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State v. Sotelo

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

December 24, 2013

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
VERELI SOTELO, Defendant-Appellant.


Submitted September 30, 2013

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Indictment No. 10-11-1120.

Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (M. Virginia Barta, Designated Counsel, on the brief).

Grace H. Park, Acting Union County Prosecutor, attorney for respondent (Meredith L. Balo, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, of counsel and on the brief).

Before Judges Yannotti and St. John.


Defendant Vereli Sotelo was tried before a jury and found guilty of multiple counts of conspiracy to commit theft by deception. Defendant appeals from the amended judgment of conviction entered by the trial court on August 26, 2011. We affirm.


Defendant and her husband, co-defendant Enoc "Tito" Sotelo, emigrated from Peru to the United States.[1] Tito was issued a United States permanent residency card (residency card) and became a naturalized citizen in 2000. Defendant obtained legal residency by virtue of her marriage to Tito.

In October 2001, Tito was hired by Captain Henry J. Thibault, a pastor with the Salvation Army who had been sent to Plainfield to establish a congregation. Thibault did not speak Spanish, and hired Tito to assist him with outreach in the largely-Hispanic community. Tito became an Acting Corps Sergeant Major, akin to a "head Deacon" in other denominations. Although he was not authorized to perform religious ceremonies, he served as Thibault's right-hand man and was respectfully styled "Pastor" by the Spanish-speaking congregants. Defendant was not employed by the Salvation Army, but the congregants nevertheless referred to her as "Pastora."

From the commencement of his employment through 2004, Tito served the Spanish-speaking community of the Plainfield Salvation Army without incident. In early 2005, however, Tito began to approach undocumented aliens within the congregation about helping them obtain residency cards. He explained that he had a contact at "Immigration" as well as an attorney named Oscar Ruiz in Miami, Florida who could expedite the process. Tito informed responsive individuals that it would cost $4000 for a residency card, along with an additional donation to the church. In time, Tito explained, the members would receive what he described as a "torch, " that is, a document from Immigration purportedly demonstrating its acceptance of the citizenship application. When these "torches" arrived, Tito would conspicuously distribute them in front of the congregation.

Many individuals, several of whom testified at trial, accepted Tito's representations and went to his home with the $4000 sum in cash as directed. Defendant was almost always present at these exchanges, and would collect the money and count it. Another woman, Denise Gallo, also collected and counted the payments. During one of these visits, defendant was observed "writing notes about how much money people were giving her husband." After these payments, Tito explained to the payors that the money would be sent along to Immigration. Members were also instructed to show support for the church by attending services and offering tithes. Some were told that Tito was going to get them a job at the Salvation Army. Tito informed others that regular attendance at church would be "evidence" for Immigration.

On multiple occasions, Tito told the applicants that they were required to travel to Miami in order to speak with attorney Ruiz. Defendant helped arrange these trips, collecting transportation costs and taking members to the airport. She also travelled to Florida, joining her husband and Ruiz at a closed-door meeting.

Martha Reyes, a congregant who paid Tito for a residency card, testified that, in preparation for such a trip, Tito had provided her with an identification card containing the Salvation Army logo. Both Tito's and defendant's photographs appeared on the back of the card. However, Reyes did not make the journey to Miami because Tito apparently learned that authorities had grown suspicious of "so many people going with the Salvation Army identification." After that, there were no more trips to Miami and future applications were handled by Tito at his home.

Those individuals who received "torches" discovered that their listed addresses and educational levels had been falsified. The "torches" indicated Florida residences and the members were described as having advanced university degrees.

By early 2006, both the English and Spanish media published reports about a fraud at the Salvation Army whereby undocumented aliens were promised residency cards. Several members thereafter asked for their money back, but Tito refused to do so. For her part, defendant informed the congregants that they should "not . . . believe that this was a fraud and that it would be [proven false] once the papers arrived." After the news broke, Tito addressed the congregation and, as one congregant explained at trial

[W]hat came out . . . in the news on TV it was a lie, and he —— he told us that the papers were coming. As a matter of fact that day he called the attorney on the phone, on the speakerphone, Oscar Ruiz, and he told us that he was the immigration attorney and not to worry because the papers were coming.

A Union County grand jury indicted defendant, Tito, Gallo and Ruiz on November 12, 2010. The indictment, in pertinent part, charged defendant with five counts of theft by deception, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-4 (counts eight, nine, eleven, fifteen and eighteen), each count referencing a specific victim. Additionally, in count nineteen, defendant and her three co-defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit theft by deception, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2.

At trial, multiple victims of the alleged scheme testified to the foregoing facts. Additionally, the State presented the testimony of David Caudill, an attorney specializing in immigration fraud detection at the ...

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