‘Cyber Grave Robbers’ Accused of Stealing Identities of Surfside Condo Victims
Three people were charged with pilfering tens of thousands of dollars by obtaining credit in the names of seven residents of the Florida condo that collapsed.,
MIAMI — In the dark days following the Champlain Towers South condominium collapse in Surfside, Fla., the sister of Ana Ortiz, who died in the tragedy, noticed strange financial activity in Ms. Ortiz’s accounts.
A notification that Ms. Ortiz’s mailing address had been changed. Requests for replacement credit cards to be mailed to a new address. Unauthorized wire transfers. Purchases charged to her 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 results of the investigation, which grew to involve several local and federal law enforcement agencies, were revealed on Wednesday, when prosecutors in Miami-Dade County announced that they had charged three people for stealing the identities of at least seven Champlain Towers residents. Five of them, including Ms. Ortiz, had been killed in the June 24 collapse. Two had survived.
“They’re professionals,” Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the Miami-Dade state attorney, said in a news conference about the accused thieves. “It was really horrible what they did, to prey further on the family members of the deceased.”
She called them “cyber grave robbers.”
The authorities charged Betsy Alexandra Cacho Medina, 30, and Rodney Choute, 38, both of North Miami, and Kimberly Michelle Johnson, 34, of Miami, with organizing a scheme to defraud and with multiple counts of identity fraud. Prosecutors identified Mr. Choute as Ms. Medina’s boyfriend and Ms. Johnson as her associate.
In all, the three stole at least $45,000 and attempted to steal an additional $67,000, Ms. Fernandez Rundle said. Among the high-end purchases made in Ms. Ortiz’s name, according to an arrest affidavit for Ms. Medina, were a $1,658 Versace purse bought in Miami’s Design District and a $374 pair of Medusa sandals bought at a Nordstrom in Aventura Mall.
James E. Lee, the chief operating officer of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization, said identity thieves have learned to pounce after tragedies where people become displaced, such as the condo collapse, or in 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 said. “They will try to impersonate someone who’s been incapacitated or where there has been a fatality.”
In the news conference, Ms. Fernandez Rundle showed a video clip from a surveillance camera inside a Bloomingdale’s. The clip showed a woman, whom the authorities identified as Ms. Medina, clad in a face mask and a hat — and carrying the fraudulently purchased Versace purse — as she bought three pairs of shoes.
Frequently Asked Questions
It could take months for investigators to determine precisely why a significant portion of the Surfside, Fla., building collapsed. But there are already some clues about potential reasons for the disaster, including design or construction flaws. Three years before the collapse, a consultant found evidence of “major structural damage” to the concrete slab below the pool deck and “abundant” cracking and crumbling of the columns, beams and walls of the parking garage. Engineers who have visited the wreckage or viewed photos of it say that damaged columns at the building’s base may have less steel reinforcement than was originally planned.
Condo boards and homeowners’ associations often struggle to convince residents to pay for needed repairs, and most of Champlain Towers South’s board members resigned in 2019 because of their frustrations. In April, the new board chair wrote to residents that conditions in the building had “gotten significantly worse” in the past several years and that the construction would now cost $15 million instead of $9 million. There had also been complaints from residents that the construction of a massive, Renzo Piano-designed residential tower next door was shaking Champlain Towers South.
Even though Florida’s high-rise building regulations have long been among the strictest in the nation so they could stand up to hurricane winds, flooding and rain, along with the corrosive effects of salty air, evidence has mounted that those rules have been enforced unevenly by local governments. Engineers are conducting a thorough review of Champlain Towers North, a nearly identical building, to determine whether it could also be vulnerable. In nearby North Miami Beach, residents of the Crestview Towers were swiftly evacuated after a report documented cracks and corrosion in the building’s structure. And Bal Harbour 101 is spending an estimated $4.5 million in repairs. Now, residents throughout the region who long glamorized oceanfront condos are debating whether they should put their homes on the market.
Entire family units died because the collapse happened in the middle of the night, when people were sleeping. The parents and children killed in Unit 802, for example, were 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 found astronomy and outer space fascinating; and Emma Guara, 4, who loved the world of princesses. A floor-by-floor look at the victims shows the extent of the devastation.
A 15-year-old boy and his mother were rescued from the rubble shortly after the building fell. She died in a hospital, however, and no more survivors were found during two weeks of a search-and-rescue mission. There had been hope that demolishing the remaining structure would allow rescuers to safely explore voids where someone could possibly have survived, but only human remains were found. There were 98 victims overall.
Ms. Fernandez Rundle also played two audio recordings of Ms. Medina calling a Barclays customer service line and impersonating Ms. Ortiz. She requested replacement credit cards and a personal identification number. In one of the calls, she identified herself as a victim of the Surfside collapse.
Arrest affidavits show that the police tracked down Ms. Medina using surveillance footage that led officers to one of her vehicles, a 2019 Mercedes-Benz. They found that she, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Choute had routed their fraudulently obtained credit cards to an address in Hallandale Beach, to a vacant apartment with a damaged, unlocked mailbox that they used as a “drop box.”
Eventually, officers found the residences where the three accused really lived and learned they had presented some counterfeit identification documents to their landlords.
The identity theft victims included Frank Kleiman, Ms. Ortiz’s husband. Nicole Ortiz, Ms. Ortiz’s sister, did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. Two people unrelated to the Champlain Towers also had their identities stolen in the scheme, according to the police.
One of the Champlain Towers survivors targeted by the scheme had applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The thieves had changed her address so her payments would be redirected to the Hallandale Beach apartment.