Three in Montgomery accused of swindling immigrants

By Matt Zapotosky and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 30, 2010

To some undocumented immigrants in Montgomery County, Erlinda Sandra Marin was a friendly neighborhood doctor who, for a fee, could help them on the path to citizenship. They might have to kick in a little cash to her daughter (who did the fingerprint work) and another person (an immigration agent), but when all was said and done, Marin promised to deliver the legal paperwork they needed to live in the United States.

Problem was, she never did, according to police. Authorities say she and her accomplices bilked at least five immigrants out of nearly $100,000, and there could be many more victims.

On Wednesday, Marin, 52, who police say is not a licensed doctor, was arrested and charged with theft, running a theft scheme and practicing medicine without a license, court records show. Her daughter, Sandra Marin Rivera, 25, and the man accused of posing as an immigration agent, Robert Fred Mejia, 28, were charged with similar offenses in connection with the scheme, which ran from about 2006 to last year, court records show.

Mejia lives in Germantown and Rivera and Marin at separate residences in Gaithersburg. None could be reached for comment Thursday. A man who answered a phone listed in Mejia's name hung up on a reporter, and no one answered repeated calls at the homes of Rivera and Marin.

Mejia and Marin remain jailed on $200,000 bond; Rivera has been released after posting a preliminary bond. Prosecutor Stephen Chaikin told Montgomery District Court Judge Patricia Mitchell that the suspects stole from as many as 400 people and that more than $1 million may be involved.

"This is an organized theft scheme, with elements of extortion, targeting vulnerable victims who needed medical care and victims who were interested in obtaining citizenship," Chaikin said in court Thursday, according to a copy of his remarks.

In court, the prosecutor also highlighted the results of search warrants at Mejia's home: shirts and hats labeled with "ICE," which stands for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They also found a "U.S. Immigration officer" decal and an "ICE Special Agent" badge, Chaikin said.

At Marin's home, Chaikin said in court, detectives found boxes of medical records and immigration forms. At Rivera's home, detectives found a CD with the names of nearly 400 people who might have gotten caught up in the scheme, Chaikin told the judge.

Police were tipped off by a staff member at Catholic Charities, which provides social services in Montgomery.

The staffer, who works closely with immigrants, told an officer that a woman who did not have a medical license was providing physical therapy, medicine and general treatment for immigrants with health problems and that she was offering citizenship in exchange for cash.

The victims, four of whom are from Guatemala and one from El Salvador, provided similar stories to investigators. They met Marin first for medical treatment out of her Gaithersburg home. Marin told them that for a large fee -- always more than $10,000, once as much as $27,000 -- she could help them obtain legal documentation to stay in the country and she could help them move their families to the United States legally, prosecutors said. Cpl. Dan Friz, a police spokesman, said investigators encourage others who might have been victimized to contact police at 240-773-8477. He said local officers are not interested in investigating victims' immigration status.

"That is not our goal. What we want folks to be able to do is come forward and get their crime reported without that fear that they're going to be investigated for that," he said. "Regardless of their status in the country, they're still victims of crimes."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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