NEWARK, NJ. – Two New York men today admitted their roles in a fentanyl distribution conspiracy, and one of the men also admitted conspiring with seven separately charged individuals to defraud multiple states to obtain COVID-19 unemployment benefits, U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger announced.
Billy Castro, 33, of Queens, New York, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Michael A. Shipp in Trenton federal court to a three-count information charging him with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute fentanyl, possessing with intent to distribute fentanyl, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Juan De La Cruz Infante Torres, 52, of Brooklyn, New York, pleaded guilty before Judge Shipp on June 14, 2023, to an information charging him with one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute fentanyl and one count of possessing with intent to distribute fentanyl.
According to documents filed in this and other cases and statements made in court:
In May and June 2021, Castro and Infante conspired with others to distribute fentanyl. On June 15, 2021, Castro and Infante took approximately two kilograms of fentanyl from Castro’s apartment to Clifton, New Jersey, where they were arrested trying to sell it. Law enforcement agents then searched Castro’s apartment and found approximately two additional kilograms of fentanyl. The agents also found driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, debit cards, tax forms, bills, and other documents – including COVID-19 unemployment benefits applications and debit cards – in the names of approximately 100 individual victims.
On April 24, 2023, the following individuals were separately charged by complaint with conspiracy to commit wire fraud:
Rafael Josmin Nunez Duarte, 33; Natanael Valdez Brito, aka “El Pocho,” 34; Josmin Rafael Nunez Duarte, aka “Mello,” 33; and Alexander Arismendy Alix Hernandez, 22, all of Bronx, New York; Leonel Frias Espaillat, 32, of Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Abrahan Rivas Rojas, aka “Milandro,” 36, and Yarisa Espaillat, aka“Yari,” 34, both of the Dominican Republic.
A subsequent investigation revealed that Castro conspired with Nunez, Valdez, Duarte, Alix, Frias, Rivas, Espaillat, and others to use the personal identifying information of thousands of individual victims to create fictitious online profiles claiming to be real people seeking unemployment benefits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using these fake profiles, the conspirators submitted fraudulent applications to the departments of labor of Puerto Rico and numerous states, including Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. Once the fraudulent unemployment benefit applications were approved, the conspirators received unemployment benefit funds through debit cards, which they either cashed out at ATMs or used to make purchases. To date, law enforcement has identified that the victims’ information was used to fraudulently obtain approximately $25 million in unemployment benefits from 29 different states.
The charges of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute fentanyl each carry a statutory maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a statutory maximum fine of $1 million. The charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud carries a statutory maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a fine of the greatest of $250,000, twice the gross amount of any pecuniary gain or loss, whichever is greatest.
Sentencing for Castro is scheduled for Dec. 14, 2023. Sentencing for Infante is scheduled for Oct. 25, 2023.
U.S. Attorney Sellinger credited special agents of the FBI, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge James E. Dennehy in Newark, and special agents of IRS – Criminal Investigation, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Tammy Tomlins in Newark with the investigation leading to the guilty pleas and charges. He also thanked the U.S. Department of Labor, Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, and New York Department of Labor for their assistance in the investigation.
This effort is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) operation. OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach. Additional information about the OCDETF Program can be found at https://www.justice.gov/OCDETF.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark J. Pesce of the Economic Crimes Unit in Newark.
The charges and allegations against Nunez, Valdez, Duarte, Alix, Frias, Rivas, and Espaillat are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.