A woman who dressed up as a federal judge to assist her son in a bizarre “catfish” extortion scheme was let off easy by a real-life judge in a downtown federal courtroom Wednesday.
The setting starkly contrasted with the 2013 sting operation that ensnared a black-robe clad Edith Vincenta Peralta Saavedra and her son, Geovani Ozuna, after the two conned a heart-weary immigrant out of $2,000 during a house call.
U.S. District Judge John Tharp credited Peralta Saavedra with time served on a 16-month sentence — significantly less than the three years called for under sentencing guidelines.
That means the 57-year-old, who previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion, could be home within weeks, serving out her one year of probation.
Explaining the sentence, Tharp said Peralta Saavedra would not likely have committed the crime if it weren’t for the “very bad influence of her son.”
Last month, Tharp was less forgiving of Ozuna, sentencing the Merrillville man to five years in prison. The judge said Ozuna preyed on a naive, gay illegal immigrant who was looking for love through an ad on Craigslist.
Both online, over the phone and in real life, Ozuna, 25, posed as a Skokie cop, a corrupt lawyer and a young lover. Over the course of a year he concocted an elaborate story to extort his Salvadoran victim out of more than $27,000.
Ozuna enlisted his mother for help not long before his extortion efforts drew the attention of the feds.
On Wednesday, Peralta Saavedra offered a tearful mea culpa in court.
“I am very, very remorseful and recognize what I did was very bad,” Peralta Saavedra said through an interpreter. “I simply ask your honor to allow me to live with my husband.”
The stranger-than-fiction scheme began when Ozuna responded to his victim’s personal ad in 2012, pretending to be a cop. Ozuna then adopted a second fictitious online identity, posing as an 18-year-old college student from California who also was looking for love.
After the victim sent money so that the “student” could travel to Chicago, Ozuna juggled back and forth between the personas in a series of email and telephone conversations, convincing the victim that the “student” had been arrested en route and was in fact underage.
By warning the victim that he faced arrest and deportation for soliciting sex with a minor, and by taking advantage of his ignorance of U.S. law, Ozuna forced the victim to pay up. Then he invented another character — a California lawyer — and had Peralta Saavedra pose as a federal judge in a series of threatening phone calls and visits.
Eventually, Ozuna even threatened violence against the victim’s family in El Salvador, bringing a gun to a meeting at which he demanded payment.
While the judge may have let Peralta Saavedra off light, he did lecture her from the bench.
“You preyed on someone else’s vulnerability, you sought to exploit that for you and your son’s financial gain,” Tharp said. “No matter how much remorse [you may have] . . . you cannot say ‘I’m sorry’ and wipe away a crime.”
Contributing: Kim Janssen