Colorado residents posing as
Deborah Sherman I-Team Reporter
Nicole Vap Executive Producer Investigative
Created: 11/30/2005 10:39 PM MST - Updated: 12/1/2005 3:37 PM MST
The Gray siblings, Brewer and Allen deny suggestions that they are cheating the system. Nov. 30, 2005.
DENVER - A 9NEWS I-Team investigation has revealed four Colorado residents have
been posing as hurricane evacuees from the Gulf Coast.
An I-team investigation has uncovered fake hurricane evacuees living in Colorado. 9NEWS 10 p.m. Nov. 30, 2005.
The Mile High Red Cross Chapter told 9NEWS it's investigating six other suspicious evacuees in Colorado.
"I'm thankful I'm living," wailed Rhoda Gray to reporters visiting her at her new apartment in Denver. Gray said her home was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina Aug. 30. Her brother Roosevelt Gray, sister Lindetta Brewer and friend Antoinette Allen were apparently also left homeless.
"We couldn't take all of our belongings with us. So we took what we could, like our food and clothing, and got out," said Gray.
But without a car, Gray's daughter said they sought shelter in the Louisiana Superdome. There, she and her family got a car and drove to Denver to stay with her brother who lived here, according to Gray.
But Gray's story didn't hold up to weeks of fact-checking by the 9NEWS I-Team. Records show all four of them are long time Colorado residents and have state identification cards or a driver's license. Still, Rhoda, Lindetta and Antoinette have received free rent, utilities, RTD bus passes, food, clothing and as much as $1,500 on debit cards from agencies like the Mile High Red Cross Chapter and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They asked for the assistance when they checked into the shelter at the former Lowry Air Force Base in early September, claiming to be from New Orleans. Roosevelt Gray registered himself as Gray Roosevelt, according to the Colorado database of evacuees.
"It's a slap in the face to those people who have lost everything and really need the help for people to jump on the gravy train and to take advantage of it," said Robert Thompson of the Mile High Red Cross Chapter.
Court and police records show the so-called evacuees have been in and out of jails in Colorado over the past decade. Property records list them at living at various addresses around Denver and Aurora since the early 1970's. For the last year, Roosevelt has been living on South Victor Way in Aurora, according to his next-door neighbor Katie Maver.
"I've seen him out working on people's cars," said Maver.
Just two weeks before the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, Rhoda and Lindetta were being interviewed by Aurora Police, according to police records.
Meanwhile, when the hurricane was ripping up Louisiana August 30th, Antoinette Allen was living at the Landing Apartments in Denver. Records show she lived there from July through the first week of September when her landlord evicted her.
"She didn't pay rent and I put all of her things outside," said Business Manager Maurena Estrada. Landings Apartment sued Allen for August rent which has not been paid, according to court records.
The Gray siblings went to Hamilton Middle School and/or George Washington High School in the 60's and 70's, according to yearbook photos and Denver Public School records.
Still, it was easy for them to apparently cheat the system. That's because relief agencies were too frantic helping 10,000 people pouring in from the hardest hit areas.
"The Red Cross early on in Katrina decided to err on the side of compassion and to make sure that everyone who needed help, got help," said Thompson. "If we stopped to do background checks, aid would have been delayed for months."
Most of the evacuees at the shelter showed up without identification, forcing agencies to take their word about being victims of the storm.
"There was no way of verifying if someone represents themselves, because we were seeing folks who lost everything," said Mike Beasley, Executive Director of Local Affairs. "In every state, we were told if someone presents themselves as a victim, we were to provide them services."
The state did eventually run criminal histories on the evacuees. FEMA is ultimately responsible for auditing the system and verifying where people are from because federal money is used for the assistance.
"FEMA has zero tolerance for fraud, particularly for situations where people are knowingly attempting to cheat the taxpayers during a national tragedy," said Nicol Andrews, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for FEMA.
Andrews said people who file fraudulent claims for disaster assistance could be charged with fraud, which carries a sentence of five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Beasley hopes FEMA will aggressively pursue the suspicious four evacuees exposed by 9NEWS.
"For those people who have committed fraud of this nature, especially when the need is so great, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," said Beasley. "This is an example of the worst part of people. They took money and support from folks who needed it the most."
Rhoda Gray told 9News that her family owned property in New Orleans. But the address, at 2023 Dumaine in New Orleans is owned by someone else.
The family was born in New Orleans, while Allen was born in Denver. But that isn't enough to claim disaster assistance, according to relief agencies.
"Sorry," said Thompson. "If you're living here, if you own property here, if you've lived here for a number of years, you have no physical connection to a disaster area. It doesn't work that way."
When confronted with her history of living in Colorado, Gray maintained she was born and raised in New Orleans.
She told 9NEWS that she goes back and forth a lot between the states and comes here often to visit.
Relief agencies can't say, by law, how much assistance the four have received because of privacy issues. The disaster aid will continue while relief agencies investigate.
So far, 16 people in Louisiana have been charged with making fraudulent claims for disaster assistance benefits. None have been charged in Colorado.
You can call 1-866-720-5721 to report suspected fraud.