Category: Media Coverage

The Miami Times: Victory against elder abuse in Shirley Gibson case

Photo: Shirley Gibson victim of elder exploitation, fraud
Three arrests were made in the case involving Shirley Gibson,
an elderly West Grove native who had an empty lot stolen from her earlier this year.

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.

This story was written by Selena Stanley for the Miami Times newspaper. 

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NBC 6: State Attorney, Miami-Dade County Mayor Intend to Launch Fraud Task Force

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. 

This story was produced by Phil Prazan for NBC 6 Miami.

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NBC 6: Arrests Made in Coconut Grove Vacant Lot Fraud Scheme

Law enforcement officers have arrested three people accused of running a scam to sell at least one vacant lot they didn’t own.

Throughout the spring, NBC 6 Investigators reported on a series of fraudulent real-estate postings that tried to sell properties out from under elderly people in Black communities.

Multiple law enforcement agencies, including the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office of Katherine Fernandez Rundle and the City of Miami Police Department, investigated a case in Coconut Grove which led to the arrests.

Miami police received more than 50 similar complaints since the beginning of 2020.

The case stems from the fraudulent sale of a vacant lot owned by Shirley Gibson in Coconut Grove. The Economic Crimes Unit within the Miami Police Department began an investigation. Law enforcement saw an increase of these scams during the pandemic as many real-estate deals came together online or remotely. 

At 2 PM Friday, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo, Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo Ramirez, the victim Shirley Gibson and her attorney David Winker will be present at the press conference. 

They will discuss “efforts to attack the problem of elder exploitation.” 

“From the moment we contacted the City of Miami police, we felt that they were on top of it. I want to thank all the law enforcement departments involved,” Gibson’s attorney, David Winker, wrote of the arrests, specifically thanking Miami police, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Assistant State Attorney Brenda Mezick, who specialized in cybercrimes.

“I’ve never spent so much time with law enforcement — they were in my home and in my office — and it was wonderful to see their work ethic and skill,” wrote Winker.

Gibson, 88, told NBC 6 earlier this spring that her plan was to pass down the lot to her niece and nephew, but someone forged her signature and sold the property without her knowledge. 

She discovered it when she went to pay taxes on the lot and was told by county staff she did not have to pay because they were already paid by the new owner, Ollie Development LLC out of New York for $230,000. Gibson was never paid and contacted a lawyer.

“For me, it’s been disturbing,” Gibson told NBC 6 at the time. “I’m just distraught over all of this.”

The deed appeared to be signed by notary Mohamed Chraibi, who told NBC 6 he is also a victim of identity theft and is cooperating with Miami PD detectives. Chraibi said his signature on the deed is a forgery along with an incorrect notary stamp. 

“I have never notarized any documents for her (Gibson) nor do I know her or have met her,” Chraibi wrote to NBC 6 at the time.

Trans-State Title Insurance Agency, LLC, is the title company that oversaw Gibson’s deal. 

The company’s president, Gary Bodzin, told NBC 6 since the pandemic began, title companies have had to rely on “signing documents with an outside notary and ship them,” adding “criminals have apparently taken advantage of this.”

In a statement, Bodzin wrote at the time, “Legally speaking, if an imposter signs a deed, the deed is void, and the owner still owns the property. If this is what happened, it would be a theft of money from the buyer, not a theft of the property from the owner.”

A season of scams 

NBC 6 Investigators began reporting on these specific crimes when a scammer tried to sell a Miami lot out from under Alfred Thomas. Miami Police Assistant Chief Armando Aguilar told us they had received more than 50 similar complaints along with Thomas’ case. 

NBC 6 Investigators found the same scammer also targeted a local real estate investor. 

Gibson said she found another lot that was listed on Zillow fraudulently. Her attorney sent a demand letter to Zillow, and the website has since removed the lot posting. 

Zillow told NBC 6 they immediately remove properties when they find out they were posted fraudulently. A spokesperson said, like other online real estate platforms, the company gets its information from the MLS real estate database. 

Winker also notified the secret service field office in Atlanta, which specializes in financial crimes.

“Ms. Gibson can now rest easy that the land that her grandfather William W. Gibson acquired in 1904 can stay in her family. Today’s arrests send a message to those that are targeting our vulnerable elderly population — you are not going to get away with it,” said Winker. 

This story was produced by Phil Prazan for NBCMiami.com.

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Local 10: Mother, son accused of exploiting elderly relative in Hialeah, leaving him penniless

Photo: Italo Nelli
Italo Nelli photo courtesy of Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation

HIALEAH, Fla. – A 19-year-old man has been arrested but his mother appears to have fled the country after the duo exploited their 93-year-old uncle from Hialeah, leaving him penniless, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office announced on Friday.

