Thousands of illegal immigrants obtained Missouri driver’s licenses

Thousands of illegal immigrants living across the United States used fraudulent paperwork to obtain Missouri driver’s licenses in St. Joseph, federal authorities said Wednesday.

A federal grand jury in Kansas City indicted 14 defendants, including six members of a St. Joseph family, for participation in the conspiracy, which allegedly allowed more than 3,500 illegal immigrants to obtain Missouri driver’s licenses and other state identification documents.

Prosecutors allege that defendants made more than $5.2 million in fees charged to illegal immigrants since November 2009, when the defendants allegedly started the conspiracy.

“Those who profited from this illegal scheme will be held accountable,” Beth Phillips, U.S. attorney for western Missouri, said in a written statement.

Authorities intend to track down and deport those who obtained the fraudulent licenses or documents. They plan to consider criminal charges against each on a case-by-case basis.

The 40-count indictment, filed under seal Tuesday, was made public Wednesday after authorities arrested 13 of the 14 alleged conspirators.

The St. Joseph residents charged were Deborah J. Flores, 46; her sister, Sherri E. Gutierrez, 45; and Flores’ children, Stephen Eugene Vanvacter, 24; Sara M. Gonzalez, 20; Christina Michelle Gonzalez, 23; and Jessica Mercedes Gonzalez, 21.

Flores and Vanvacter own a used car business in St. Joseph, A to Z Auto Credit, according to federal prosecutors.

Also charged were three residents of Carthage, Mo.: Elder Enrique Ordonez-Chanas, 30; Nelson Dariseo Bautista-Orozco, 26; and Ranfe Adaias Hernandez-Flores, 22. Other defendants lived in Chicago, Texas and North Carolina.

According to the indictment, customers of the scheme were recruited from around the country. Each customer paid $1,500 to $1,600 and received a birth certificate and Social Security number in the names of other people. Those documents typically came from conspirators in Texas who bought them from people willing to sell their documents, according to the allegations.

Those documents, along with Missouri residential addresses provided by the defendants, were used to obtain driver’s licenses or other state identification cards from the Missouri Department of Revenue license office in St. Joseph.

The St. Joseph-based defendants accompanied the illegal immigrants to the license office, often posing as translators, to help them with the process, according to the indictment.

The immigrants were coached on how to answer questions from license office employees and were instructed to memorize information on the Social Security and birth certificate documents. They were also told to practice writing signatures to match those on the documents, according to the allegations.

Charges filed include conspiracy, transporting illegal aliens, unlawfully producing identification documents, unlawfully transferring another person’s identification, Social Security fraud and aggravated identity theft.

Federal prosecutors said the indictment does not allege wrongdoing against any fee office worker.

Multiple local, state and federal law enforcement agencies participated in the investigation. Officials did not say how it began.

“The individuals involved in this conspiracy orchestrated an extensive identity fraud scheme on a grand scale,” Gary Hartwig, head of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations office in Chicago, said in a written statement.

Identity and document fraud poses a threat to public safety and national security, Hartwig said, calling it a “burgeoning problem” in the United States.

While the defendants in the Missouri case were being rounded up Wednesday, officials in Washington announced charges against 50 people in a similar but unrelated identity fraud case centered in Puerto Rico.

Like the Missouri case, that conspiracy allegedly was nationwide in scope and involved the sale of Social Security cards and birth certificates by suppliers in Puerto Rico to brokers in 15 states, including Nebraska.