Recovery

He Sent Planes to Help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Now, He's Behind Bars.

The suspect already had an arrest warrant in Orange County, Fla., for violating his probation after a 15-year sentence on a separate fraud case.

by Brenda Medina, Miami Herald / January 26, 2018

(TNS) — Shortly after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a man named Emilio contacted volunteers in Miami who were collecting humanitarian aid for the island. He told them he was a millionaire from a wealthy Puerto Rican family. He offered to pay almost $1 million for the warehouses to hold the donations and the charter flights to send the aid. And he did — with fake checks, federal agents say.

Despite having a long criminal record, Emilio Vázquez, who introduced himself as Emilio Serrallés and said he lived in Coral Gables, allegedly duped businessmen and managed to get on a charter flight from Miami International Airport to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, to distribute supplies. He flew along with celebrities such as singer Olga Tañon and TV host María Celeste Arrarás, who didn’t know his true identity.

On Tuesday, Secret Service agents arrested Vázquez in Brooklyn, New York. The 47-year-old man now faces wire transfer fraud charges. He has a first hearing on Thursday in New York, and will be transferred to Miami, where assistant U.S. attorney Joshua Rothstein will prosecute the case.

The suspect already had an arrest warrant in Orange County, Florida, for violating his probation after a 15-year sentence on a separate fraud case.

According to a violation of probation affidavit in that case, Vázquez fled Central Florida after attempting to purchase three houses with fake checks, paying his rent with fake checks and draining his father’s bank account. “He got his father kicked out of his assisted living facility because he was paying his father’s rent with fraudulent checks,” according to the affidavit.

El Nuevo Herald and Univisión 23 reported about the hurricane-donation fraud in November. In a statement sent in November, the Serrallés family, owners of Don Q rum distillery in Puerto Rico, denied any links with Vázquez and repudiated his alleged actions.

According to the criminal complaint, on Sept. 29, Vázquez paid $122,050 with a fraudulent bank cashier’s check to Commercial Property Group for the rent of several warehouses in Doral, where tons of hurricane donations from South Floridians were stored. On Oct. 12, he delivered a fraudulent $564,036 check to Miami Air International for five charter flights to several airports in Puerto Rico, the complaint states.

El Nuevo Herald interviewed the owner of the cargo aircraft company, Global Aviation Link, who said Vázquez paid him almost $500,000 with fraudulent checks.

Vázquez got involved in the Puerto Rico relief efforts on Sept. 22, shortly after Hurricane Maria walloped the island. That day he called Isla del Encanto restaurant in Kendall, where donations were being received, and offered to rent the planes.

Filled with hope, a group of volunteers quickly established the Puerto Rico Relief Committee. In less than a week, Vázquez signed a one-year lease for the Doral warehouses and contracted the charter flights, which departed to Puerto Rico from Oct. 8-16, according to the criminal complaint.

When the banks notified the companies that the checks were fraudulent, it was too late. The last plane had departed.

By November, in the midst of a dispute between Vázquez and the companies, most of the aid that arrived to Aguadilla was stranded and spoiling at the airport. It is unknown whether the donations sent to other airports were distributed to the storm victims.

When the Miami companies confronted Vázquez, he told them to contact his attorney, Anthony Accetta. But the Coral Gables lawyer told el Nuevo Herald that he never signed a contract with Vázquez.

“He tried to hire me, but I told him we had discovered his true name and criminal history. He even told me that was his twin brother, who is the black sheep of the family,” said Accetta, a former prosecutor. “The man sat in my office and all he did was lie, lie, lie.”

According to the criminal complaint, when the banks began to reject the checks and the companies complained to Vázquez, he insisted that he could pay and sent a “purported screenshot from his phone showing a balance of $3,062,881.75 in his U.S. Bank Business Checking Account and $1,252,008.05 in his U.S. Bank Business Market Savings Account.”

Vázquez claimed that a tragedy kept him in London at the moment. He said in an email sent from emilioSerrallés@gmail.com that he was “dealing with my daughter final funeral arrangements and bringing her home.”

But Vázquez’s sister, Vivian Vázquez, told authorities last year that her brother does not have any daughters, according to an Orange County Department of Corrections affidavit.

“He uses this story as a ruse,” she said.

Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this story.

Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar and Facebook: @BrendaMedinaJournalist.

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