Three people arrested in connection with identity theft of Surfside condo victims
By Kay Jones, Steve Almasy and Rebekah Riess, CNN
(CNN) -- Three people have been arrested in South Florida and accused of identity theft of victims of the Surfside condo collapse, a top prosecutor said Wednesday.
There were seven victims in this case, five of whom are deceased, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said at a news conference.
All seven had their identities stolen and purchases made after the collapse of Champlain Towers South on June 24.
"Cyber grave robbers did move very quickly after the collapse to grab what they could from deceased victims while families and friends were in absolute emotional turmoil," Fernandez Rundle said.
Search and rescue teams scoured the site for weeks after 55 of the 13-story residential building's 136 units fell at around 1:30 a.m. that day. A total of 98 people, ranging in age from 1 to 92, died.
According to their arrest warrant affidavits, the three people arrested were Betsy Alejandra Cacho Medina, 30, of North Miami; Rodney Choute, 38, of North Miami; and Kimberly Michelle Johnson, 34, of Miami.
CNN has attempted to reach Cacho Medina, Choute and Johnson for comment. As of Wednesday evening, it was unclear if they had legal representation.
The first identity theft report came July 9 from a sister of one of the victims who died, Fernandez Rundle said.
The woman noticed her sister's mailing address was changed and replacement credit cards were mailed to a new address, Fernandez Rundle said. The sister also reported purchases and wire transfers.
In the arrest affidavit for Cacho Medina, detectives write that on July 6 a female called Barclays and identified herself as the deceased woman and asked for a replacement card to be sent to a new address. Investigators obtained a recording of a woman attempting to get a transaction cleared on the card, telling Barclays security department that she was a victim of the condo collapse, the affidavit said.
The document says between July 7 and 9 there were 28 attempted transactions ($13,389.80) on the card of which 10 ($5,892.93) were approved.
A Nordstrom Visa card was used July 8 for the pickup order of a $374 pair of sandals, the affidavit said. Surveillance video shows the woman who picked up the shoes getting into a car registered to Cacho Medina, according to the document.
Detectives went to the new address on the credit card bills and found the apartment was vacant and the mailbox appeared to be damaged and not locked. They also determined that a car registered to Cacho Medina was registered to that address.
Postal inspectors told the investigators that a replacement Discover card in the name of another deceased victim was sent to the same address. That card was used between July 7 and 24 for about 50 transactions totaling more than $30,000, according to the affidavit.
One purchase was at a Burberry store at a mall in Aventura. Using surveillance footage from that day, police tracked two women from the store to a white BMW they say is registered to Cacho Medina and Johnson.
Police also alleged the three suspects used Zelle accounts for money transfers from victims' accounts and that some purchases and some attempted ATM withdrawals were recorded on video.
Fernandez Rundle said that the suspects allegedly stole at least $45,000 and attempted to steal $67,000 before being arrested.
The suspects face several felony charges each, including identity theft and organized scheme to defraud, she said. Based on the charges, she said they could each face 15 to 30 years in prison, if convicted.
Bond has been set at $1 million for Cacho Media, whom the affidavits called the "main suspect," while Johnson's bond was set at $500,000 and Choute's bond is $430,000.
The investigation is ongoing, the prosecutor said.
Family members of other Surfside victims who suspect they are also victims of identity theft were encouraged to contact law enforcement.
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