With trial dates of Oct. 21-25 set for three Cuban natives accused of defrauding and stealing numerous Columbia County citizens’ credit and debit card information in summer 2018 via a gas pump “skimmer” operation, a hearing was held Wednesday to determine whether key evidence in the case will be suppressed for the upcoming Cleveland County proceeding.
The jury trial for Yerandy Valdes-Carabello, Juan Delgado Ramos, and Felix Perez Valladares — all originally from Cuba and allegedly residing in either Florida or Texas at the time of their arrests — was set earlier this year, but the trial was moved to out of Columbia County to avoid any potential jury biases or overt knowledge of the case since hundreds of alleged local victims were affected. An August 2018 Columbia County police report stated that one Magnolia bank would require 450 cards to be replaced, while another bank in July noted that over 300 new debit cards would have to be issued.
With so many felony counts facing each co-defendant, the case has been split into small groupings for prosecution. In total, seven individual victims’ cases from August 2018 have been chosen by the state to prosecute at the upcoming trial. The court has sealed the names of the victims due to the financial nature and sensitivity of the cases. The process of prosecuting a few incidents at a time could continue even after the October proceeding is finished.
Caraballo, 30, Ramos, 55, and Valladares, 40, are each facing 22 counts of fraudulent use of a credit or debit card $1,000-$5,000 in a six-month period, theft of property-credit/debit card or account number, and computer fraud. The latter two defendants are also facing additional theft of property and engaging and continuing in a gang organization or enterprise-first degree.
The three defendants were arrested at Magnolia’s Magnuson Hotel the night of Aug. 28, 2018, after a joint venture between the Magnolia Police Department and Columbia County Sheriff’s Office. They have been held at the Columbia County Detention Center ever since on $1 million bond.
According to a CCSO probable cause affidavit, cash deposit receipts, $11,860 in cash, a $652 money order, a credit card scanner, Mastercard gift cards, and cards with three- and four-digit codes — thought by police to be victims’ pin numbers — were all found in the trio’s hotel room and vehicle. Local authorities in August 2018 speculated that the three men were connected to a larger criminal network based outside the United States.
Carabello at his October 2018 arraignment stated that he was a United States citizen and had been in the country for roughly a decade and worked in Miami. He also said he was a former chemistry professor in Cuba. Ramos as well said he was in the United States legally, but Valladares, according to the CCSO probable cause affidavit, was in the country illegally and possessed a detainer from ICE. Local law enforcement also claimed that he had used multiple aliases. Valladares at his first appearance in August 2018 said he resided in the Houston, Texas, area for the past four years.
Carabello and Valladares are represented by Little Rock defense attorneys Leonardo Monterrey and Robert E. Tellez, respectively. Public Defense Attorney Andrew Best represents Ramos. The defendants’ cases have been combined, making way for joint proceedings — all of which have required an interpreter.
On Wednesday, Circuit Judge David W. Talley Jr. presided over the hearing after the defense earlier this year submitted motions to suppress all evidence gathered at the co-defendants’ Magnuson Hotel room on the night of the their arrests. The evidence could be damming to the defense in a jury trial and a matter of great importance to the prosecution since the hotel search by police resulted in the discovery of the receipts, cash, debit cards, alleged pin numbers, check cards, and electronic devices. But the defense argued that the initial arrest and evidence collected thereafter was unlawful, and therefore inadmissible in a trial, since local authorities did not first obtain a search or arrest warrant on the night of Aug. 28, 2018.
The state, however, argued that the actions taken by police were indeed within the law and that nothing they did during and after the arrest was outside of the statutes on the books.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Columbia County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jordan Hanson, Magnolia Police Chief Todd Dew, and Columbia County Investigator Kelly Blair all testified for the state to the happenings of the night of the arrest. They were also cross-examined by all three defense attorneys.
Hanson on July 31, 2018, was first alerted to a call from a victim whose debit card account had potentially been compromised and fraudulent transactions had occurred. In his testimony, the deputy explained how he tracked the charge in question to an ATM withdrawal at the Korner Store along Hwy. 344 and Hwy. 371 located just outside Magnolia.
