An Orleans Parish grand jury has indicted 10 people on racketeering charges in an identity theft and counterfeit credit card scheme involving a group of New Yorkers who received tens of thousands of dollars in allegedly fraudulent cash advances from Harrah’s New Orleans Casino.
The alleged ringleader, Jorge Cesar Mejia, 30, of the Bronx, New York, remains at large, accused of using stolen account numbers to forge credit cards used by his co-defendants during various trips to New Orleans.
The suspects used an array of different cards — containing their own names but encoded with stolen financial information — to make multiple cash advances, often over the course of several consecutive days, authorities say.
Assistant District Attorney Edward McAuliffe described the case in recent court filings as “a complex scheme” in which “multiple identity thefts, frauds, forgeries and the like have been undertaken via stolen identity information and fraudulent credit cards across many state boundaries, not simply here in Louisiana.”
At least two suspects have been arrested, and one of them, Marcos D. Herrera, pleaded guilty just six days after the July 10 indictment was handed up. Herrera, 24, was charged with using a dozen different fraudulent credit cards in late 2012 to receive more than $38,000 in cash advances at Harrah’s.
Herrera, who also is from the Bronx, was extradited from New York to Louisiana in May. He received a suspended five-year sentence and probation in exchange for his guilty plea to one count of racketeering.
Herrera was arrested in a similar investigation last year in a suburb of Cleveland — a case that was “at least in some way connected to the same group of people” charged in New Orleans, defense attorney Bradley Phillips said. In that case, a person identified as “Witness No. 3” acknowledged working for Mejia and described something of how the scheme worked, telling authorities that he drove “perpetrators to numerous casinos around the country in order to perpetuate financial fraud.”
Also among those indicted by the Orleans Parish grand jury was Jessenia Ruiz, 25, of East Elmhurst, New York, who authorities said visited Harrah’s in December 2012. She allegedly made a series of cash-advance withdrawals with credit cards that bore her name but were encoded with stolen account numbers.
“Investigators believe that the victims’ financial account numbers were re-encoded onto the magnetic strip of unknown access device cards and then imprinted” with the account number and Ruiz’s name, State Police Trooper 1st Class Russell Brue wrote in an arrest warrant.
Two of the other co-defendants, Tania Martinez and Carla Castellon, were arrested last year at Harrah’s after making similar fraudulent transactions, State Police have said. In announcing those arrests, authorities said they had identified at least 15 suspects — from two separate groups — who had committed more than $140,000 in credit-card fraud at Harrah’s.
Also named in the racketeering indictment are Milton Delacruz, 30, and Escarlett Sanchez, 33, both from the Bronx; Jennifer S. Bedoya, 25, of Corona, New York; Oscar Juiz, 30; and Yiskar Caceres, 25. Court records say the addresses of Juiz and Caceres are unknown.
Similar cash-advance schemes have happened at other casinos around the country. Federal prosecutors in Lafayette recently charged another New York man, Benfen Zhang, who pleaded guilty in May to driving three Chinese nationals to several Louisiana casinos to receive cash advances with counterfeit credit cards. Prosecutors said the men would receive the cash advances, gamble briefly and then “move to the next casino.”
Federal agents searched Zhang’s Flushing apartment and found 48 counterfeit credit cards that had been re-encoded with an account number on their magnetic strips that did not match the 16-digit account numbers embossed on the card.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian .