Category: Media Coverage

AP: 3 arrests made in condo collapse victim ID thefts

Photo: AP Champlain Tower Press Conference ID Theft
(AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Three people have been arrested for stealing the identities of some victims in June’s deadly South Florida condominium building collapse, prosecutors announced Wednesday.

Betsy Alexandra Cacho Medina, 30, Rodney Choute, 38, and Kimberly Michelle Johnson, 34, were arrested earlier Wednesday on multiple charges related to fraud and counterfeiting, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office announced during a news conference.

Officials have identified at least five deceased and two living victims from the building, but the investigation continues and additional victims could be found, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.

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This story was published by the Associated Press. 

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WSVN 7: Fourth suspect arrested in identity theft scheme targeting Surfside collapse victims

Photo: Champlain Towers ID Theft Face Board
Courtesy of the Office of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle

WSVN Channel 7 recently covered the State Attorney’s recent press conference announcing the arrests made in the identity theft cases which targeted victims in the collapse of the Champlain Tower
South Condominium.

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Miami Herald: Three suspects arrested in Champlain Towers South identity theft cases

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CBS 4: Miami-Dade State Attorney Fernandez Rundle Press Conference on Identity Theft Arrests

Photo: Champlain Press Conference

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle held a press conference announcing arrests made in the identity theft cases which targeted victims of collapse of the Champlain Tower South Condominium.

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NBC 6: Brother of NFL Player Among Arrests Made in 2016 Shooting Death of FIU Student

Police have arrested and charged two men in the December 2016 murder of a Florida International University student.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office charged 25-year-old Donterio Fowler and 23-year-old Keondre Fields with first degree murder in the death of 21-year-old Michael Zaldua. Both were arrested Monday in Pinellas County.

Fowler is the brother of Atlanta Falcons defensive end Dante Fowler, who played college football at the University of Florida and grew up in St. Petersburg.

A lawyer for Fowler, Michael Grieco, said his client “has committed no crime” and that he intends to seek his release on bail. It wasn’t clear Tuesday if Fields has a lawyer.

Zaldua, a student at FIU and a freelance photographer, was shot and killed in a parking garage connected to the 4th Street Commons apartment complex just blocks from campus.

“It’s just scary to see that someone can easily get shot. I go to the same school as he,” neighbor and student Alexis Agusto said at the time of the shooting.

Zaldua was killed on the 3rd floor of the garage and detectives found a lot of cash in the victim’s car, officials said.

“When a loved one is killed and there is no arrest, the family tragedy only deepens as time passes and questions remain unanswered,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.

Investigators also found several large Ziploc bags in Zaldua’s car containing marijuana and a small baggie of suspected cocaine.

“This case is another example that the tireless and determined work of the Miami-Dade Police Department Homicide Bureau and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office is constant,” said Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez III. “Loved ones deserve to know and deserve proper closure.”

This content was produced by NBC6 and the Associated Press.

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Local 10: 2 men arrested in connection with 2016 fatal shooting of FIU student

Photo: Arrested in Connection with Fatal Shooting of FIU Student
From left: Doneterio Rashad Fowler and Keondre Quamar Fields. (Pinellas County Sheriff's Office)

Sweetwater, Fla. – Two men have been arrested and face first-degree murder charges in connection with the fatal shooting of Florida International University honor student and freelance photographer Michael Zaldua.

Zaldua, 21, was fatally shot on Dec. 2, 2016, in an off-campus parking garage that is connected to the Fourth Street Commons apartment complex in Sweetwater.

Neighbors described him to Local 10 News as kind and courteous.

On Tuesday, the office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle confirmed that Doneterio Rashad Fowler, 25, of Pinellas Park, and Keondre Quamar Fields, of St. Petersburg, had been arrested in Pinellas County in connection with the murder.

Fowler is the brother of Atlanta Falcons defensive end Dante Fowler, who played college football at the University of Florida.

According to prosecutors, Doneterio Fowler and Fields were also attending school in Miami-Dade County like Zaldua at the time of the killing.