Once on the scene, the deputy was able to obtain store surveillance video of three Hispanic males entering the convenience store and withdrawing funds from the ATM machine. The time stamp on the security video, the deputy testified, was the same as the victim’s transaction in question.
“The victim said that she had not been at the location where the card was used,” he said.
According to Hanson, the males were seen driving a lifted, custom four-door Dodge pickup with a camper shell and Texas plates. Hanson said at least one of the three co-defendants before him Wednesday was seen on the video. Blair, during his testimony, later said he could identify two of the three defendants as present on the video.
While Hanson tracked the transactions in question, the victim stated that she was traveling through Magnolia at the time of her charges in question and used her card only at Magnolia Travel Center to refuel. This led the investigation to the Hwy. 82 truck stop where Hanson viewed surveillance video on the date the victim’s card was used. On the video, the same three suspects were seen, according to the deputy.
“They were in the same vehicle as they were in during the Korner Store video,” he said.
After the July 31, 2018, incident, the truck and the three men in question disappeared.
Only after another possible victim’s complaint to police a month later on Aug. 27, 2018, did the case again take shape. The description of both incidents — a person using a card at Magnolia Travel Center then fraudulent charges tracked to the Korner Store ATM — were the same, according to Hanson.
The deputy again checked video surveillance, and, just as before, two days worth of footage showed three unknown Hispanic males entering and withdrawing money from an ATM. And again, Hanson said, the time stamps coincided with the victim’s charges.
The three men in the August 2018 videos were all confirmed Wednesday by Hanson, Dew, and Blair as the co-defendants sitting before them. Hanson said he thought only one male matched the July footage, while Blair said during his testimony that he thought two of the three co-defendants were present in the previous month’s footage.
Hanson noted that on Aug. 28, 2018, three credit card “skimmer” devices at Magnolia Travel Center were discovered at pre-pay pumps. In Dew’s description of the device, he said the mechanism was around 2-3 inches in size and contained a foot-long chord that sat inside the pump. When a card was swiped into the device, Dew said, the gas pump still read the card, but the skimmer also took the card’s information and stored it on a mini hard drive within the device. The skimmers also had Bluetooth capabilities where information could be accessed remotely. It was later stated that an MPD investigator could see the devices’ wireless signatures by looking at his own cellular phone in a Bluetooth search.
On Aug. 27, 2018, Dew was contacted by a Magnolia Bank where at least 10 customers had complained to the institution complained of fraudulent charges from area ATMs.
“The bank indicated that the ATM usage had gone back to the 23rd,” he said.
The three men were seen on video in a late model, gray-colored Nissan Altima with Texas tags. Security footage from Aug. 27-28, 2018, according to Hanson, showed the men wearing the same clothing, indicating they may have still been in the area. The deputy said that’s when began searching local hotels for the car.
The Nissan was later discovered at the Magnuson Hotel in Magnolia. Hanson said he approached the desk clerk where she revealed which room the men were staying in and that they were set to check out the next morning. The deputy, he said, then contacted Blair, who then called in other officers.
Body cam footage from around 9:30 p.m. Aug. 28, 2018, played at Wednesday’s hearing. It showed the lead-up and arrest of the co-defendants. In it, approximately six to eight Magnolia and Columbia County officers walked calmly to the three men’s room where Blair, dressed in a police-marked vest, knocked on the door. With no response after a few more knocks, then MPD Captain Dew motioned to Blair that he had seen one of the suspects through the window. Dew, dressed in street clothes then knocked again saying: “Hotel staff, we need you to move your Nissan if it’s yours.”
After a few more knocks, the door opened and the three co-defendants exited the room and were arrested. Officer testimony later stated that there was some commotion heard inside the room during the knocking and that one defendant was seen lying in bed and another was at the back of the room.
Police on the video were seen entering the room to perform what Dew, Blair, and Hanson all said was a routine security or safety sweep to check if anyone else was inside the room or if there existed any potential dangers to the officers.
“With the amount of money that was being transacted, it was not beyond my thought that whoever was doing this might be armed,” said Blair during his testimony.
