Inspections, Compliance, Enforcement, and Criminal Investigations
February 10, 2011: Five Defendants Alleged to Have Impersonated FDA Agents Indicted for Conspiring to Extort Pharmaceutical Drug Buyers
Baltimore, Maryland - A federal grand jury has indicted the following five individuals for conspiring to commit an act of extortion under the pretense of being a U.S. Food & Drug Administration agent:
Jose Miguel Mercado Garcia, age 29, of the Dominican Republic;
Zulai Morales, age 25, of the Dominican Republic;
Ramona Pichardo, age 51, of New York, New York;
Maria Curet, age 33, of Providence, Rhode Island; and
Milton Goris, age 32, of Miami, Florida.
The indictment was returned on February 7, 2010. Ramon Pichardo was arrested today and the remaining defendants are being sought.
The indictment was announced by United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein; Acting Special Agent in Charge Kathleen Martin-Weis, Food & Drug Administration – Office of Criminal Investigations, Metro Washington Field Office; Special Agent in Charge John P. Torres of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations; Special Agent in Charge John P. Gilbride of the Drug Enforcement Administration – New York Field Division; and Special Agent in Charge Harry S. Sommers of the Drug Enforcement Administration – St. Louis, Missouri Field Division.
“As this investigation so powerfully illustrates, when consumers purchase drugs outside of legitimate channels, they put more than their health at risk,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Kathleen Martin-Weis of FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations. “We will continue to work closely with our regulatory and law enforcement counterparts in the U.S. and internationally to pursue those here and abroad who seek to victimize the American consumer through fraud, coercion, and deception.”
“Schemes like this are operated by individuals who, motivated by greed and self interest, seek to prey on the vulnerabilities of others by impersonating government officials,” said John P. Torres, special agent in charge of ICE HSI in Washington, D.C. “ICE will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to protect the public's trust in our public officials."
DEA Special Agent in Charge John P. Gilbride stated, “The principles of justice and fairness the public expects from law enforcement is shattered, when those who would prey on the vulnerable to extort money impersonate those who proudly wear the badge. The DEA and the FDA worked collaboratively to identify, investigate and arrest those responsible for this crime.” SAC Gilbride would like to thank the United States Attorney’s Office Baltimore District and the FDA for their diligence in this investigation.
According to the one count indictment, beginning on December 1, 2007, individuals claiming to represent pharmaceutical distributors located in the Dominican Republic called and emailed persons in the United States, including persons in Maryland, offering to sell pharmaceutical drugs. Persons who wanted to purchase pharmaceutical drugs from the Dominican Republic distributors were then instructed to pay via either Western Union (a money wire service) or through their credit cards.
The indictment alleges that after making their payment, the customers would then receive telephone calls from persons representing themselves to be United States FDA agents, who in fact were not FDA agents. The purported FDA agents are alleged to have falsely stated that the customers’ orders from the Dominican Republic had been interdicted, and that fines had been levied against the customers. The purported FDA agents also used false threats of incarceration to extort funds from these customers. The amounts of money allegedly demanded as fines ranged between $1,300 and $100,000. The false FDA agents instructed that these “fines” were to be paid via Western Union to individuals located throughout the United States, including the defendants Zulai Morales, Ramona Pichardo, Maria Curet and Milton Goris, who had been recruited by Jose Garcia from 2008 to 2009. Upon receipt of the extorted payments, the defendants recruited by Garcia would then transfer the extorted monies, minus a commission, via Western Union to Garcia or one of his agents in the Dominican Republic.
All of the defendants face a maximum sentence of three years in prison and $250,000 fine. No court dates are scheduled at this time.
An indictment is not a finding of guilt. An individual charged by indictment is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty at some later criminal proceedings.
United States Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein thanked the Western Union Financial Services - Security and Investigations Department for its assistance in the investigation.
United States Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein praised the FDA-OCI, ICE-HSI and the DEA for their work in the investigation. Mr. Rosenstein thanked Assistant United States Attorney Philip Jackson, who is prosecuting the case.