For Immediate Release: State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s Statement on Champlain South Tower Access Issues
Miami – (July 15, 2021)
Statement from State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle Regarding Champlain South Tower Access Issues
“Engineers from the federal agency National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) were deployed to Surfside with Congressional authority to gather evidence and determine how and why the Champlain South Tower collapsed.
NIST is the fact-finding agency responsible for investigating building collapses such as the World Trade Center, much like the NTSB investigates plane crashes.
To date, there have been multiple requests by engineers and attorneys to gain access to this site due to their understandable desire to move their civil court actions forward. However, we cannot forget that the scene and all the related materials are still under active investigation, preservation and examination, and as usual, law enforcement is in charge of the scene.
It is my understanding that once NIST, the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and Miami-Dade Police Departments determine that it is safe and appropriate for others to gain access to the site, they will be permitted to do so under guidelines set forth by those agencies.”
For more information, contact Terry Chavez, Public Information Officer at (305) 547-0535 or TerryGonzalez-Chavez@MiamiSAO.com.
State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle hosted anti-violence community activist Tangela Sears, numerous Miami-Dade County police chiefs and concerned residents during a virtual town hall meeting focusing on gun violence and strategic ways to work together to keep our communities safe and free of gun violence.
Miami – July 9, 2021
“With the tragic Champlain Towers condominium collapse so fresh on our minds, and with the death of so many emotionally devastating our community, I know that we all want to do everything we can to help the victims, their families and those dedicated first responders who have spent endless days sifting through the rubble hoping to find survivors.
Many will wish to make some form of charitable contribution to help these victims, many our personal friends, try to reestablish their lives. Unfortunately, even in these most devastating moments, there are some individuals who may see the kindness and generosity of our community as a potential source of easy cash by running a charitable scam.
If you receive an unsolicited call from someone claiming to be from a charity assisting the victims, do your homework before giving out your credit card number or writing a check. Consider researching a charity’s legitimacy with organizations such as Charity Navigator, Charity Watch or GuideStar.
If you are contacted by someone who you suspect is operating a charitable scam, please contact our Hotline at (305) 547-3300 so that our investigators and prosecutors can review your concerns. You may also send an email address to Hotline@miamisao.com. Complainants will receive an automatic reply that the information submitted will be reviewed. Additional information can be found on the Florida Division of Consumer Services website https://www.fdacs.gov/Divisions-Offices/Consumer-Services
With the help of our community, we can work together to make sure that everyone’s goodwill is delivered to the families affected by this tragedy.”
For further information, contact Terry Chavez, Public Information Officer at (305) 547-0535 or TerryGonzalez-Chavez@MiamiSAO.com.
For Immediate Release: State Attorney Fernandez Rundle’s Statement Regarding the Grand Jury and Champlain Towers
Miami – July 07, 2021
“As a community, we remain shaken and horrified by the immense loss of life and the sheer destruction caused by the collapse of the Champlain Towers South Condominium building.
Today, in addressing the members of the Spring Term Miami-Dade County Grand Jury, I requested, pending the conclusion of the long-term investigation that will yield the cause of the collapse, that they look into how we can prevent such a disaster from occurring again, not just in Surfside, and not just in condominiums, but in all buildings and structures in the coastal, intercoastal and surrounding areas of our county, state and nation. The members of the Grand Jury enthusiastically agreed to accept this challenge and voted in favor of conducting such an investigation.
As a cross-section of our community, our Grand Juries and their published reports have historically led the way to numerous reforms and improvements in Miami-Dade County and beyond. For example, the improvements of our building code after the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew are directly attributable to the efforts of a prior Dade County Grand Jury. As the work of the Grand Jury is confidential under Florida law, we will not be able to share with you any specifics of what they are doing. However, the results of their efforts will be presented and released at the end of their term with the issuance of their Grand Jury Report. I look forward to the Grand Jury Report’s insights, recommendations and propose solutions. I hope as a result of their work, the people of Miami-Dade will be able to rest better and sleep
soundly knowing they are safe in their homes.”
– State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle
For Immediate Release: State Attorney Fernandez Rundle’s Statement on the Champlain Towers Condominium
Miami ( June 29, 2021) – A Statement from Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle regarding the Champlain Towers Condominium.
“Few words can describe the shock and horror that the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building has evoked in all of us.
The morning that this tragic event occurred, I deployed senior prosecutors to the disaster site to collaborate with the engineers and other investigators to assist as needed. I also sent victim specialists to the site in order to be available around the clock to help the grieving friends and family members with all necessary support.
Since that time, I have visited the scene multiple times and we have continued to provide whatever help we can. Each time I have gone, I have been overwhelmed by the heroics of the first responders who have labored tirelessly to save lives.
I know from personally speaking with engineers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology that their investigation to determine exactly how and why the building collapsed will take a long time. It is painstaking and complicated work. I will not do anything to jeopardize their investigative findings which will hopefully prevent future tragedies like this from happening.
