation to passport applications.
The Diplomatic Security Service's Los Angeles Field Office saw a 30 percent increase from 2007 to 2008 in the passport fraud cases it investigates. This increase prompted the current enforcement initiative, which represents a multifaceted approach to protect our borders by safeguarding the integrity of U.S. travel documents and the U.S. immigration system as a whole.
The defendant arrested this morning at the international border is Alma Huerta, a 40-year-old Mexican national who resides in Whittier. Huerta was indicted by a federal grand jury on October 21 on charges of using a false identity to obtain a passport in 2000 and using that document in an attempt to open a bank account. Huerta is expected to make her initial court appearance this afternoon in federal court in Calexico.
Over the past several weeks, authorities have made arrests in several notable cases filed as part of the passport fraud sweep. They include:
Sergio Samonet, 48, a Cuban citizen who resides in South Gate, was arrested on October 23 and is scheduled to be arraigned on Monday. Samonet allegedly stole the identity of his ex-wife's mentally handicapped son and used that identity to obtain a U.S. Passport. Samonet was convicted in 2005 on state charges related to his use of the same stolen identity, and he was subsequently ordered deported from the United States by an immigration court.
Piyamas Jeerapaet, 41, of Burbank, was arrested on October 27 for allegedly using her position as a U.S. Postal Service employee to help her brother, a Thai citizen, obtain a U.S. Passport in a false identity. She was arrested in Medford, Oregon with assistance from the DSS San Francisco Field Office and the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of the Inspector General. Jeerapaet pleaded not guilty last week and is scheduled to go to trial on December 29.
Francisco Martinez, 67, a Mexican national who was living in Oxnard, was arrested on October 23 for allegedly assuming the identity of a deceased individual to obtain a U.S. Passport in 2001 and to apply for a U.S. Passport Card in 2008. The DSS investigation, which also involved U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, revealed that Martinez had a criminal history related to the sale of narcotics and had previously been deported from the United States. Martinez, who is also charged with illegal re-entry after deportation, pleaded not guilty last week and is scheduled to go to trial on December 22.
Jose Tejada, 39, a citizen of El Salvador who was residing in Los Angeles, was arrested on October 28 for allegedly attempting to renew a U.S. Passport he had already obtained under a false identity in 1995. Tejeda pleaded not guilty last week and is scheduled to go to trial on December 8.
Jose Yezid Rodriguez-Rojas, who also used the name Angel Luis Pena, is currently in a California state prison. Rodriguez, a Colombian national, is charged with attempting to obtain a U.S. passport in at least two false identities
Other defendants in custody after being charged in this sweep are: Diego Martinez-Diaz, 26, of Pacoima, who is currently in state prison; Leonardo Aguago Aldape, 39, of Los Angeles; Christian Mauricio Sanchez Merlin, 30, of Whittier; Ricardo Torres, 35, a native of Peru who was living in Van Nuys; Ibrahim Olanrewaju Adekeye, 27; and Odonga Kenya Rush, 38, of Chula Vista.
Those convicted of passport and visa fraud face a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in federal prison.
The fugitives currently sought by authorities are: Son Parsons, 48, of Alpharetta, Georgia; Suarez Gonzalez, 46, of Los Angeles; Carlos Edward Veliz, 32, of Los Angeles; David Prado Flores, 37, of Downey; Daza Jair Labrador Lopez, 36, of Van Nuys; Hector Acosta-Espinosa, who is believed to be in Mexico; Karen Fuentes, 25, of Long Beach, who is believed to have fled to Nicaragua; and “John Doe” who used the name “Juan Molina Sandoval” and “Edward Valenzuela.”
“This investigative initiative shows the Department of State's commitment to ensure the integrity of the U.S. passport and visa, the most sought-after travel documents in the world,” said Bruce T. Mills, the Special Agent-in-Charge of the Diplomatic Security Service's Los Angeles Field Office. “The Diplomatic Security Service will continue to pursue joint partnerships like this one with other federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities to counter this growing threat to the homeland.”
“In some instances, stolen documents can be used within hours or days to commit crimes,” said Alex Moore, the resident agent-in-charge of the Diplomatic Security Service's San Diego Resident Office. “We urge U.S. citizens who have lost or had their travel documents stolen to immediately contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate or the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs, in addition to local law enforcement agencies, so that authorities can place lookouts in a timely manner.”
DSS officials said that U.S. citizens or legitimate document holders may be prosecuted in cases where it has been found that they sold or made their documents available for others to use.
In relation to the case against Jeerapaet, Nichole Cooper, Special Agent in Charge for the Postal Service's Office of Inspector General, stated: “The American public expects postal employees to be diligent and honest when handling their mail. The Office of Inspector General works to ensure that integrity. We also have the same expectation of employees when they perform non-postal duties, such as processing passports. When postal employees' actions turn into criminal violations, Special Agents aggressively investigate those crimes.”
The Bureau of Diplomatic Security is the U.S. Department of State's law enforcement and security arm. The special agents, engineers, and security professionals of the Bureau are responsible for the security of 285 U.S. diplomatic missions around the world. In the United States, Diplomatic Security personnel protect the U.S. Secretary of State and high-ranking foreign dignitaries and officials visiting the United States, investigate passport and visa fraud, and conduct personnel security investigations. In 2008, DS participated in 2,487 arrests globally, primarily for passport and visa fraud, including 586 arrests overseas in cooperation with foreign police.
Read more in the U.S. Department of State's Visa and Passport Security Strategic Plan at: http://www.state.gov/m/ds/rls/rpt/79895.htm. Additional information about the U.S. Department of State and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security may be obtained at www.state.gov/m/ds.