Florida 'cyber grave robbers' charged with condo collapse ID theft

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: A man places flowers on a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Surfside's Champlain Towers South condominium collapse in Miami, Florida

By Tyler Clifford

(Reuters) -A man and two women were arrested and charged with stealing the identities of seven victims of the Surfside condominium collapse near Miami Beach this summer and attempting to obtain credit cards in their names, a Florida prosecutor said on Wednesday.

Betsy Alejandra Cacho-Medina, 30, Kimberly Michelle Johnson, 34, and Rodney Choute, 38, face multiple counts of identity theft and fraud, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said at a news conference.

"Cyber grave robbers did move very quickly after the collapse to grab what they could while family and friends were in absolute emotional turmoil," she said.

The suspects are accused of taking the personal identification of five people who died or two who survived the collapse of the Champlain Towers South tower in June.

That information was later used to obtain credit cards and make fraudulent transactions valued at up to $50,000. The alleged scheme involved the use of vacant residences as drop-off boxes for the delivery of the victims' credit cards.

"This investigation has also shown that these individuals appeared to be very skilled identity thieves and professionals. Except for their names, almost nothing else about seemed to be true," she said.

The investigation, which involves local law enforcement, U.S. Marshals, U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Postal Inspection Service, is still ongoing. More victims and suspects could emerge, Fernandez Rundle said.

Investigators allege that the fraud scheme began in early July when the suspects made calls to financial institutions claiming to be deceased victims to request replacement credit cards. The husband's identity of a deceased victim was also targeted in the crime, according to Fernandez Rundle.

Bond has been set at $1 million for Cacho-Medina. Johnson is being held on $500,000 bond and a $430,000 bond has been placed on Choute.

Nearly 100 people were killed when the 12-story residential building came down early in the morning of June 24. It took more than a month for search crews to recover and identify the remains of all individuals who were trapped in the rubble.

Of the 98 people killed in the collapse, all but one of them died at the scene.

The cause of its collapse remains undetermined. A 2018 engineering report found the edifice had deficiencies that are now at the focus of multiple inquiries, including a grand jury probe.

In response, officials in South Florida began to study residential buildings for signs of poor construction or structural weaknesses.

(Reporting by Tyler Clifford in New York; Editing by Chris Reese and David Gregorio)

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