Law enforcement authorities are searching for a foreign national who they say cut off his GPS monitoring bracelet right before he was set to go to trial. The Dominican national allegedly fled to avoid charges involving a fraudulent $1.5 million food stamp racket.
Martin B. Santiago, a 49-year-old from the Dominican Republic did not show up for his criminal trial in Essex Superior Court on Thursday. He faces charges of fraudulently selling food stamps and laundering money out of his three stores in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the Boston Herald reported. The local newspaper reported Santiago to be an “illegal immigrant.”
When Santiago did not come to court, state investigators found that he “forcibly removed” the GPS monitoring apparatus about 6 a.m. that morning, the Boston newspaper reported. Despite being an illegal immigrant, court officials released the Dominican national on a $75,000 cash bond.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) investigators became suspicious of Santiago, and his co-conspirators, after his stores reported counter sales they said were unusually high for a convenience store. The USDA oversees the food stamp program. Investigators found the majority of their individual sales in amounts greater than $100, the Eagle Tribune reported following Santiago’s arrest in 2015.
“These are small convenience stores with no (grocery) carriages and a small checkout area,” Assistant District Attorney Philip Mallard told the Eagle Tribune. “It’s hard to get to $100 in groceries without a carriage.”
The stores also had unusual sales-to-expense ratios, investigators said. The USDA reported Santiago’s businesses ran $2.19 million in food stamp sales over a three-year period. However, their expenses for inventory costs only totaled $300,000.
“It’s an astronomical rate of return for a convenience store,” Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said in a statement reported by the Eagle Tribune.
The Violent Fugitive Apprehension Section of the Massachusetts State Police Department has issued a “Wanted” notice for Santiago. The 5-foot-11 inch Hispanic male weighs about 190 pounds and has black hair and brown eyes. Santiago speaks Spanish and has used the names Mark Santiago and Martin Billone Santiago.
Anyone having information about Santiago’s location can call the state police in Massachusetts at (800) 527-8873. Santiago reportedly has connections to the city of Methuen, as well as Lawrence. These municipalities are both located in Essex County.
Santiago faces charges of money laundering, three counts of food stamp trafficking, and three counts of larceny over $250.
Food stamp fraud can be a big business for unscrupulous store owners.
In late February, a federal judge sentenced George Rafidi, 62, to 33 months in prison for his $2.8 million food stamp fraud scheme. Breitbart News reported that authorities investigated him after store audits revealed that his establishment redeemed more than ten times the amount of food stamps than larger stores in his area took in. Agents found that Rafidi would exchange food stamps for cash and allow food stamp recipients to use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to purchase tobacco and alcohol. A federal grand jury also indicted a store clerk and approximately 30 food stamp recipients. Rafidi is also serving an additional 94-months for brandishing a firearm at federal agents who were investigating him
In early April, a Mexican citizen in Hartford, Connecticut, was found guilty of food stamp fraud and sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. He also allowed customers to redeem food stamps for cash. He collected over $3.2 million during an 18-month period. He was ordered to pay $1.5 million in restitution.
A New Jersey man, Miguel Antonio Azcona, pleaded guilty in late January to defrauding the federal government of more than $800,000 in a food stamp-for-cash scam.