A Colombian woman with ties to Los Angeles was sentenced on Monday to 33 months behind bars for her role in a long-running lottery ticket scam that targeted Latina grandmothers throughout the Southland.
Maria Luisa Henao, 43, was also held liable along with her co-defendants for restitution of $190,422, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum that Henao showed a "uniquely depraved and cruel willingness" to victimize the elderly.
Henao's conduct "spanned years and was the result of a person fully committed to a life of crime," the document states. "If it were not for (her) arrest, she would undoubtedly have gone on to defraud countless additional victims."
She pleaded guilty in June to a single federal count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Three additional defendants -- Tito Lozada, Luisa Camargo and Mercedes Montanez -- also pleaded guilty in Los Angeles federal court to the same charge.
The four defendants were initially charged in state court with trying to scam a 66-year-old Long Beach woman, but federal prosecutors who took the case said all four defendants are linked to multiple incidents in which older women were targeted and robbed of cash and jewelry in a scheme known as the "Latin Lotto Scam."
The October 2019 federal complaint references crimes in Maywood, Long Beach, Baldwin Park, Hawaiian Gardens, Fontana, Lakewood, San Pedro and Chula Vista.
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The defendants approached Latinas in their 60s and 70s who were alone in public and, speaking Spanish, convinced them that they had a winning lottery ticket but needed help cashing it because they were undocumented. They would then ask the victim for money and promised they would pay her back, including some extra cash, upon cashing in the ticket.
To further trick the victim, one of the co-conspirators would pretend to call a lottery official who was, in fact, a member of the plot and would falsely confirm that the fake ticket in question was a winning ticket that could be released only with a deposit or fee.
The co-conspirators then would drive the victim to her home or bank so that she could get valuable items like jewelry or large sums of cash to pay the sham lottery ticket deposit. Once the schemers had the victim's money or jewelry in hand, they would create a ruse to get the victim out of the car and flee, taking the valuables with them.
The fraud ring attempted to rip off at least four elderly women per day, and were out looking for potential victims for a minimum of four days per week, prosecutors said.
In total, over the course of the nearly 2 1/2-year conspiracy, more than 17 victims were defrauded, causing losses of at least $190,422, federal prosecutors said.
"This was an organized group that singled out older women for the sole purpose of ripping off these vulnerable victims with bogus promises of a big payday," U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said when the four were charged. "While law enforcement will do everything possible to bring criminals like this to justice, this case should serve as a reminder to potential victims and their family members that no one should ever pay an upfront fee in relation to any prize, sweepstakes or lottery."
Camargo, Montanez and Lozada are all natives of Colombia with addresses in the Southland. Henao -- who became a U.S. citizen last year after emigrating from Colombia -- was arrested in San Diego.
Montanez was sentenced in July to 27 months in federal prison. Camargo was sentenced in June to the nine months of jail time she previously served. Lozada is set for sentencing on Sept. 28.