Prosecutors said investigators found cash scattered around the victim’s body at the scene and also found a loaded Glock magazine near the victim’s body and a gun inside of his jacket pocket.

A large amount of blood was also at the crime scene, which a vehicle had driven through, leaving behind a clear tire impression, prosecutors said.

Police searched Zaldua’s car and said they found several large-size Ziploc bags containing suspected marijuana and a small bag of suspected cocaine.

Prosecutors didn’t confirm whether Zaldua’s murder was a drug deal gone bad, but said additional evidence was gathered after the killing which led them to charge Fowler and Fields with murder.

“When a loved one is killed and there is no arrest, the family tragedy only deepens as time passes and questions remain unanswered,” Fernandez Rundle said in a statement. “Hopefully, the arrests of the alleged perpetrators of this homicide will provide some solace to Michael Zaldua’s family in the knowledge that the Miami-Dade Police Department and my prosecutors never stopped searching for those responsible for his death.”

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Miami Herald: Driver is charged in hit-and-run crash that killed 14-year-old bicyclist in Bal Harbour

A Miami man accused of killing a 14-year-old bicyclist in Bal Harbour last year in a hit-and-run incident is behind bars, according to Miami-Dade police.

David Plazas, 26, who has been in jail since Thursday on unrelated charges, now faces a charge of leaving the scene of an accident with a death.

He was being held Tuesday in Miami-Dade’s Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center with no bond from the original charges. A judge on Tuesday ordered that he be held on a $2 million bond for the charge relating to the accident, Miami Herald news partner CBS4 reported.

“The arrest of David Plazas as the alleged driver, in the August 22, 2020 hit-and run death of 14-year-old bicyclist Ethan Gordon, is only a start of a difficult emotional journey for the family of this promising young man,” State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a statement Tuesday. “In such tragedies, where victims are left abandoned on the side of the road as if their lives did not matter, the families suffer almost unendingly until the case is finally resolved.”

Ethan Gordon was crossing Collins Avenue at the 10200 block on his bicycle at around 6 p.m. Aug. 22 when he was hit by a 2018 silver KIA Optima that was traveling northbound on Collins Avenue. The teen was thrown from the bike and landed in the street, police said. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died.

Instead of stopping, police say Plazas continued north, made a U-turn, passed by the scene and then drove away. Several witnesses to the crash followed the car and got a tag number, police said.

Shortly after the crash, police said they were looking for Luisa Fernanda Ahearn, 24, who detectives said may have been involved. Police later said they were no longer looking for her and that her attorney had been in contact with detectives.

According to Plazas’ arrest report, a woman in the passenger’s seat — only identified in the report as witness No. 1 — borrowed the Kia from her roommate. Police did not say whether the witness was Ahearn.

Using the tag number, police traced down the owner of the car. The day after the crash, the owner, whom police did not identify, told detectives that his roommate called him and said the car had been in a crash “where the Kia had struck a person,” an officer wrote in the report. The owner named Plazas as the driver and handed over his phone number, police said.

Plazas has a series of open criminal cases in Miami-Dade.

Earlier this month, he was arrested and charged with domestic battery strangulation, and kidnapping, in two separate cases. In May, he was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance.

In all of those cases, he is awaiting trial.

This story was written by Carli Terproff for the Miami Herald.

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CBS 4: Bond Set at $2 Million For Driver David Plazas Accused In Deadly Bal Harbour Hit & Run

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – A man accused in a deadly hit and run crash in Bal Harbour nearly a year ago appeared before a judge Tuesday morning.

David Plazas was charged with leaving the scene of a crime involving a death after he reportedly struck and killed 14-year-old Ethan Gordon, who was riding a bike, on August 22nd, 2020.

“No family should ever have to endure the death of a loved one, much less a young child who had the whole world ahead of him. Ethan was a wonderful child,” said Barry Wax, an attorney for the Gordon family.

Plazas is being held on a two million dollar bond. If he posts bail, he will be placed on house arrest. He’s been ordered to have no contact with Gordon’s family.

This story was produced by the Team.

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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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