The defendants belonged to a large criminal organization that, using extortion and fraud, “systematically targeted elderly Americans by preying on their concern for loved ones,” Department of Justice (DOJ) officials said.
The victims were in at least 15 states and each paid tens of thousands of dollars to the alleged criminal enterprise, officials said, and those targeted were left “financially and emotionally devastated."
Two of those indicted are believed to have fled to the Bahamas and the other six have been arrested, officials said. Another 12 unnamed people, whose identities were said to be known, acted as so-called money mules in the case. “Mules” are people who transfer or move illegally acquired money for another person. The mules operated in California and Florida, officials said.
The alleged crime spree occurred from November 2019 to last October, officials said.
How the scams worked
In an indictment issued in late July and unsealed on Aug. 24, more than 20 of the victims are identified by their initials, places of residence and individual losses. All of those partly identified are men or women in their 70s or 80s. The oldest, an 89-year-old woman from Downey, California, lost $18,000. The largest individual loss was suffered by a 73-year-old woman in San Francisco who gave up $217,000 to men posing as attorneys for her grandson, who purportedly had been arrested and sued, officials said. The cash supposedly was to pay bail money and settle a civil lawsuit.
The perpetrators are accused by the DOJ of telephoning older Americans and impersonating a grandchild, another close relative or a friend. Victims were told fake stories: Their loved ones were in legal trouble and needed money for bail, medical expenses for supposed victims of car accidents or to prevent additional charges from being filed, for example.
The defendants and their coconspirators received the money in various ways. Sometimes the victims’ cash was picked up in person; other times victims wired the money or paid using cashier's checks or a peer-to-peer payment app. The defendants allegedly laundered the funds and divvied them up among themselves using, for example, digital cryptocurrency that is difficult to trace.
At least 10 of the victims were in San Diego County, California, officials said. The defendants all lived in one of three retiree-rich states — Arizona, California and Florida — at the times of the offenses.
The victims, however, hailed from diverse locales including La Quinta, California; Grand Prairie, Texas; Rocky Face, Georgia; and Farm River, Michigan.
All defendants are in their 20s, 30s and 40s except for one: 73-year-old Lyda Harris, formerly of Laveen, Arizona. Harris was arrested on a provisional warrant in Albania and the U.S. is seeking to have her extradited, officials said.
RICO law used against Mafia invoked
The case is believed to be the first time the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act has been used in an elder fraud case, officials said. The RICO statute dates to 1970 when then-President Richard M. Nixon signed it into law. According to the DOJ, Congress passed the measure with the declared purpose of seeking to eradicate organized crime in the United States. Since then, a variety of offenders, including members of street gangs and drug-trafficking rings, have had the proverbial book thrown at them using RICO.
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The investigation was led by the San Diego Elder Justice Task Force with help from law enforcement agencies in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.
"Elder fraud is a massive and growing problem, as our county's population gets older, with losses into the billions of dollars nationwide,” said Suzanne Turner, special agent in charge of the FBI's San Diego Field Office. The task force, she said, “was set up to combine resources, experience, and capabilities to have a sophisticated and coordinated law enforcement response to fight this battle."
In addition to the 73-year-old Harris, DOJ officials said five others have been arrested in the case: Timothy Ingram, also known as “Bleezy,” 29, and Anajah Gifford, 23, both of North Hollywood, California; Jack Owuor, 24, of Paramount, California; Joaquin Lopez, 45, of Hollywood, Florida; and Tracy Glinton, 34, of Orlando, Florida.
Two other defendants, Tracy Adrine Knowles, 29, formerly of Orlando, and Adonis Alexis Butler Wong, 29, formerly of Pembroke Pines, Florida, are believed to be in the Bahamas, officials said.
San Diego attorney Jeremy D. Warren, who represents Glinton, told AARP on Thursday that it was not appropriate to comment at this time. “Our client is presumed innocent, the indictment contains allegations only, and we will address the matter in court,” Warren said. Another Glinton attorney, Fritz Scheller of Orlando, said that at this point she is presumed innocent and noted that she has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
San Diego attorney Kathryn Thickstun, who represents Gifford, said in an email: “We are at the beginning stage of the case. The charges in the indictment are not evidence of guilt. And, of course, my client is presumed innocent."
Ingram’s attorney, Christopher E. Chaney of Van Nuys, California, declined to comment.