However, this is a matter of extreme public importance, and as the State Attorney elected to keep this community safe, I will not wait. My office has a long tradition of presenting more than just criminal cases to the Grand Jury. Our Grand Juries have also served as a cross-section of the community to evaluate matters of health and public safety. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, the Grand Jury issu ed a report that helped lead to better building codes. The Grand Jury has also made recommendations regarding the environmental integrity of Biscayne Bay, the financial survival of Jackson Memorial Public Hospital, and the safety of our public housing communities. To that end, I plan to request that our Grand Jury look at what steps we can take to safeguard our residents without jeopardizing any scientific, public safety, or potential criminal investigations.
Our hearts and prayers are with every victim, family member, friend and co-worker who has been affected by this tragedy. As your State Attorney, I assure you that my attorneys, staff and I are dedicated to ensuring that those who were lost will never be forgotten.”
Miami – June 28, 2021- Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has announced that her Price Gouging Hotline is operational effective immediately and her team of investigators is fully
prepared to respond to any and all complaints of price gouging as a result of the Surfside collapse. There have been complaints of possible price gouging at area hotels.
“Now that the Governor has declared a state of emergency, price gouging is a criminal offense. We are joining efforts with the Miami-Dade Police Department to combat any greedy individuals and businesses that may use unprecedented events like the Surfside tragedy to take advantage of our community’s fundamental needs by unnecessarily hiking prices to outrageous levels,” commented State Attorney Fernandez Rundle. “Greedy actions will not be tolerated before, during, or after any natural disaster.”
To report any suspicion of price gouging, and in order to accommodate as many residents as possible, we have set up an email mailbox where complaints about possible price gouging may be sent. The email address is Hotline@miamisao.com.
Complainants will receive an automatic reply that the information submitted will be reviewed. Complaints should include the business name, physical address, item(s) believed to be price gouged with photos and receipt(s) and contact information for our staff to communicate with the complainant. Residents may also call the State Attorney’s Hotline at 305-547-3300.
For further information contact Terry Chavez, Public Information Officer at (305) 547-0535 or TerryGonzalez-Chavez@MiamiSAO.com.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle declares SAO is a safe space for victims of any crime. The State Attorney shared: ” If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and you are the victim of any crime, we at the State Attorney’s Office are here for you. My office’s primary mission is to ensure that everyone receives equal justice under the law regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression.”
Log on to www.miamisao.com for more information about the Office of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
In the middle of Elder Abuse Prevention Month, three arrests have been made in connection to the real estate fraud scheme that targeted a West Grove native earlier this year, prompting commitments from elected officials to do more to protect seniors.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced the arrests of Jason Webley Sr., Otis Lahan Powell and Shantel Venissa Chang at a news conference Friday, alleging they are the individuals who attempted to steal 86-year-old Shirley Gibson’s property in early March.
As previously reported in The Miami Times, Gibson went to pay the property taxes she owed on three vacant lots in the West Grove when she discovered that taxes due on one of the properties had already been paid. Confused, she asked county staff at the tax collector’s office to explain the situation. That’s when she learned the horrifying news: Her property had been sold without her knowledge.
A quitclaim deed, bearing a signature Gibson maintains was forged, had initiated the transaction. County records showed that Ollie Development LLC, a company based in New York, had purchased Gibson’s property for $230,000. But Gibson insisted she never put the lot up for sale.
“The properties have been in the Gibson family over 100 years,” she said. “I would never sell them.”
The empty lot is located on historic Charles Avenue in west Coconut Grove. Gibson’s family were some of the original settlers of the area, after immigrating to South Florida from the Bahamas in the late 1890s.
West Grove used to be a cornerstone of South Florida’s Black immigrant community, boasting safe suburban streets and hard-working middle-class families. Urban decay and commercialization of the area in recent years have made it a community in transition. The vacant lots have become increasingly valuable to real estate developers looking to invest in up-and-coming neighborhoods.
After learning of the property theft, Gibson immediately contacted her friend and lawyer, David Winker, who helped her notify police. Her case is one of at least 50 other similar financial crimes in Miami-Dade’s historically Black neighborhoods, according to authorities.
Miami Assistant Police Chief Armando Aguilar Jr. said the pandemic has prompted real estate transactions to go virtual, making it easier for fraudsters to pose as someone else and pull off these types of schemes.
Police believe the elaborate criminal enterprise included a fraudulent deed transfer of Gibson’s property, the impersonation of a notary to officiate the documents, deceiving Trans-State Title Insurance Agency LLC – the title company that oversaw the sale – and a complicated series of deposits and wire transfers. Investigators said they followed the money, which led them to the suspects.
Webley, Powell and Chang were apprehended on June 16 and charged with several felonies, including money laundering, grand theft, organized scheme to defraud and theft from a person 65 years or older. It’s possible this was not the trio’s first offense.
