Friday, February 18, 2005 · Last updated 5:02 p.m. PT
Members of family arrested in wide-ranging identity theft probe
VANCOUVER, Wash. -- Four people accused of buying millions of dollars worth of real estate and cars in an identity theft scam that victimized Jehovah's Witnesses and the elderly have been jailed in California, authorities say.
Mildreada Andrews, 45; her daughter, Melanie Marie Andrews, 22; her son, Michael Lee Andrews, 24; and her daughter-in-law, Isis Andrews, 19, were arrested in the past week, 18 months after they fled Clark County, said Bill Hanley, a Palm Springs, Calif., police detective.
Investigators believe they were stealing identities to use in getting health care jobs, possibly to steal the identities of patients, Hanley told The Columbian of Vancouver.
Family members used their intelligence, charm and religious connections to defraud hundreds of people through complex schemes in Washington and other states over a period of years, said Vancouver police Detective Edward L. Hewitt. They even had a "fictitious but usable" birth certificate in Spanish to show the mother's Cuban heritage, he said.
"With them being bilingual, they are very charming and persuasive, then they have the church attachment to give them some credibility," Hewitt said. "They're running the typical confidence scam."
It's hard to estimate the amount of money stolen, he said. Homes worth $3.4 million were involved in the metropolitan area of Vancouver and Portland, Ore., he said, although the amounts lost are difficult to determine because of complex mortgage transactions. Cars worth $90,000 were recovered in Vancouver, he said.
Three of the four were held Friday at the Riverside County Jail in Riverside, Calif. Melanie Andrews was charged with identity theft, forgery and perjury. Isis Andrews was charged with identity theft; Michael Lee Andrews was held on a fugitive warrant from another state. It was not immediately clear where Mildreada Andrews was Friday.
"I'm elated," Hewitt said. "These people were real manipulators."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle refused to confirm or deny reports of a federal investigation.
Hewitt said the family moved to the area in 2001 or 2002, used a number of aliases and contacted some victims through Jehovah's Witnesses, then fled after the son and daughter were arrested in 2003.
The matriarch, who has a 57-page criminal history, posed as a tax preparer to get Social Security numbers of church members and their children, and investigators believe she may have falsified tax returns to get refunds for her clients, police said.
Some or all of the refunds were deposited electronically in a bank account she controlled, Hewitt said.
Stolen Social Security numbers, meanwhile, were used to produce fake income tax returns, W-2 forms and pay stubs that were used to borrow money for the purchase of 13 area homes worth an estimated $3.4 million and at least eight new cars, he said.
The family took out second mortgages on the homes, converted garages into apartments and contracted to provide care for elderly people who were housed in the converted garages, he said.
The Andrews clan hired illegal immigrants and others to provide that care, family members dispensed drugs and performed other services without the required licenses, and the group stole credit cards, cash and the identities of the elderly clients, Hewitt said.
He said the women worked in dialysis clinics in the metropolitan area of Vancouver and Portland, Ore., representing themselves as licensed practical nurses or registered nurses, then would leave the jobs when they were required to produce their credentials.
Hewitt said state agencies in Oregon and Washington that regulate adult day care homes are investigating.
"It was nonstop criminal activity," Hewitt said. "The fallout will continue for years to come."
He said the theft of children's Social Security numbers may not become apparent until years from now, when a young person tries to buy something and finds that his or her credit has already been destroyed.
Family members used their proceeds for expensive furniture such as leather couches, top-quality clothing, and electronics items, Hewitt said.
Hewitt said the operation began to unravel when a Columbia Credit Union credit investigator became suspicious about four car loan applications from family members.
In September 2003, police arrested Miguel D. Hernandez, also known as Michael Andrews, and his sister, Melania R. Hernandez, also known as Melanie Andrews, for investigation of identity theft, first-degree theft and possession of stolen property.
Two days later, authorities believe, the pair persuaded a member of their church to put up his house as bail and fled.