SALT LAKE CITY — Roberto Salgado sat in the back row of the courtroom, his victim impact statement and other court papers in a plastic grocery bag, fiddling with an audio translation device while waiting for justice.
Preying on their desire to live in the U.S. legally, a man who posed as an immigration officer swindled him and at least 20 others out of thousands of dollars.
Jose Gonzalez told them he could get them legal status for a fee. One family paid him $27,000. Another gave him $6,200 and a vehicle. Through phone calls and text messages, he told people they needed to pay more to speed up the process. He threatened to have those deported who didn't come through with the money.
In all, Gonzalez took $87,000 from people who, like him, are in the country illegally.
The 51-year-old Salt Lake man passed himself off as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer for a year and a half in 2011 and 2012. He dressed the part and carried an identification badge. He sometimes had clients drop him off at the local ICE office to give the impression he worked there.
"At first he talked to us and everything sounded wonderful," Salgado said. "He said that he was with the department of immigration, and that he had been working with the department of immigration for a long time, and that he could help people move ahead who were clean, who didn’t have problems and who had clean records."
Gonzalez began asking for money, and Salgado paid. Salgado gave him personal information and Gonzalez returned with documents that Salgado thought, at first, were authentic. But as time passed, Gonzalez pressured him for more cash — Salgado gave him $5,000 and his Ford pickup — and the papers he received seemed less credible.
Not knowing what to do, he began looking for help, eventually sharing his suspicions with Tony Yapias, a well-known activist and fellow Peruvian. With assurances the victims wouldn't also find themselves in trouble, Yapias told the Utah Attorney General’s SECURE Strike Force which set up a sting and arrested Gonzalez last September.
Federal prosecutors initially charged him with 36 counts of wire fraud, inducing illegal aliens to live in the U.S. unlawfully, aiding and abetting, and impersonating a federal officer.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell sentenced Gonzalez to 41 months in prison Tuesday after he pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in an agreement with prosecutors. He will be deported after completing his sentence.
"It really is a shocking scheme," Campbell said, noting that Gonzalez knew the victims were vulnerable.
The judge praised them for coming forward. "It took a lot of courage to do what they did," she said.
Nearly a dozen joined Salgado at the sentencing hearing. They expressed frustration that Campbell didn't allow them to speak in court and said afterward the sentence was too light.
"It’s not enough time, look at how many of us there are,” said one woman as she left the courthouse.
Gonzalez, who his attorney said lived a good life until now, told the judge he accepts responsibility for what he did.
"I ask for the forgiveness of God, the country and the people I hurt. I ask for forgiveness of family as well," the father of four with a grandchild on the way said through an interpreter.
Salgado said it's too late.
"He said that he asks us to forgive him, but he’s already done the damage,” said Salgado, who says Gonzalez's threats and the financial loss left him depressed, impoverished, less trusting and afraid to leave his home.
Gonzalez sold false hope to a vulnerable community, U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow said.
"When the victims realized he was a fraud, he threatened them with deportation if they spoke up. Fortunately, 20 victims had the courage to speak up and report the defendant’s conduct to law enforcement officers," he said in a statement.
Salgado agrees with the other victims that Gonzalez should spend more time in prison.
"It’s not fair,” he said. “He hurt a lot of people."
Still, after the judge imposed the sentence, Salgado said the first thing he wanted to do was to thank the authorities who pursued the case.
"Thank you," he said, "for hearing us."
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