“They started changing all of the bank accounts,” she said.
Nicole reported the suspicious activity to the Surfside Police Department on July 9 — the day of her sister’s funeral.
What followed was a weeks-long investigation involving several local police departments and federal agencies. Authorities say at least three defendants had stolen the identities of seven Champlain Towers South victims, including five who died in the collapse. The stolen funds — totaling $45,000 — were used to rack up numerous pricey items, including designer handbags and shoes, authorities said.
On Wednesday, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced the arrests of Betsy Alexandra Cacho Medina, 30; Rodney Choute, 38; and Kimberly Michelle Johnson, 34, who are charged with schemes to defraud and identity theft.
“These individuals appear to be very skilled identity thieves — they’re professionals,” Fernandez Rundle said at a news conference.
The state attorney called the group “cyber grave robbers” and said they quickly took advantage of the victims and their families in the midst of “absolute emotional turmoil.”
“Their motto could have been ‘Your losses, our gain,’ ” Fernandez Rundle said.
All three defendants remained in jail early Thursday. The Washington Post was unable to determine if the three have retained lawyers.
Ana Ortiz is one of 98 people who died after Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium north of Miami Beach, crumbled to the ground on June 24. Search-and-rescue crews sifted through the rubble for weeks to find and identify victims.
Within days of the collapse, Cacho Medina and her crew began their scheme, authorities said. Cacho Medina, referred to as the lead suspect, called Barclays Bank in early July posing as Ana Ortiz and requested a replacement credit card be expedited to a new address, Fernandez Rundle said.
“I was a victim of the towers that just collapsed — the Surfside — and all my belongings were in there,” Cacho Medina told the bank employee, according to an audio recording played at the news conference.
“Oh, my gosh. Sorry about that,” the employee responded.
“It’s okay,” Cacho Medina said.
The bank recounted the conversation with the Aventura Police Department in South Florida later that day.
A few days later, Nicole Ortiz notified Surfside police that since the collapse, her sister had been receiving emails regarding replacement credit card requests, multiple unauthorized wire transfers and a number of purchases, Fernandez Rundle said. Among them was a July 8 charge for $375 Versace sandals from Nordstrom in Aventura.
“Between July 7 and July 9 … there were 28 attempted transactions, including an ATM at the Aventura Mall,” Fernandez Rundle said.
The group also allegedly used Ortiz’s card at Christian Louboutin and Versace stores in Miami’s Design District. Authorities noted that Cacho Medina spent more than $1,600 on a Versace handbag, which she was later spotted holding in security footage at Bloomingdale’s, where she is accused of spending another $2,500.
Investigators soon connected the registration address for a Mercedes that Cacho Medina was allegedly spotted driving in a mall parking lot to the addresses used for the replacement credit cards.
“The apartment that was used was and has been vacant and unoccupied,” Fernandez Rundle said. “It is also alleged that it was being used as a drop-box location for these offenders whose real addresses were in completely different locations.”
Authorities said all three suspects have a track record of using fraudulent forms of identification. During the investigation, law enforcement learned that Cacho Medina, Johnson and Choute all allegedly used counterfeit Social Security cards. Johnson and Choute also allegedly used fake drivers’ licenses.
The three suspects attempted to steal another $67,000, authorities said. Other victims of the crime include Ana Ortiz’s husband, Frankie Kleiman, and condo residents Gladys and Antonio Lozano, all of whom died in the collapse. Officials did not identify the other three victims by name.
Sergio Lozano, who had dinner with his parents in their home hours before their death, told WFOR the alleged theft started on July 3, the day of his parents’ wake. He noticed Zelle transfers, a new online bank account under his mother’s name and a request for new debit cards.
“I don’t find a more despicable crime than stealing from the dead,” Lozano said.
The investigation is ongoing and other potential conspirators could be arrested soon, according to Fernandez Rundle.
“Our community has been shaken at the horror that we’ve seen with the collapse of the Chaplain Tower South condominium and now we’re also further aggravated and shocked by those who would use this tragedy … to enrich themselves,” Fernandez Rundle said. “But we will not let any of those involved in these crimes get away with them.”