It isn’t often that the Walt Disney Co. helps nab a group of fugitives wanted in New Orleans.
But it turns out the castaways whom a Disney cruise ship found bobbing in the waters between Florida and Cuba recently were in a hurry to leave the United States for good reason.
All are Cuban nationals, living in the United States, who were arrested last year near Harahan and accused of stealing credit card numbers.
Authorities said they bolted after posting bond and then capsized in a boat while trying to reach Cuba, which typically does not turn over fugitives wanted in the U.S.
Luis Rivera Garcia, 26; Juliet Estrada Perez, 23; and Jesus Enrique Gonzalez Torres, 23, were among six people arrested by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office in early August shortly after a cashier examining the gas pumps at the Danny & Clyde’s store at 5861 Citrus Blvd. discovered two so-called “skimming” devices.
Investigators said the six, who came from south Florida, had encoded stolen credit-card numbers onto counterfeit gift and prepaid debit cards before their arrest.
A federal grand jury in New Orleans indicted the accused ring members on credit card fraud charges. Rivera and Estrada posted bonds of $25,000 and $50,000, respectively, for their release from jail in late October. Gonzalez was released in early November after posting a $25,000 bond.
All three were permitted to travel in and around the New Orleans area as well as in south Florida. Their trial was tentatively set for May 31.
On April 18, police in Fort Myers, Florida, jailed Rivera and Estrada for possession of several more stolen credit cards. They posted bail there as well.
Then, about 11:30 a.m. Thursday, the crew of the Disney Fantasy cruise ship spotted Rivera, Estrada and Gonzalez clinging to the side of a capsized boat about 40 miles north of Varadero, Cuba, a popular resort town.
The Fantasy picked them up and turned them over to the U.S. Coast Guard. Using fingerprints, the Coast Guard discovered that Rivera and Estrada were wanted on arrest warrants issued by New Orleans’ federal court accusing them of violating the terms of their supervised release because of their arrests in Fort Myers.
The Coast Guard handed the three over to U.S. marshals in Key West, Florida, and they were scheduled to appear in federal court there Monday.
The New Orleans court has since issued an arrest warrant for Gonzalez accusing him of violating his supervised release terms by being found off the coast of Cuba.
According to a 2015 investigation by Florida’s Sun Sentinel newspaper, it has become relatively common for groups of Cubans specializing in crimes such as credit-card fraud in the U.S. to flee to Cuba because of that country’s policy against extraditing its nationals to American authorities.
Credit-card fraud schemes like the one Rivera, Estrada and Gonzalez were charged with committing have cheated big-box retailers “out of millions of dollars,” the Sun Sentinel reported.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect that none of Danny & Clyde’s customers’ credit-card numbers were stolen before Rivera, Estrada and Gonzalez were arrested. It was also updated to better describe the waters from which Rivera, Estada and Gonzalez were recently rescued.