He’d been threatened and discriminated against in his homeland for his homosexuality.
Now, the El Salvadorian illegal immigrant was looking for love and acceptance in Chicago’s gay scene, the feds say.
Instead, after he posted a lonely hearts ad on Craigslist in 2012, he found himself trapped in a nightmare.
He was wrongly accused of child molestation. He received frightening phone calls from a woman who said she was a federal judge and threatened him with deportation. The only people he could turn to for help was a pal who said he was a Skokie cop, and a defense attorney who quickly blackmailed him.
But behind those cast of characters were in reality just two people: a con man and his mother.
On Thursday, the man from El Salvador will finally have his day in court, as the victim of a wild and elaborate online “Catfish” hoax.
His tormentor, Merrillville con man Geovani Ozuna, was the hidden actor who’d scripted an elaborate Internet drama to con him out of more than $26,000, prosecutors say.
Ozuna posed as the victim’s online would-be lover, as a cop pal and as a dirty lawyer during the year-long scam. He even roped in his 57-year-old mom, Edith Vincenta Peralta Saavedra, to play the role of an immigration judge.
Ozuna’s lawyer, Pablo DeCastro, says a sentence of probation would be adequate, but prosecutors say the scam was “so contrary to basic decency” and so offensive to “the core values that underpin civic trust” that Ozuna deserves five years in prison.
In court papers filed in advance of the sentencing hearing on Thursday, the government describes how Ozuna responded to the victim’s original lonely hearts ad, posing as a Skokie cop named “Kevin Ruiz.”
After befriending the victim and learning more about his search for love, he “smelled blood” and sent a second online response, this time using his real name, but pretending to be an 18-year-old California student who was willing to travel to Chicago to begin a relationship.
The victim sent cash to help the “student” pay for the trip to Chicago. Then, the feds say, Ozuna “swooped in for the kill.”
Posing as the “student,” he claimed to have been arrested in Hammond, Ind., while traveling to Chicago, and he asked for bail money. When the victim turned to “Ruiz,” the supposed Skokie cop, for advice, “Ruiz” told him he’d looked into the case, that the “student” was only 17 and that his father was an FBI agent who had learned that the victim was in the U.S. illegally.
Still posing as “Ruiz,” Ozuna offered to deliver a $2,700 bribe payment to the Indiana police to help the victim, who handed over the cash.
A few days later, again posing as “Ruiz,” he visited the victim’s apartment, bringing with him fake court documents that appeared to have been issued by a California judge, and a phony bill from a defense attorney, “Richard M.” As “Ruiz,” he warned the victim he could be deported or jailed if he did not pay up.
Believing “Ruiz” to be a friend, the victim paid Ozuna $21,700 over the following months to cover the bills, borrowing cash from 15 people to do so, the feds say.
But Ozuna wasn’t done. Again posing as “Ruiz,” he visited the victim with a gun and said that “Richard M.” had threatened to kill the victim and his family in El Salvador if he didn’t pay more.
At this point, the feds got involved. They set up a sting in which Ozuna took $2,000 from the victim. And they were laying in wait on Nov. 15, 2013, when Ozuna and his mother, who was dressed as a judge, came to the victim’s home in an attempt to extort him again.
Ozuna, who was arrested on the victim’s doorstep with his mother, says he deserves a lighter sentence because he began his scheme in the belief that the victim “had a sexual interest in very young men,” according to his lawyer.
But prosecutors say “the defendant’s portrayal of himself as a concerned citizen” investigating the victim’s “sexual preferences is absurd.” They point out that Ozuna’s hoax emails repeatedly describe the “student” as being an 18-year-old and that he had set up the victim by later “pulling the rug out” and claiming the student was 17.
The victim’s “status as an illegal alien made him particularly susceptible to the defendant’s uniquely loathsome extortionate scheme,” they wrote in asking U.S. District Judge John Tharp to impose a five-year prison term.
Ozuna’s mother is due to be sentenced at a later date. Both she and her son have pleaded guilty.
The victim has applied for asylum and is not facing deportation, but he was not given any guarantees of protection in return for his cooperation, officials say.