2 indicted in Hurricane Katrina scheme

5:16 PM, Nov 29, 2007   |    comments
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The indictment stems from charges that they defrauded the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Red Cross and other organizations.

According to an indictment released Thursday morning, Jelissa and Charles Wimberly were indicted by a Grand Jury for devising a "scheme" to pose as victims of the hurricane to get money and property from FEMA, the State of Colorado Division of Housing, Catholic Charities, Corporate Lodging Consultants, INC., and the American Red Cross.

9Wants to Know reported in May that Jelissa Wimberly, her husband Charles, his brother Richard and their sister Stephanie Quezada combined took more than $55,000 from FEMA and charities in money, rent, furniture and other donations after they claimed they lost property at their relatives homes in Mississippi.

Charles Wimberly agreed to an interview with 9NEWS and confessed they were not real hurricane evacuees and did not endure the storm saying, "I'm sorry, you know. It was wrong. What more can you say?"

Charles blamed his wife for coming up with the idea to take the Katrina money and blamed the government for giving it away too freely.

"It seemed like free money," said Wimberly. "They just can't be handing out free money."

Jelissa Wimberly denied to 9NEWS that she pretended to be a hurricane evacuee and threatened to sue 9NEWS if it aired the story. No lawsuit was ever filed.

"You are defaming my character and you are also jeopardizing my employment and my standing in the public," Jelissa wrote in an e-mail to 9NEWS Investigative Reporter Deborah Sherman.

Jelissa told Sherman she was driving away from the hurricane in the hours before it struck August 29, 2005 because they had been ordered to evacuate.

"We lost everything," said Jelissa. "Everything."

But 9NEWS has learned Jelissa was actually working in Commerce City during the hurricane for a company called the Ice Cream Wagon.

The ice cream truck she was driving was stolen in Arvada on August 5, 2005, three weeks before the hurricane, and she filed a police report.

Her employer says she leased the truck 10 times between July 9, 2005 and August 2, 2005 when Jelissa claims to have been in Mississippi.

Her husband Charles was also working and living in Colorado during that time, 9NEWS learned.

Charles was employed by Brown Transfer Company from August 22, 2005 through December 30, 2005, according to the company.

Charles, Rick and Jelissa Wimberly filled out an application to rent an apartment in Westminister days before the hurricane hit, according to apartment manager Nan Richardson.

She says they returned after the hurricane claiming to be evacuees and rented an apartment that was paid for by Catholic Charities. FEMA paid their rent at several other locations across Colorado, 9NEWS learned.

In Arvada, Charles, Rich and Jelissa are listed as hurricane evacuees on the property lease.

Their sister, Stephanie Quezada, admitted to 9NEWS on camera that she collected $2,000 from FEMA after the hurricane hit because she says she lost property while living with her sister in Mississippi. However, officials say people can not make claims against a property unless they rent the home or own the property.

Stephanie's mother Cathy and sister Kristine told 9NEWS Stephanie did not lose any property in their homes and that she made the story up to collect free assistance.

Stephanie also told 9NEWS that Charles, Rick and Jelissa were not in the hurricane and were living in Colorado at the time.

More than two years after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, 9NEWS the U.S. Attorney's office with the help of the U.S. Secret Service, has arrested and charged 13 people in Colorado, including five exposed by 9NEWS during the last two years.

Nationwide, more than 656 people had been charged for fraud and theft of public funds as of May 2007, according to Department of Justice spokesperson Jaclyn Lesch.

Rhonda Banks, of Colorado, was arrested after federal prosecutors say she claimed to be from New Orleans and collected $21,000.

Prosecutors also charged Coloradan Jason Knowling for allegedly saying he was from Mississippi and taking $38,000.

Robert Ott was arrested after the U.S. Attorney says he went before a Trinidad Middle School class and solicited $2,000 from the children for relief money.

FEMA officials say they have learned a lot of lessons from Hurricane Katrina about giving money away too easily without verifying people's identities and addresses.

"We've realized that some of our verifications need to be stronger," said FEMA spokesman Derek Jensen.

"We've implemented some things up front to make it a lot harder for people to defraud the system." Jensen says for future disasters, FEMA has hired a contractor to search databases to verify people's information before the money is handed out.

"Until someone can meet those two basic verifications, who they are and where they live, they aren't eligible. They can't get disaster assistance," said Jensen.

According to an audit by the Government Accountability Office, FEMA has doled out more than $1 billion in fraudulent assistance. The audit says FEMA has only been able to recoup less than percent of that money.

9Wants to Know will have more on this story later today on 9NEWS and 9NEWS.com.

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