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Merrillville pair sentenced for extorting $27K from undocumented immigrant

Two northwest Indiana residents have been sentenced to prison for an elaborate, year-long extortion scheme in which they preyed on a man living in the United States illegally.

Geovanni Ozuna-Peralta, 25, was sentenced Wednesday to five years in prison, while his mother, Vincenta Edith Peralta-Saavedra, 58, was sentenced to 16 months at a hearing in late January, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Both Merrillville residents had pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to commit extortion, and admitted they took more than $27,000 from the victim, a statement from ICE said.

“This is a very serious crime,” U.S. District Court Judge John J. Tharp said in handing down the sentences. “A crime in which you preyed on someone’s vulnerability … for your own financial gain.”

They came into contact with the 32-year-old victim after the man posted an ad on Craig’s List seeking a romantic relationship with another man, the statement said. The victim was a citizen of El Salvador who did not have legal permission to live in the United States.

Ozuna-Peralta responded, telling the man online that he just wanted to be friends. He later arranged a face-to-face meeting in which he posed as “Kevin Ruiz,” an officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the statement said.

Ozuna-Peralta then posed online as an 18-year-old California man to spark a romantic relationship with the victim, and persuaded him to send several hundred dollars so the fictitious boyfriend could move to Chicago, authorities claim.

He later convinced the victim the California man had been arrested on the way to Chicago and needed bail money, authorities said.

Ozuna-Peralta then posed again as Kevin Ruiz, convinced the victim he was wanted in California for trying to lure a minor, and demanded he pay $56,000 in legal fees to a fictitious attorney, authorities said.

The Indiana resident also visited the victim’s apartment armed with a gun and demanded money, authorities said. He later threatened the victim with deportation and threatened to harm his family in El Salvador.

At one point, he enlisted his mother, Peralta-Saavedra, to pose as an immigration judge who threatened to deport the man if he didn’t pay $75,000 — in biweekly installments of $2,000, authorities claim.

The defendants themselves are citizens of Mexico who had been living illegally in the United States, according to ICE. They will undergo deportation proceedings after they complete their prison sentences.