February 21

Unjustly Accused: The waking nightmare of identity theft

Life was going well for UPS driver Carlos Gomez and his family until he was wrongfully arrested for money laundering.

By Jay Weaver
The Miami Herald

MIAMI — Fighting a bad cold, Carlos Gomez had decided to sleep by himself that night so he wouldn’t expose his wife.

click image to enlarge

Carlos M. Gomez looks over documents in his Kendall, Fla., home Jan. 30. He was wrongfully arrested in 2011 and accused of laundering Wachovia bank costumers’ money through an account bearing his name. A bank employee had created the false account.

Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/McClatchy Newspapers

He awoke to a nightmare. Just before dawn, insistent pounding on the front door jolted the ex-Marine and young father out of bed. Federal agents poured into his Kendall home, pushing his wife aside and rushing to his bedroom. They held guns to his face before slapping him in handcuffs.

“I kept asking, ‘What is going on?’ ” recalled Gomez, who works as a driver for UPS. “I was scared for my life.”

Gomez, busted in a money-laundering scheme, would spend nearly two weeks in a federal detention center and another seven months under house arrest.

It took 222 days before federal prosecutors realized it was all a terrible mistake: A rogue bank worker had stolen his identity.

Thanks in part to Gomez’s own sleuthing, prosecutors eventually discovered he had been wrongfully charged. The Wachovia Bank employee had stolen $1.1 million from customers, then swiped Gomez’s identity to create a checking account under the pilfered name to launder portions of the embezzled proceeds.

Now, nearly three years after the ordeal, Gomez is suing Wachovia for “malicious prosecution.”

Gomez was among 13 co-conspirators named in a 2010 indictment, a list that included the shady banker’s own grandmother. He was charged with participating in a money-laundering conspiracy and structuring withdrawals from his checking account in 2006 to avoid detection by bank regulators – offenses that carried up to 20 years in prison.

PRESUMED GUILTY

But Gomez, whose federal case was built on information mainly provided by the bank to federal authorities, refused to acknowledge a crime he did not commit.

“They say you’re innocent until proven guilty,” said Gomez, 36, a U.S. citizen who was born in Colombia. “In this case, I was guilty until I proved my own innocence.”

Gomez’s criminal defense attorney, Joel DeFabio, said he and his client had to persuade the U.S. attorney’s office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to acknowledge that they had the wrong guy –an admission that rarely happens in federal court.

“We never gave up, we never stopped fighting, we never stopped believing, and we told the United States government we were going all the way to trial unless they realized the mistake they had made,” DeFabio said. “And it worked.”

The U.S. attorney’s office and ICE declined comment.

Gomez’s civil lawyers, Jermaine Lee and Eric Hernandez, claim in a lawsuit filed in September in federal court that Wachovia officials were reckless when they failed to protect Gomez’s “confidential” account and to provide “accurate” information about him to federal authorities.

In a key ruling last month, U.S. District William Dimitrouleas rejected the bank’s bid to throw out the civil case, saying Gomez had “sufficiently alleged” that Wachovia violated its “fiduciary duty” to him by allowing an employee and others “to misuse his private and confidential information to launder monies.” As a result, Gomez’s case is headed for mediation and, if still unresolved, trial.

Before his Kafkaesque journey through the U.S. criminal justice system, Gomez was a typical young immigrant trying to work his way into a better life.

He dutifully opened his first bank account after he graduated from high school in Stamford, Conn., where he spent his teenage years. It was with First Union, which would later be acquired by Wachovia. He kept the account active until he joined the Marine Corps in 1997.

After a four-year stint in California, he moved to Miami to live with his mother, attending Miami-Dade College and getting a part-time job as a driver for UPS. In 2001, he reactivated his First Union account but then permanently closed it and switched to Washington Mutual.

(Continued on page 2)

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