It's a sad fact that predators go to work during times of crisis -- and such was the case when, according to the county district attorney, nine local inmates made fraudulent unemployment claims, to the tune of $166,000.
It's not the first time this scam has been revealed during the pandemic, of course: In November, a California prosecutor said someone filed an unemployment claim in the name of convicted murderer Scott Peterson, a San Diego native who was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing his pregnant wife in a case that attracted national attention. His murder conviction is currently under legal review to see if he should receive a new trial.
In December, a state official said California sent about $400 million in fraudulent unemployment benefit payments to state prisoners, a number that could grow as a criminal investigation continues. Prosecutors believe tens of thousands of prisoners were involved in the scams and estimated $140 million was paid to about 20,000 prisoners between March and August. In many cases, the fraud included inmates working with people outside the prisons.
The San Diego inmates all lied about their addresses and their eligibility to receive unemployment payments, according to a news release issued Thursday by County D.A. Summer Stephan's office.
"While this [California Department of Corrections] investigation and our subsequent prosecution reveal a significant scam, we believe the amount of fraud committed by inmates in San Diego County could total as much as $5 million, and we have just begun to hold these, and other inmates, accountable for their crimes," DA Summer Stephan is quoted in part in the news release.
Stephans' office said these local fraud cases were perpetrated between June and September of last year and all involved inmates "assigned to a program in San Diego that allows qualified state prison inmates to serve the final months of their sentences in a halfway house setting."
The accused are:
- Ronald Davenport, 28
- Zachary Frost, 31
- Larry Van Johnson, 51
- Daniel Eric Kisner, 42
- Paul Ryan Owens, 41
- Louis Terrell Bannister, 31
- Erik Mikeal Nemec, 32
- Roberto Ochoa, 27
- Javion Wallace, 26
As part of its investigation, the Department of Corrections looked into inmates -- none of whom were actually employed -- who were receiving "luxury items" from Amazon and restaurant food deliveries, according to the D.A.'s office. Investigators also determined that the suspects had mobile banking apps on their cell phones which, upon examination, "revealed they each had access to large amounts of money."
All nine of the men are facing charges of conspiracy, grand theft and making false statements for unemployment benefits, and face nearly four additional years in a prison as a result.
Of the nine, eight have been arrested in connection to the case, and four of those have been sent back to Donovan state prison. Officials said arrest warrants have been issued for the remaining suspect. Four of the man have been scheduled for arraignment on May 20.
NBC 7 asked the D.A.'s office about the different situations the suspects are in:
"When the case was filed, the nine defendants were at different stages in their sentences and/or probation and/or parole status," said spokeswoman Tanya Sierra. "That’s why some were booked into county jail and some were remanded back into custody at the department of corrections. The one defendant at large, [Erik Mikeal Nemec], was/is on county probation at the time the case was filed – not a current resident of MCRP. We have been unable to locate him in San Diego. We have requested that the court issue a warrant."
The state of California paid out more than $100 billion in pandemic unemployment benefits, according to a story posted Thursday in the Sacramento Bee.