Asylum Seekers Extorted
“They would put people in the taxis and drive for hours—they would drive through Pennsylvania before going to Connecticut—and relatives were told they had to pay for that taxi fare,” said FBI Special Agent Jennifer Wagner, who investigated this case from the New Haven Field Office. She said people were forced to borrow money from neighbors and friends or go with the criminals to an ATM to get enough money to pay for the safe return of the victim.
“The fact that they were knocking on the doors of neighbors late at night shows how afraid these family members were for the victims,” stressed Richards.
The court paperwork told the chilling story of one woman from Honduras who, with her two small children, entered the U.S. at the Texas border and applied for asylum. Immigration authorities gave her permission to travel to Connecticut to stay with her sister until her asylum hearing.
When she arrived in New York City to board a connecting bus to Connecticut, Bentancourt approached her and insisted there was no bus to Connecticut, but that he would help her. He then took her bus ticket, grabbed the arm of her small son, and asked for the phone number of a family member.
Betancourt called the victim’s sister and said the victim and her children had ended up in upstate New York, not New York City, and no bus to Connecticut was available. He would put them in a taxi for about $3 per mile, he told the sister. The victim’s sister explained that she didn’t have money for a taxi ride. She pleaded with Betancourt to tell her where her sister and the children were so she could drive to get them. Betancourt hung up on her.
The victim and her children were then brought by subway to Hernandez’s waiting car. Hernandez took the woman’s immigration paperwork and identification and drove the family slowly to Connecticut. He ultimately demanded $900 from the victims’ family members to drop her at an agreed upon meeting place.
After the family was only able to pay him $700, Hernandez locked himself inside the car with the victim’s older child and insisted the family pay another $100 to free the child and reclaim the victim’s immigration paperwork. The family was forced to go with Hernandez to an ATM to withdraw the additional $100.
Despite their fears about speaking to FBI agents about what they had been through, a number of victims provided details and identified the perpetrators. Wagner said that cell phone data was also instrumental in proving the case. After applying for warrants to view the suspects’ cell phone records, investigators could see an incriminating pattern of regular calls and text messages among the co-conspirators and then a cluster of phone calls to their victims’ family members on a single day.
Additional evidence, such as surveillance photos from ATMs and banks, helped solidify the case.
Richards said the long sentences the perpetrators received reflect the seriousness of their crimes and the length of time they had been victimizing people.
“It is important for everyone to know that law enforcement is looking after you regardless of your immigration status,” said Wagner. “Something will be done to the people who break the law.”