MIAMI -- Wearing a red, white and blue T-shirt, Evarista Llensa and her 91-year-old mother pledged allegiance to the United States this week, becoming the first in a group of elderly victims of a Little Havana scam to become U.S. citizens.
Llensa, 56, and her mother Edemetria Jimenez are among 289 people who in the past few years were allegedly conned by Eduardo Gutierrez.
They're also among about 40 applicants who received a special fee waiver from the Immigration and Naturalization Service after Gutierrez allegedly took off with their money. The waiver enabled them to process their documents for free.
Affable and charming, Gutierrez operated out of two storefronts. He charged his clients, most of whom barely spoke English, $95 to cover the INS citizenship fee and $25 for photos and processing, federal authorities say.
He pocketed the money, sent out a handful of applications and skipped town earlier this year, officials allege.
"Our becoming citizens at last has been the end of a horrible nightmare," said Llensa, a Little Havana resident. "We've waited a long time for this to end and are glad that this chapter in our life is closed."
Another 84 people who said they were taken by Gutierrez will become U.S. citizens during a special ceremony Sept. 23 at the Little Havana Activity Center, said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.
The remaining cases -- about 200 -- will be processed as soon as the applicants get their paperwork together, the congresswoman said.
INS has looked at each case individually and has granted the waivers to the majority of victims who have asked for them, said Lemar Wooley, an INS spokesman in Miami.
"We will continue to look at the remaining applicants and consider fee waivers on a case-by-case basis," Wooley said.
Ros-Lehtinen contacted INS on behalf of the victims when Gutierrez took off with their money, an estimated $40,000.
Gutierrez worked out of the nonprofit agency Los Viejos Utiles (the Useful Aged), as well as his own storefront named USA Citizenship Services in Little Havana. The INSs said they had no idea about Gutierrez's dealings.
The U.S. attorney's office, FBI and INS all looked into his dealings and disappearance, but Gutierrez is still at large.
"There have been sightings of the guy, but he's never been caught," said Ros-Lehtinen. "We're very happy that at least some will be able to fulfill their dream of becoming U.S. citizens within the coming months."
Pub Date: 8/23/96