Italo Nelli was arraigned in court Friday on charges of conspiracy to commit organized scheme to defraud, (a second-degree felony,) and financial exploitation of an elderly person, (a first-degree felony.)

According to prosecutors, Nelli and his mother, Hadee Toledo, 50, used falsified documents to allegedly loot all the possessions of Toledo’s uncle and Nelli’s great uncle.

An arrest warrant has been issued for Toledo, but authorities believe she has fled the country and is currently in Spain.

Prosecutors said the victim suffered a financial loss of about $500,000, which includes the sale of his home by the suspects.

“The thief that steals from the elderly reveals a callousness buried deep in their own heart,” State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a statement. “But the relative that steals everything possible from an aged family member, they can often be snatching the person’s very will to live. I commend the detectives of the Hialeah Police Department and the prosecutors of my Elderly Exploitation Unit for their commitment to ending such despicable crimes.”

Prosecutors said the suspects took advantage of the victim after he was hospitalized in August 2020 for COVID-19.

The victim remained quarantined in a nursing and rehab center after he was released from the hospital and Toledo “allegedly forged the victim’s signature on a Power of Attorney document, which was allegedly witnessed by the great nephew, Nelli, and others, and legally notarized.”

“By allegedly utilizing the Power of Attorney document and forged Transfer of Property deeds, Toledo was able to sell the victim’s home, liquidate his bank accounts, and leave Florida,” a news release from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office read. “Nelli allegedly received $5,000 and a Mercedes-Benz from Toledo.”

Toledo is charged with the following crimes:

• Exploitation of the elderly (first-degree felony)

• Conspiracy to commit organized scheme to defraud (second-degree felony)

• Forgery (third-degree felony)

• Fraudulent use of personal identification information of a person 60 or older (second-degree felony)

This story was written by Amanda Batchelor for Local10.com. 

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NBC 6: Miami-Dade Corrections Officers Arrested in Separate Smuggling Schemes

Two Miami-Dade Corrections officers are facing charges after they were caught smuggling contraband items into the Dade Correctional Institution, authorities said Friday.

Former Dade Correctional Institution Sergeant Travis Thompson and Dade Correctional Institution Officer Gary Leon Littlejohn are accused of bringing contraband cigarettes into the state prison complex and supplying them to an inmate in exchange for cash, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a news release.

Thompson, 26, is also accused of bringing cell phone SIM cards into the prison, and Littlejohn, 35, was allegedly paid to take in a cell phone.

Fernandez Rundle said Thompson allegedly received $2,000 for his actions while Littlejohn allegedly received a $1,200 payment from an informant for his actions.

Thompson is being charged with one count of unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior, a second-degree felony, and one count of introduction into, removal or possession of, contraband in a state correctional institution, a third-degree felony.

Littlejohn is facing one count of unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior.

“Receiving contraband while in prison allows some inmates to accumulate wealth, power, and prestige among the inmate population,” Fernandez Rundle said in a statement. “This can lead to violence among the inmates and place correctional staff in danger. I commend the Miami-Dade Police Department, the investigators and prosecutors of our Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, and the Florida Department of Corrections Office of the Inspector General for aggressively pursuing this investigation.”

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WSVN: State Attorney Fernandez Rundle Declares “People Want Us to Get Gun and Killers Off Our Streets Right Now!”

Doral, Fla. (WSVN) – Miami-Dade Police have rolled out a new plan to combat an increase in violent crime in the county, as the families of loved ones injured and killed due to the violence made pleas to the community.

Operation Summer Heat, which began late Wednesday night, involves law enforcement agencies on the state, local and federal level throughout Miami-Dade County working together to get in front of the violence.

The State Attorney’s Office also plans to send their own staff to crime scenes.

“People want us to get the killers and guns off the street,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said. “People want to be safe and feel safe right now. To the people of Miami-Dade County, your message is clear. We hear you.”

Among the speakers at Thursday’s news conference was Romania Dukes, who lost her 17-year-old son, DeMichael Dukes, in a shooting. She said she has dedicated her life to working with families who are going through a similar situation.

“We all know who our killers are, and it’s up to our community to stand up,” Dukes said. “Our community needs to stand up and stand up now.”

This story was produced by WSVN-TV.

 

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NBC 6: Slain 6-Year-Old’s Family, Miami-Dade State Attorney Plead for Clues in Shooting

The family of a 6-year-old girl who was shot and killed while leaving a friend’s birthday party in January is speaking out together with the Miami-Dade State Attorney to ask for the public’s help in solving the tragedy.

Family members of Chassidy Saunders, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo held a Monday afternoon news conference to discuss the case.

“It’s hard, especially when we have our youngest son who doesn’t know anything, he misses his sister, his other half,” father Charles Saunders said. “Everyday he has to wake up, just look at his sister’s pictures, watches the videos, smile, laugh. He doesn’t see her anymore, it hurts.”

