Bridget G. Brennan, New York City’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor, James J. Hunt, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) New York Division, Angel M. Melendez, Special Agent in Charge of U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York, New York City Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill and George P. Beach II, Superintendent of the New York State Police, announced the arrest and indictment of three individuals in connection with three overlapping patterns of criminal activity. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.’s Elder Abuse Unit and the Wilton Connecticut Police Department assisted in the investigation.
Today, alleged ringleader RICARDO CASTANG, 35, of Brooklyn, is scheduled to be arraigned before Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Neil E. Ross in Part 23, 100 Centre Street, along with two co-defendants. An indictment filed by the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor charges CASTANG with multiple counts of Conspiracy, Attempted Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance, Money Laundering and Scheme to Defraud.
What began as an investigation into the trafficking of cocaine from Costa Rica ultimately led agents to uncover a $300,000 fraud scheme that victimized elderly people under the guise of the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.
This morning, agents and officers with the DEA’s New York Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Strike Force arrested CASTANG’s wife LINDA ALTIDOR, aka LINDA CASTANG, 30, and a third defendant, TIFFANY WATTLEY, 25, of the Bronx. CASTANG has been in custody on drug charges since September 21, 2016 with bail set at $250,000. He was rearrested on charges in the new indictment today.
The arrests are the result of a long-term investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) New York Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Strike Force, which is comprised of agents and officers of the DEA, the New York City Police Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement – Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the New York State Police, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Marshals Service, New York National Guard, the New York Department of Taxation and Finance, the Clarkstown Police Department, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Port Washington Police Department and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The Strike Force is partially funded by the New York/New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), which is a federally funded crime-fighting initiative.
During this long-term investigation, agents and officers learned that CASTANG was allegedly receiving U.S. Mail packages containing narcotics. In a conspiracy that ran since at least December 31, 2015, packages were shipped from Costa Rica to locations in New York City and elsewhere, where they were received by CASTANG and another individual. CASTANG allegedly communicated about these packages via text messages and through an internet-based messaging application. On August 16, 2016, CASTANG sent a message to another individual that read, “The Costa Rica bag I gave u can u stitch it up and let me know how it turns out?” Later that day, he wrote, “U think we can make some momey (sic)?” The other individual replied, “Maybe lol.”
In September 2016, CASTANG sent the U.S. Postal Service text messages requesting information about two tracking numbers. On September 21, 2016, CASTANG was arrested after he arrived at a shoe repair business on Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the U.S. Postal Service had delivered packages bearing these two tracking numbers. Inside the packages were two souvenir bags bearing the lettering “Costa Rica” and concealing a total of one kilogram of cocaine (over 2 lbs.) inside the lining.
Scheme to Defraud
After his arrest, an examination of phone and banking records showed that CASTANG’s criminal activity was not limited to cocaine trafficking. CASTANG and ALTIDOR are charged with a Scheme to Defraud in the First Degree for allegedly acting in concert to defraud victims through false pretenses between March 2015 and March 2016.
During the scheme, CASTANG and ALTIDOR allegedly received checks totaling over $300,000 from more than two dozen victims from 17 states across the country, including a resident of Manhattan and Connecticut. The investigation revealed that victims were contacted by a caller who claimed to represent Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. The caller informed the victims that they were sweepstakes winners, but before they could collect their prize they were required to submit payment for fees and taxes owed.
Victims mailed checks to CASTANG’s home address, at 1490 Lincoln Place, Brownsville, Brooklyn, as well as to a P.O. Box located at a nearby U.S. Post Office. The victims ranged in age from 51 to 91, with the average age being 78. In some of the larger payments, victims paid $50,000 and $60,000. A Manhattan victim over 80 years of age sent multiple checks totaling nearly $30,000.
CASTANG and his co-defendants arranged for nearly $480,000 cash to be transferred to Costa Rica over the course of 2 ½ years, including proceeds from narcotics trafficking and the fake sweepstakes scheme. The indictment charges CASTANG and WATTLEY with Money Laundering in the Second Degree, CASTANG and ALTIDOR with Money Laundering in the Third Degree and CASTANG with Money Laundering in the Fourth Degree.
The defendants allegedly made 60 bank wire transfers to Costa Rica between December 10, 2014 and September 14, 2016 totaling nearly $446,500, as well as 38 MoneyGram and Western Union transfers to Costa Rica between April 20, 2015 and September 14, 2016 totaling nearly $33,000.
Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan thanked her office’s Trial Division, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) New York Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Strike Force, the New York City Police Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the New York State Police, and the Wilton Connecticut Police Department.
“This organization made it a practice to use every day fixtures like the U.S. Post Office, Publishers Clearing House and the neighborhood shoe store to promote their outrageous criminal schemes,” said Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan. “Those arraigned today are charged with accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars by duping the elderly and attempting to import a sizable quantity of cocaine. I thank members of our office and the DEA Strike Force for their diligence in identifying the wide ranging crimes, and all of our partners who have collaborated in this effort.”
DEA Special Agent in Charge James Hunt stated, “A cut and dried drug case morphed into a money laundering investigation and uncovered a scam bilking elderly Americans. Con artists have impersonated DEA Agents demanding money in exchange for freedom in the past; today’s defendants allegedly convinced people to pay ‘taxes’ on sham Publishers Clearing House winnings. The DEA Strike Force and Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor collaborated resources to identify and arrest the ring responsible for these crimes.”
“Not only did these individuals smuggle cocaine into the United States, but some expanded their criminal activity by using an elaborate fraud scheme to steal thousands of dollars from unsuspecting elderly victims," said Angel M. Melendez, Special Agent in Charge of HSI New York. “HSI will remain steadfast in its commitment to dismantle transnational criminal organizations, no matter what illegal scheme they use to line their pockets.”
“The three defendants arrested not only peddled cocaine, they also shook down the elderly with the grandeur of a sweepstakes win,” said Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill. “Today, the three find themselves facing serious charges after a joint investigation by detectives, agents, and prosecutors.”
Superintendent George P. Beach II said, “We applaud the work of law enforcement in putting an end to this dangerous drug trafficking organization, and putting those responsible behind bars. This group’s activity was not limited to cocaine trafficking, but also in preying on the elderly across the country, scamming them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a sweepstakes scheme. I thank our partners in law enforcement for their dedication and hard work which resulted in the arrest and indictment of these four individuals. Our streets are safer, and their arrests send the message that anyone who commits these types of crimes will be held accountable and brought to justice.”
The charges and allegations are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.Download Press Release
Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office
DEA New York Division
ICE HSI New York
New York City Police Department
New York State Police