SURFSIDE, Fla. – Three people are behind bars after authorities say they preyed on the tragedy of the Surfside condo collapse, stealing victims’ identities and using their money to shop at luxury stores in South Florida.
Investigators say the suspects stole the identities of at least seven people — five who died in the June 24 collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium and two who survived.
Betsy Alejandra Cacho-Medina, 30, Kimberly Michelle Johnson, 34, and Rodney Choute, 38, were taken into custody Wednesday morning and face various charges including fraud and counterfeiting.
At a Wednesday afternoon news conference detailing the arrests, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said the suspects face 15-30 years in prison, if convicted, based on their charges.
“Cyber grave robbers moved very quickly after the collapse to grab what they could from deceased victims,” she said.
Also speaking at that news conference, Miami-Dade County Mayor Danielle Levine Cava called the crimes an “incredible exploitation of the dead from this unspeakable tragedy. ... It’s unimaginable to me and truly abhorrent.”
Detectives say the suspects obtained the names and dates of births of victims to secure fraudulent credit or debit cards — and then went on to spend thousands of dollars.
An audio clip played by Fernandez Rundle captured a woman authorities identified as Medina speaking on the phone with a credit card company and claiming to be a Ms. Ortiz who survived the condo collapse in order to get a replacement card.
Surveillance video then showed Medina at Bloomingdale’s in the Aventura Mall, purchasing about $2,500 worth of items using such a credit card, Fernandez Rundle said. The state attorney pointed out in the video that the suspect had a Versace handbag that was also alleged to have been purchased illegally.
WATCH A REPLAY OF THE NEWS CONFERENCE AND AUDIO/VIDEO SURVEILLANCE BELOW:
Fernandez Rundle said those were just a couple examples of the crimes that were carried out — other high-end shopping was done in the Design District — and she said there may be other co-conspirators. The investigation remains ongoing.
Several law enforcement agencies spent months tracking down the suspects. Authorities called them professionals, saying that pretty much nothing about them — their IDs, their car registrations, their addresses — were legitimate.
Fernandez Rundle said the trio wasted little time after the condo collapse, noting the first indication they got about the crimes was about two weeks after the tragedy.
“For a group of alleged identity thieves, it was a time to make some money, and that’s what this was about,” she said.
In addition to the seven Champlain Towers South victims they allegedly targeted, there are at least two other people unrelated to the collapse whose information was stolen, investigators said.
Bond was set at $1 million for Medina, $500,000 for Johnson, and $430,000 for Choute.
“I think you can see by the bond amounts ... we here in South Florida have sent a clear message, this will not be tolerated,” Aventura Police Chief Bryan Pegues said.
Local 10 News first reported on this scheme back in July.
“I can’t wait to put a face to these deeds right now, and I think all of South Florida is eager to see who would do something like this,” Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said at the time. “What kind of person would do something like this? ... I wouldn’t want to be that person right now.”
On Wednesday, Burkett said of the suspects: “Today they got what they deserved, and we’re all much happier for it.”
If you believe you or someone you know may be a victim of such a crime, you are urged to call a hotline set up at 786-801-6086.