HARRISONBURG, Va. - United States Attorney John L. Brownlee and Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell and Mark McGraw, Deputy Special Agent in Charge for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Washington-area Field Office, announced today that a federal Grand Jury has charged eight individuals for conspiring to violate federal immigration laws, aggravated identity fraud, and conspiring to commit identity fraud. The eight defendants were charged in a federal indictment that arose from an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The investigation uncovered a multi-state conspiracy to obtain and sell unlawful Ohio identification cards that were distributed to illegal aliens in the Western District of Virginia and elsewhere. Also, federal agents arrested four additional illegal aliens this morning.
"Enforcing our nation's immigration laws is one of our highest priorities," said U.S. Attorney John Brownlee today. "Had this conspiracy not been stopped, many more illegal aliens would have obtained identification papers, making it extremely difficult for law enforcement to identify and deport them. In addition, these enforcement programs are necessary to protect our borders from illegal entry. These enforcement efforts are intended to guarantee that critical points of entry, such as airports, are not breeched by those who wish to do harm to law-abiding citizens of the United States. I want to thank the outstanding efforts of the all the state and federal agents and prosecutors who worked tirelessly on this investigation and are on the front lines protecting the integrity of our borders and safety of the United States' citizens."
"We are a nation of laws and those laws must be obeyed. Document fraud is one among many crimes contributing to the nationwide problem of illegal immigration," said Virginia Attorney general Bob McDonnell. "Significant joint law enforcement initiatives such as this are critical to preserving our security within and outside the Commonwealth. I appreciate the hard work and dedication of all those involved in this successful operation."
"Today's charges reflect the law enforcement community's steadfast commitment to dismantling organizations and prosecuting individuals who sell other people's identities for profit and assume other people's identities to skirt the law," said Mark McGraw, Deputy Special Agent in Charge for ICE Washington D.C. Field office. "This is not a victimless crime. The individuals whose identities are stolen will spend their time and expense unraveling the fraud perpetrated in their names. The nation is more vulnerable when identities are bought and sold."
The Grand Jury returned a three-count indictment charging Edwin Roberto Mendez, 32, of Harrisonburg, Va., Christina Dawn Cheatham, 23, of Columbus, Ohio, Jose Antonio Gutierrez-Ramirez, 34, of Columbus, Ohio, Nekeia Mack-Fuller, 29, of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, Luis M. Rosado-Rodriguez, 29, of Ponce, Puerto Rico, Jairo Gomez, 32, of Harrisonburg, Va., Juan (last name unknown), date of birth unknown, of Harrisonburg, and Michelle Eckerman, 27, of Canal Winchester, Ohio. All have been indicted by a federal grand jury sitting in Roanoke, Va., on charges related to the operation of a counterfeit identification ring.
The charges are as follows:
-Edwin Mendez: one count of conspiracy, one count of aggravated ID fraud and one count of identity fraud conspiracy.
-Christina Cheatham: one count of conspiracy and one count of identity fraud conspiracy.
-Jose Guiterrez-Rameriz: one count of conspiracy, one count of aggravated ID fraud and one count of identity fraud conspiracy.
-Nekeia Mack-Fuller: one count of conspiracy and one count of identity fraud conspiracy.
-Luis Rosado-Rodriguez: one count of conspiracy, one count of aggravated ID fraud and one count of identity fraud conspiracy.
-Jairo Gomez: one count of conspiracy, one count of aggravated ID fraud and one count of identity fraud conspiracy.
-Juan (Last name unknown): one count of conspiracy, one count of aggravated ID fraud and one count of identity fraud conspiracy.
-Michelle Eckerman: one count of conspiracy and one count of identity fraud conspiracy.
According to the indictment, all eight of the accused have been charged with conspiring to produce, transfer, possess and use unlawful identification documents between January 2004 and February 2008.
The conspiracy was designed to allow the defendants to enrich themselves by fraudulent means through the trafficking of identity documents and State of Ohio identity cards. Furthermore, the use of Puerto Rican birth certificates and matching Social Security cards prevented detection of the true identity of individuals purchasing those identity documents.
According to the indictment, Mendez, Gomez and a third individual known only as Juan lived in Virginia and served as recruiters for the conspiracy. The three recruited individuals who were looking to purchase Puerto Rican birth certificates and matching Social Security cards. Those documents, which were authentic, were provided by Rosado-Rodriguez. Rosado-Rodriguez sold the documents to other ID vendors, such as Mendez, Gomez and Juan.
Mendez, along with Gomez and Juan, then sold the documents to illegal aliens looking to obtain identification documents. The three then made arrangements, including providing transportation, for the purchasers to travel to Ohio in order to illegally obtain Ohio identification documents.
According to the indictment, once in Ohio, the purchasers were transported to a staging area headed by Gutierrez-Ramirez and Cheatham, who served as brokers for the conspiracy. Gutierrez-Ramirez and Cheatham resided in Ohio and provided the purchasers with instructions and transportation to a Scarborough Boulevard Deputy Registrar Bureau of Motor Vehicle (BMV) office in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio identification documents, including driver's licenses are distributed out of this office.
Once at the BMV office, Gutierrez-Ramirez and Cheatham acted as interpreters for the purchasers during the identification application process, according to the indictment.
Eckerman and Mack-Fuller were employees of the BMV office. Eckerman worked as a clerk and Mack-Fuller was a manager, however, both processed applications for identity cards and drivers licenses. On several occasions, Eckerman and Mack-Fuller processed applications and issued Ohio identification cards to individuals presenting Puerto Rican birth certificates and matching social Security Cards that were transported to the BMV by Ramirez-Gutierrez and/or Cheatham.
The investigation is ongoing to determine whether other parties are culpable in the conspiracy to circumvent the Department of Homeland Security's effort to identify those individuals who are in the United States illegally and to protect key points of entry.
If convicted on all counts, the maximum penalty faced by the defendants is as follows:
-Gomez: 22 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $500,000.
-Juan (Last name unknown): 22 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $500,000.
-Mendez: 22 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $500,000.
-Gutierrez-Ramirez: 22 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $500,000.
-Rosado-Rodriguez: 22 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $500,000.
-Cheatham: 20 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $500,000.
-Eckerman: 20 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $500,000.
-Mack-Fuller: 20 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $500,000.
The investigation of the case was conducted by ICE, the United States Postal Inspection Service, the Department of Labor, the Virginia Attorney General's Office, Office of Labor, Racketeering and Fraud Investigations and the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation for the United States Attorney's Office, Western District of Virginia. Assistant United States Attorney C. Patrick Hogeboom III will prosecute the case.
A Grand Jury indictment is only a charge and not evidence of guilt. The defendant is entitled to a fair trial with the burden on the government to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.