Visa scam case reaches settlement
Tuesday, Eagle County District Court Judge Richard Hart accepted Marina Puerto’s plea of “no contest.”
The agreement, reached by Jim Fahrenholtz, Marina Puerto’s lawyer, and District Attorney Jean Powers, includes payments of $500 a month – or $71.40 a month to each of the seven alleged victims – for the next three years.
Marina Puerto, 52, and her husband, Juvenal Puerto, 62, of Avon, both Honduran nationals, were charged with theft and conspiracy.
In 2001, the Puertos, who used to work for Vail Resorts, were accused of charging a group of fellow Hondurans about $2,000 each for work visas – documents Vail Resorts processes at its own expense.
“They both could have walked out without entering a plea if they had had the money to pay the restitution today, but they don’t have it,” Fahrenholtz said Tuesday.
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Marina Puerto was put under deferred judgment sentence, meaning if she doesn’t make the payments she could go to jail or be deported. Juvenal Puerto didn’t enter a “no contest” plea because, as an immigrant, he could have been deported, Fahrenholtz said. Instead, the District Attorney’s Office agreed to defer the prosecution in his case for three years, or until the restitution is fully paid.
The Puertos were heading to a two-day jury trial, but they changed their mind because of Juvenal Puerto’s health issues.
“We are innocent,” Marina Puerto told Judge Hart. “But we are ready to take this deal because my husband has a heart condition, and I don’t want to go to trial because of his illness. We thought this agreement is the best for us.”
For one of the seven alleged victims, Levy Contreras-Cordova, who said he paid the Puertos $5,500 for visas for his wife, son and niece, the agreement isn’t necessarily good news.
“When (the Puertos) asked me to pay for the visas, they gave me three months to get $5,500,” Contreras-Cordova said. “They want to pay us back in three years?”
Powers said restitution payments were set at a total $500 a month because the court was concerned the Puertos wouldn’t have been able to make payments of more.
“We haven’t been working for a year; nobody would hire us in the valley and we have lost our home,” Marina Puerto told the judge.
Because the Puertos plan to move to Nevada, Judge Hart ordered Marina Puerto serve her probation out of state.
“It’s a shame (the alleged victims) will be paid over three years,” said Paul Arnold, an officer with Avon police who investigated the case. “If the case had gone to trial, they (alleged victims) would have won.”
According to the affidavit of probable cause, a transcript of audiotapes presented by Contreras-Cordova contains conversations that apparently implicate the couple. If convicted on the theft charge, a class III felony, the Puertos could have gotten four to 16 years in jail.
Although a “no contest” plea is treated as a “guilty” plea, it isn’t an admission of guilt, Fahrenholtz said.
“She (Marina Puerto) is taking this deal because she is concerned that if she goes to trial, she could be found guilty,” Fahrenholtz told the judge.
The Puertos stopped working for Vail Resorts on Jan. 4, 2002, soon after the company contacted law enforcement and started an internal investigation sparked when several Honduran employees brought up allegations against them.
Oscar Miranda, one of the alleged victims who will receive restitution, said it will take him years to pay back his brother Carlos the $2,300 he loaned him to pay the Puertos.
“We will get about $70 a month with this agreement,” he said.
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.