BY DAVID OVALLE | Miami Herald
The heartless crime, police say, became clear when angry crowds on three separate days gathered outside Isla Express wire service during last year’s holiday season:
They wanted to know where tens of thousands of dollars destined for family members in Cuba had gone.
One year later, authorities said Thursday, two of Isla’s three operators were jailed on charges of illegal money transfers. One has vanished.
The money disappeared, too.
“These people were waiting for food and medicine,” Hialeah Police Chief Mark Overton said of the victims in Cuba.
Investigators say Isla Express scammed at least 502 customers of some $189,000 in late 2007, taking their money but never delivering the funds to family in Cuba.
Norberto Alzar surrendered Thursday. Eiler Rubio was arrested Wednesday. Prudencio Garcia Leon is a fugitive believed to be in Cuba.
Each is charged with operating an unauthorized currency transmitting business. Grand-theft charges have not been brought because investigators cannot go to the Communist island to prove the money was not delivered.
“Although we may have hundreds of potential victims, we can only prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, these particular charges,” explained Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle.
In 2004, the Bush administration limited remittances to $300 per household in any three-month span, making each dollar bound for the island that much more valuable.
Isla Express typically charged a commission of 20 to 24 percent of the amount sent. But it didn’t even have legal authority to wire money to Cuba.
In July 2006, previous owner Carlos Ojeda sold the business to Alzar, who ran the company for about 10 months. Still, no one ever complained until late 2007, said Wendy De Souza, of the state’s Bureau of Financial Investigations.
That’s when customers’ families in Cuba stopped receiving their money.
The police investigation began Dec. 26, 2007, when Hialeah Detective Yunior Pineiro was called to a crowd of about 40 angry customers at a strip mall at 4040 W. 12th Ave.
One by one, watched by officers, customers complained. A manager wrote each name down and promised the money would be returned the next day.
“They were persistent. They wanted their money to be there,” Pineiro said.
No money was ever returned. The next day, another large crowd returned. So did Pineiro, who found the business computers had been removed.
Pineiro, De Souza and Miami-Dade prosecutor Sophiea Bailey worked for nearly a year, taking statements from hundreds of victims and poring over records. They think there are more victims.
“A lot of people were afraid to come forward because it’s illegal to send money to Cuba over a certain amount,” Pineiro said.
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