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A stack of victim-impact statements towering at least 2 feet high sat on a table in a Little Rock federal courtroom Wednesday, representing just some of at least 8,000 people in Arkansas and other states who have been tricked out of more than $2.4 million by con artists pretending to collect debts on behalf of the U.S. government.

The money was stolen largely from society's most vulnerable segments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hunter Bridges told U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson, who was preparing to sentence one of the con artists indicted in Arkansas in 2016.

Bridges described the victims as elderly people who were tricked into turning over their life savings; poor people who had set aside money to buy medicine; people whose immigration statuses were questionable; patients who had recently undergone surgery and were in a foggy state of mind; and veterans.

"They were from all walks of life," he said of the victims of the scam that has resulted in 10 people being indicted in the Eastern District of Arkansas since June 2016.

The amount of money stolen by the group indicted in Little Rock has reached $2,492,993.50 at last count and Bridges said the number of victims grows each month. Several more defendants have been indicted in other federal jurisdictions, and the scam is believed to be still going on.

"Rarely do we find a fraud scheme that so directly affects the victims," he said, noting that in many federal fraud cases, the victims are corporations rather that individuals.

As far as the sentencing Wednesday of Dennis Delgado Caballero, 40, of Miami, who was one of the first two people indicted in Arkansas and who pleaded guilty in May 2017 to wire-fraud conspiracy, Bridges said the government "strongly disagreed"* with a "time served" recommendation from defense attorney Molly Sullivan of the federal public defender's office.

Sullivan said that in the 2½ years that Caballero has been in custody, he hasn't seen his family. She noted that his children and his ex-wife, who has agreed to "take him back," live in Miami.

She also noted that Caballero, who is from Cuba, isn't a U.S. citizen but has permanent residency and may be eligible for asylum if the government tries to deport him.

Earlier in the hearing, Wilson had said that federal sentencing guidelines recommended 78 to 97 months in prison for Caballero, based on the number of victims and the defendants' claim to represent a government agency. But after the hearing was briefly closed to the public, Bridges said the new sentencing range was 42 to 53 months, and that the government objected to sentencing Caballero below the range.

Wilson, however, refused to accept the recommendations, instead sentencing Caballero to 72 months -- or six years -- in prison. He said the new top range "is far below what I would have given without a motion for reduction," and noted that the six-year sentence "is substantially below what I had thought of" doing.

Caballero sat listening to the proceedings and responding to questions with the aid of an interpreter.

Bridges said the scheme was carried out by two groups of people -- those who pretended to be government officials and placed telephone calls directing people to immediately pay a tax debt or face arrest or a civil lawsuit by day's end, and those who were dispatched by the callers to retrieve the money from wire-transfer machines, usually in a Walmart, in other states. He said those indicted in Arkansas were the collectors.

Agents have said the victims were always told to wire the money to another state in which it would be collected by an IRS official who was standing by.

Wilson said he was "astounded" by the the scam's reach and the number of people who "got duped."

"Is the word not getting out to the public that this is going on?" he asked.

Bridges replied, "This is a numbers game. These schemes pop up faster than you can shut them down."

While the scammers can reach thousands of people in an hour's time, it takes much longer for the authorities to catch up with them, he said.

Wilson called the case "very troubling" and said, "My heart goes out to these poor people."

In addition to the prison time, Wilson ordered Caballero to pay full restitution of $2,492,993.50, jointly and severally with any other defendants who are convicted in the same scheme, to the U.S. District Court clerk's office, which will distribute the money to the individual victims.

Metro on 09/27/2018

*CORRECTION: Assistant U.S. Attorney Hunter Bridges told a federal judge Wednesday that the government “disagrees strongly” with a defense attorney’s request that Dennis Delgado Caballero be sentenced to time served on a wire fraud conspiracy charge. Bridges was misquoted in a previous version of this article. Bridges also objected to Caballero being sentenced below the 42- to 53-month penalty range suggested by federal sentencing guidelines.

Print Headline: 8,000 victims net con artist a 6-year term

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