PROVIDENCE — Three out-of-state men pleaded guilty Tuesday in US District Court to being involved in a “grandparent scheme” that netted more than $350,000 from elderly Rhode Islanders.
Over just a few days in June 2021, a man from the Bronx, N.Y., and two men from Union City, N.J., spread out into different towns throughout Rhode Island, to collect thousands of dollars from people who were convinced their grandchildren were in trouble.
While two of the men initially told US District Court Judge William Smith Tuesday that they didn’t know the extent of the conspiracy, it was all a lie, the men admitted. All pleaded guilty to being willfully and intentionally “blind” to what was going on. Each will be sentenced Oct. 11.
The scheme started with phone calls to elderly residents and the pretense that the person calling was a grandchild, or a lawyer, or another person, with claims that the grandchild had been in a car accident, or had been arrested, and needed cash for bail and legal fees. The calls kept coming, with instructions to give the money to a courier, or mail it to an address in Florida, or transfer the money to an account in the Dominican Republic.
Then, the “couriers” went out, arriving on the doorsteps of people in Barrington, Cranston, Coventry, Cumberland, East Providence, Hopkinton, Johnston, Smithfield, and Warwick, collecting $6,000 to $99,225 in cash from each person, according to Assistant US Attorney William Ferland.
The conspirators would have gotten more, except for a relative who chased down one of the men who tried collecting $9,500 cash from a grandparent.
Jason Hatcher, 40, of the Bronx, pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. He was accused of collecting money from people in Hopkinton, Smithfield, Cranston, Cumberland, and Warwick from June 1 to June 11, then taking his share of the cash and meeting with “others” to distribute the money.
Hatcher “willfully and intentionally ‘remained blind’ as to the method the conspiracy was employing to cause the elderly victims to provide the cash, but generally understood the nature of the conspiracy,” the plea agreement said.
Under the agreement, the prosecutors and defense are recommending nine months to serve on the conspiracy charge, less than the 20-year maximum, and two years on the identity theft charge.
Diego A. Alarcon, 22, of Union City, N.J., pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Under the plea agreement, he would serve between two years and 33 months in federal prison.
Alarcon was accused of picking up cash from residents in Coventry, East Providence, Warwick, Smithfield, Johnston, and Barrington, between June 7 and June 11.
Alarcon told the judge that he didn’t keep any of the money for himself, but just distributed it; Ferland agreed to remove that allegation.
Alarcon then said he didn’t know he was picking up cash, because he thought he was just a private courier. After a conference with his lawyer, Melissa Larsen, Alarcon agreed with the judge that he knew something illegal was going on.
Bryan Valdez-Espinosa, 21, a citizen of the Dominican Republic who lives in Union City, N.J., also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The plea agreement recommends that he serve between a year and 33 months.
Valdez-Espinosa also arrived in Rhode Island on June 7 to work through June 11 collecting money, according to the US Attorney’s office. However, he was chased away when he went to pick up from a grandmother on Henry Street in Cranston.
Valdez-Espinosa also said that he didn’t know the extent of the conspiracy. “I went to the place... I heard everything with other people going on,” he told the judge.
After a private conference with public defender Kevin Fitzgerald, Valdez-Espinosa admitted that he was “knowingly” involved with the conspiracy.
Hatcher, Alarcon and Valdez-Espinosa were charged as part of a US Department of Homeland Security investigation.