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

MIAMI — In the darkish days following the Champlain Towers South condominium collapse in Surfside, Fla., the sister of Ana Ortiz, who died within the tragedy, seen unusual monetary exercise in Ms. Ortiz’s accounts.

A notification that Ms. Ortiz’s mailing tackle had been modified. Requests for substitute bank cards to be mailed to a brand new tackle. Unauthorized wire transfers. Purchases charged to her playing cards.

The sister, Nicole Ortiz, notified the police. It was July 9, barely two weeks after the June 24 collapse — and the day of Ana Ortiz’s funeral.

The outcomes of the investigation, which grew to contain a number of native and federal regulation enforcement companies, have been revealed on Wednesday, when prosecutors in Miami-Dade County introduced that that they had charged three individuals for stealing the identities of at the very least seven Champlain Towers residents. Five of them, together with Ms. Ortiz, had been killed within the June 24 collapse. Two had survived.

“They’re professionals,” Katherine Fernández Rundle, the Miami-Dade state lawyer, mentioned in a information convention in regards to the accused thieves. “It was really horrible what they did, to prey further on the family members of the deceased.”

She referred to as them “cyber grave robbers.”

The authorities charged Betsy Alexandra Cacho Medina, 30, and Rodney Choute, 38, each of North Miami, and Kimberly Michelle Johnson, 34, of Miami, with organizing a scheme to defraud and with a number of counts of id fraud. Prosecutors recognized Mr. Choute as Ms. Medina’s boyfriend and Ms. Johnson as her affiliate.

In all, the three stole at the very least $45,000 and tried to steal a further $67,000, Ms. Fernández Rundle mentioned. Among the high-end purchases made in Ms. Ortiz’s identify, in response to an arrest affidavit for Ms. Medina, have been a $1,658 Versace purse purchased in Miami’s Design District and a $374 pair of Medusa sandals purchased at a Nordstrom in Aventura Mall.

James E. Lee, the chief working officer of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit group, mentioned id thieves have discovered to pounce after tragedies the place individuals turn out to be displaced, such because the rental collapse, or within the wake of hurricanes, wildfires and floods.

“They have a game plan that they roll out every time there’s an event like this,” he mentioned. “They will try to impersonate someone who’s been incapacitated or where there has been a fatality.”

In the information convention, Ms. Fernández Rundle confirmed a video clip from a surveillance digital camera inside a Bloomingdale’s. The clip confirmed a lady, whom the authorities recognized as Ms. Medina, clad in a face masks and a hat — and carrying the fraudulently bought Versace purse — as she purchased three pairs of footwear.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why did Champlain Towers South collapse?

It might take months for investigators to find out exactly why a good portion of the Surfside, Fla., constructing collapsed. But there are already some clues about potential causes for the catastrophe, together with design or development flaws. Three years earlier than the collapse, a advisor discovered proof of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab under the pool deck and “abundant” cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and partitions of the parking storage. Engineers who’ve visited the wreckage or considered images of it say that broken columns on the constructing’s base could have much less metal reinforcement than was initially deliberate.

Were residents beforehand involved with the constructing?

Condo boards and owners’ associations typically wrestle to persuade residents to pay for wanted repairs, and most of Champlain Towers South’s board members resigned in 2019 as a result of of their frustrations. In April, the brand new board chair wrote to residents that circumstances within the constructing had “gotten significantly worse” previously a number of years and that the development would now value $15 million as a substitute of $9 million. There had additionally been complaints from residents that the development of an enormous, Renzo Piano-designed residential tower subsequent door was shaking Champlain Towers South.

Are different buildings in Florida in danger?

Even although Florida’s high-rise constructing laws have lengthy been among the many strictest within the nation so they may stand as much as hurricane winds, flooding and rain, together with the corrosive results of salty air, proof has mounted that these guidelines have been enforced erratically by native governments. Engineers are conducting an intensive assessment of Champlain Towers North, a virtually equivalent constructing, to find out whether or not it is also weak. In close by North Miami Beach, residents of the Crestview Towers have been swiftly evacuated after a report documented cracks and corrosion within the constructing’s construction. And Bal Harbour 101 is spending an estimated $four.5 million in repairs. Now, residents all through the area who lengthy glamorized oceanfront condos are debating whether or not they need to put their houses in the marketplace.

What will we learn about those that died?

Entire household models died as a result of the collapse occurred within the center of the evening, when individuals have been sleeping. The mother and father and youngsters killed in Unit 802, for instance, have been Marcus Joseph Guara, 52, a fan of the rock band Kiss and the University of Miami Hurricanes; Anaely Rodriguez, 42, who embraced tango and salsa dancing; Lucia Guara, 11, who discovered astronomy and outer house fascinating; and Emma Guara, four, who liked the world of princesses. A floor-by-floor take a look at the victims reveals the extent of the devastation.

Did anybody survive the collapse?

A 15-year-old boy and his mom have been rescued from the rubble shortly after the constructing fell. She died in a hospital, nevertheless, and no extra survivors have been discovered throughout two weeks of a search-and-rescue mission. There had been hope that demolishing the remaining construction would permit rescuers to soundly discover voids the place somebody might probably have survived, however solely human stays have been discovered. There have been 98 victims general.

Ms. Fernández Rundle additionally performed two audio recordings of Ms. Medina calling a Barclays customer support line and impersonating Ms. Ortiz. She requested substitute bank cards and a private identification quantity. In one of the calls, she recognized herself as a sufferer of the Surfside collapse.

Arrest affidavits present that the police tracked down Ms. Medina utilizing surveillance footage that led officers to at least one of her autos, a 2019 Mercedes-Benz. They discovered that she, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Choute had routed their fraudulently obtained bank cards to an tackle in Hallandale Beach, to a vacant condo with a broken, unlocked mailbox that they used as a “drop box.”

Eventually, officers discovered the residences the place the three accused actually lived and discovered that they had introduced some counterfeit identification paperwork to their landlords.

The id theft victims included Frank Kleiman, Ms. Ortiz’s husband. Nicole Ortiz, Ms. Ortiz’s sister, didn’t reply to requests for touch upon Wednesday. Two individuals unrelated to the Champlain Towers additionally had their identities stolen within the scheme, in response to the police.

One of the Champlain Towers survivors focused by the scheme had utilized for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The thieves had modified her tackle so her funds can be redirected to the Hallandale Beach condo.