It was easy for the criminals to spot their targets as buses offloaded passengers into the din of New York City’s Port Authority bus terminal. The men looked for people who had recently entered the United States to seek asylum—distinguishable by the monitoring bands on their ankles or the immigration paperwork they held in their hands.
Francisco Betancourt, Pascual Rodriguez, or Lucilo Cabrera would then move in on these vulnerable individuals. Rodriguez sometimes claimed to be an immigration official; the others claimed to be helpful strangers. In all events, the men would extort money from these newcomers by making up fees or forcing them to accept unnecessary services. Their most common scheme involved forcing victims into an unneeded and unwanted taxi ride from drivers who were also involved in the plot.
Many of the victims were sent on harrowing, hours-long car rides and were held until their family members could scrape together enough money to pay an exorbitant fare—often more than $1,000.
“They knew they were able to take advantage of these victims,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Vanessa Richards, who prosecuted the case for the District of Connecticut. She explained that because the victims were hoping to have their petitions for asylum or entry into the country accepted, there was tremendous fear that any interaction with law enforcement put them at risk. So the perpetrators “knew their victims would not call the police,” she said.
The crimes were only uncovered because one individual reached out to police after being victimized by Betancourt and Cabrera and hearing about another new immigrant experiencing the same scheme years later. “This brave woman came forward to tell us: ‘I think something really bad is happening here, and it’s been going on for a long time,’” Richards said.
That person’s tip and the subsequent investigation led to the arrests and convictions of Betancourt, Rodriquez, and Cabrera, as well as one of the drivers, Carlos Hernandez. Each was sentenced to serve between eight and 14 years in prison for kidnapping and extortion in a scheme they had been running for years.
“They would put people in the taxis and drive for hours—they would drive through Pennsylvania before going to Connecticut—and relatives were told they had to pay for that taxi fare,” said FBI Special Agent Jennifer Wagner, who investigated this case from the New Haven Field Office. She said people were forced to borrow money from neighbors and friends or go with the criminals to an ATM to get enough money to pay for the safe return of the victim.
“The fact that they were knocking on the doors of neighbors late at night shows how afraid these family members were for the victims,” stressed Richards.