New York squad hunts down the frauds of 9/11

A handful have invented dead loved ones for profit

February 23, 2003|By David Zucchino | David Zucchino,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - Cyril Kendall, father of 12, reported his youngest child dead - a brown-eyed young man in a blue suit, last seen on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Gerard Rinaldi reported the death of his wife, last seen working in the Windows of the World restaurant in the North Tower.

Ricardo Frutos listed three dead relatives, killed as they toured the 42nd floor of the World Trade Center straight off a flight from France.

These were deeply disturbing tales - not for the people who reported them, but for the police detectives who exposed them as frauds.

"Basically, these people were vultures," said New York City Police Sgt. Daniel Heinz, whose Special Frauds Squad has spent longer than a year dismantling the elaborate edifice of lies built by people seeking to profit from the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil.

For all the heroics of the World Trade Center narrative, there is a sad and twisted coda in the bulging pink file folders of the frauds squad. Eighteen months after the towers collapsed, the squad's nine detectives are still investigating suspicious claims of dead loved ones who, all too often, are either very much alive or never existed at all.

Kendall collected $190,867 from charities, Rinaldi collected $13,500 and Frutos received $47,000 before they were charged with filing false death claims for imaginary victims or, in Rinaldi's case, for his unsuspecting estranged wife. For his nonexistent son "Wilfred," Kendall allegedly provided a photo of himself as a young man. After entering guilty pleas, Rinaldi was sentenced to six months in jail, and Frutos got one to three years. Kendall pleaded not guilty and is free on bail.

The frauds have a special resonance for Heinz and other detectives, all of whom lost colleagues or loved ones on Sept. 11. The squad spent the first weeks after the disaster collecting and identifying body parts at the city morgue, making wrenching phone calls to notify relatives of confirmed victims. The list of dead stood at 2,792 last week, with Heinz predicting that it will continue to contract.

The squad has arrested 38 people who have been charged with filing false death claims. And 158 death reports have been investigated, with about three dozen cases still open and fresh cases still trickling in.

Officials at charities and relief organizations know that every disaster brings out hustlers, but the persistence and audacity of the World Trade Center frauds has still been disillusioning.

Among the organizations victimized by fraud is the American Red Cross, which has paid claims ranging from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars to people whose reports later proved false. The agency says experience has taught it to be compassionate first and skeptical later.

Suspicious Red Cross workers have helped authorities arrest and charge a long list of people who received emergency cash after filing false loss claims.

The Red Cross says it has no estimate of its total Sept. 11 fraud losses but says they represent a tiny fraction of the $741 million the agency has paid to victims of the disaster.

David Zucchino is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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