“I think that when we’re looking at a crime this sophisticated and really this bold, we’re again just scratching the surface,” Aguilar said at the conference.
Gibson said she is relieved the perpetrators have been caught, and that they can’t victimize anyone else.
“I’m blessed to have such wonderful people like the entire Miami Police Department. I’m just so thankful,” she said. “They (the alleged perpetrators) are in the right place. Now I am leaving it up to God.”
Because June is Elder Abuse Awareness Month, the news conference and apprehension of the accused are all the more timely.
Florida currently ranks second in the country for elder abuse and fraud, with more than $84,000,000 lost by those over the age of 60 last year alone, according to a recent FBI report.
Fernandez Rundle said that crimes against the elderly are largely underreported, with only about 1 in 6 cases reaching the desks of law enforcement.
“Victimizing our elderly can be devastating,” she said. “Without doubt, those who exploit and prey on our elderly residents have a cold, cold heart. They deliberately inflict pain and horror on so many of our senior citizens.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava also attended the news conference, announcing alongside the state attorney that a special task force will soon be created to take on financial crimes against the elderly. She said the Miami-Dade Police Department has returned more than $1 million to elderly victims of fraud over the last year, and it’s time to step it up.
“We are going to muster our forces and work together to tackle this head-on,” Levine Cava said. “I am personally committed. Our grandparents, our elderly neighbors, they need our help.”
She added that she’s had to help her own aging parents avoid situations where they could have been targeted.
Warning signs of fraud include receiving mail addressed to someone else at your address or receiving strange phone calls. Real estate that has been inherited or paid off, as in Gibson’s case, can be particularly at risk for fraud attempts.
Fernandez Rundle recommended property owners, especially those of vacant lots, to frequently monitor the property appraiser’s website and make sure their land hasn’t been fraudulently sold.
The Florida Department of Children and Families can also investigate and report suspected elder abuse. A 24-hour statewide hotline is available to provide help in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole. That number is 800.962.2873.
The last few months have been a whirlwind for Gibson, who told The Miami Times that meditation and prayer have given her the strength to get through the ordeal. But now, she understands why this had to happen to her.
“It happened to me, and I’m glad it did because it brought elderly abuse to the forefront,” she said.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced their intention to form a task force to help raise awareness, prevent, and respond to an increase in senior real estate fraud in South Florida.
They made the announcement along with members of the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County police departments at an event highlighting the arrest of three people accused of forging documents to steal and fraudulently sell a Coconut Grove property to New York developers.
NBC 6 Investigators for months reported on the increase in real-estate crimes targeting vacant lots including 50 similar cases cited by Miami police. Florida is the second worst state for elderly fraud according to an FBI database.
“This community, we need to embrace this problem. And we need to tackle it. Without a doubt, those who exploit and prey on our elderly residents have a cold, cold, heart,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to many real-estate businesses to be conducted remotely or online. The president of the title company overseeing the Coconut Grove said criminals have taken advantage of that situation.
The victim of the scheme Shirley Gibson and her attorney David Winker spoke at the Friday press conference.
Fernandez Rundle and Levine Cava hope to work with the county clerk of courts, law enforcement, and the property appraiser to form the task force. Mayor Levine Cava wants the task force to include legal services for victims who cannot afford lawyers on their own.
Police charged Otis Lathen Powell, Shantel Vennissa Chang, and Jason Webley with money laundering, theft from a person 65 years of older, grand theft, organized scheme to defraud, conspiracy to commit organized scheme to defraud, and the fraudulent use of personal identification.
Miami police officers on the felony apprehension task force worked with US marshals to make the arrests Wednesday. Police claim the trio forged the deed, the notary stamp, and sold it to Ollie Development Group in New York for $230,000. Gibson’s lawyer says the title company overseeing the deal is also a victim in the case and has been very cooperative.
Information on the accused attorneys were not yet available Friday and are innocent until proven guilty.
Vacant lots are vulnerable because the owner often does not have a mortgage on the property so there are less hoops to jump through to fraudulently transfer the property.
“We also know that a lot more needs to be done because it involves illegally recording fraudulent paperwork,” Fernandez Rundle said.
NBC 6 Investigators first met Shirley Gibson in May when she discovered the lot was sold without her knowledge. She went to the county office to pay her taxes on it but was told the taxes were already paid by Ollie Development.
“Jesus said we should love one another. And I love them. God will do the punishment on them. He can do much more to them in a second that I could do in a lifetime,” Gibson said about the arrests.
Experts and police tell us property owners should check every quarter with the property appraisers website to make sure the paperwork is correct. Miami assistant police chief Armando Aguilar said another sign to check is if the owner is receiving mail intended for another person.
Prosecutors also displayed information on four previous arrests of people accused of elderly fraud. Only one in six cases of scams or crimes targeting seniors is reported, they say.