Saunders and two adults were shot back on Jan. 16 outside a home near the intersection of Northwest 6th Place and 55th Street.

The two adults survived but Saunders died from her injuries.

Grandmother Sheri Cullins said Chassidy was a “beautiful, spirited little girl.”

“Please, please come forward and let us know who did this to our baby Chassidy,” Cullins said. “It’s very hard to wake up every day knowing that Chassidy is not with us.”

No arrests have been made, but Acevedo said the shooting could be linked to gang violence.

“When someone takes a child’s life, the streets talk and it’s time for these streets to talk. We’re long overdue and I can tell you we’re not gonna give up on this case,” Acevedo said.

“We cannot allow callous young men to casually kill our children. We cannot allow them to steal our childrens’ lives and our childrens’ futures,” Fernandez Rundle said.

This story was published by NBC 6 Digital Team for NBC 6 Miami.

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WPLG 10: City employee pocketed more than $100K in licensing fees, prosecutors say

Photo: Mary Brown, Former City of Opa-locka Employee
Photo courtesy of Miami-Dade Country Corrections and Rehabilitation

OPA-LOCKA, Fla. – Officers arrested a former city of Opa-locka employee on Thursday who is accused of stealing nearly $117,000 of taxpayer’s money.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said Mary Brown found an opportunity to steal from the city as a clerk for the building and licensing office.

“She would meet with the person seeking a license. She would take the money from the person seeking the license, she would take the cash herself, and there was no record of it,” Fernandez Rundle said. “Sometimes the person would get a receipt; sometimes they wouldn’t.”

Brown, 54, who worked for the city for about six years, got away with stealing from 2016 to 2019 by failing to reference customer receipt numbers in the city’s database, according to prosecutors.

“The reason it was caught is because we got information from the city itself to come forward and say, ‘You know, you need to take a look at this! Something is going on,’” Fernandez Rundle said.

Brown allegedly deposited the stolen funds into her bank account. According to the city’s human resources department, Brown was hired on Nov. 20, 2013, she resigned on Sept. 13, 2019, and her ending salary was $41,787.20.

Records show Brown remained at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center on Thursday afternoon. She is facing charges of organized scheme to defraud, grand theft, and official misconduct of a public servant. Her bond was set at $150,000.

This story was produced by Hatzel Vela and Andrea Torres for Local10.com.

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NBC 6: Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office Launches Gas Price Gouging Hotline

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced Wednesday that Gas Price Gouging Hotline is in full operation and that her team of investigators is prepared to respond to any and all complaints of price gouging following the state of emergency declared by Governor Ron DeSantis.

“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 threatening events like the cyberattack on the fuel pipeline to take advantage of our community’s fundamental needs by unnecessarily hiking prices to outrageous levels,” said Fernandez Rundle. “Greedy actions will not be tolerated before, during, or after any event wherein a state of emergency has been declared.”

The state attorney is urging members of the community to report any suspicion of price gouging. Residents are encouraged to email their complaint and 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.

This story was published by Monica Galarza for NBC 6 South Florida

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WPLG 10: Two officers arrested for allegedly falsifying traffic tickets in Hialeah

Photo: Hialeah Cops Arrested
Hialeah Officers Armando Perez, right, and Ernesto Arias-Martinez, left, surrendered to law enforcement on Wednesday in Miami-Dade County. (MDPD)

“When police officers create false traffic tickets, as we are alleging happened here, they damage the reputation of their own department and the reputations of every police officer working to serve our Miami-Dade community,”

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle Tweet

 Who is Martcello Strovanov? Officer Ernesto Arias-Martinez reported Strovanov, who was born on Aug. 23, 1969, was driving a 2014 Ford truck with Florida tag 352TJX in Hialeah, records show.

Aurelio Echevarria, the registered owner of the truck, told officers he didn’t know Strovanov. According to Detective Paulina Whitney, Arias-Martinez issued Strovanov five citations on Feb. 21, 2020.

After an investigation stemming from similar incongruencies in traffic cases, Whitney reported the truck exists, but Strovanov doesn’t. Arias-Martinez is accused of writing fiction.

“There are no identities under that name.”

According to Hialeah Police Chief Sergio Velázquez, two of his officers, Arias-Martinez and Armando Perez, who both serve as traffic motormen in Hialeah, surrendered on Wednesday.

Arias-Martinez, 23, and Perez, 40, are facing criminal charges in Miami-Dade County for allegedly writing false tickets, according to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle,

Fernandez Rundle released a statement saying the police department deserves credit for working diligently to uncover and correct the actions.

This story was written by Andrea Torres courtesy of Local 10 (WPLG).

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