No weapons, however, were ultimately found at the hotel room after a search. Testifying officers also said the area of the hotel was known to police for illicit activity.
After the co-defendants were arrested, a search warrant was obtained at roughly midnight, or around 90 minutes after the arrest. The ensuing search of the room and vehicle produced the bulk of the case’s physical evidence.
When asked why authorities did not obtain a search or arrest warrant first before taking the men into custody, Blair replied: “I felt that it was within the protection of society to stop it and stop it then.”
The testifying law enforcement agents, especially Blair and Dew — both of whom are 20-plus year officers — stated that they had probable cause to make the arrests and did not yet know the identities of the three men to get an arrest or search warrant. They also said that they did not know if a judge was available to sign a warrant.
“We did not know how long they were going to be there or anything they might have on them,” Dew said.
The defense’s primary arguments and questioning during cross-examination continually pointed to what they called an “illegal entry” without a search warrant and that the officers did not first identify themselves as police. The defense also asked why no one had called the police for any crimes.
In response, Blair indicated that the situation was urgent and that the officers had no idea if the suspects were armed. He also stated that by identifying themselves as police officers, it could have lead to their own safety being placed in jeopardy.
“I’ve never seen anyone shoot at the hotel staff,” the CCSO investigator said during cross-examination, “but I’ve have seen them shoot at the police.”
He later added: “I don’t think the entry was unlawful.”
The police witnesses all said that by identifying themselves as law enforcement, evidence — in this case credit cards, cash, receipts, and electronic devices — could have been destroyed behind closed doors.
“Just like 90% of the rest of the hotels, they had a microwave inside,” Blair added. “All they had to do was put those cards inside and turn it on and then they would have been destroyed.”
Hanson and Dew also said that evidence also could have easily been flushed down the toilet.
Valladares was the only witness called for the defense on Wednesday. His attorney, Tellez, was the sole lawyer to question him. The matters all dealt with the fact that Perez and his companions were sharing the hotel room and there to sleep. Valladares also said they were traveling from Houston.
There was no cross-examination by the state.
Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Rainwater in his closing argument to the judge re-iterated that there are three ways legally to enter a person’s home — which a hotel room is considered: either by search warrant, by consent, or an exception with exigent circumstances.
“The state is arguing that there was an exception here and there was probable cause for the arrest,” said Rainwater.
The prosecutor also said that there were clear exigent circumstances because evidence inside the room could have been easily destroyed and that the area was dangerous.
According to Cornell Law School, exigent circumstances cover “circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry (or other relevant prompt action) was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons, the destruction of relevant evidence, the escape of the suspect, or some other consequence improperly frustrating legitimate law enforcement efforts.” The definition, the law school states, is based on a 1982 federal case ruling.
The defense, which gave the final statements in the hearing, did not agree with the state. In his remarks to the judge, Monterrey said, “We believe that members of the Magnolia Police Department and Columbia County Sheriff’s Office conducted an unlawful search and seizure of the defendants’ property.”
He pointed to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution that protects citizens’ privacy. He said that police attempted to conduct a “knock-and-talk” tactic to contact the co-defendants in lieu of a search warrant. The attorney noted that, according to Arkansas law, “consent” must be obtained.
“When Mr. [Carabello] opened the door, he thought it was a member of the hotel staff,” Monterrey said.
He also claimed that officers gained “unlawful visual access” to the room during their safety sweep that led to the search warrant being obtained and that everything found there should be excluded from further proceedings.
Tellez, in his remarks, commended the local police for their diligence and “good work” on the case but stated that, ultimately, the arrests were mishandled.
“These are good police,” he said. “They’ve told the truth here today, and their work should be recognized; but it was an illegal arrest and seizure and the evidence was found against the law.”
Best during his remarks echoed similar statements as the other two defense attorneys.
Once the hearing was concluded, Talley stated he would review all of the testimony and arguments heard Wednesday and that he would issue his decision as early as next week.
The co-defendants are next scheduled to appear in Columbia County Circuit Court in September for a pre-trial proceeding.