TAMPA — Maria Pena-Lebron, 83, was walking out of Fresco y Mas with her groceries in May when she was approached by a woman wearing a straw hat, who pleaded with her for help.
The stranger claimed to be an undocumented immigrant and therefore unable to collect the prize from a winning lottery ticket.
Pena-Lebron’s desire to help led her to fall victim to a lottery scam that officials say was organized by the woman and two accomplices.
She is one of 14 elderly Hispanic women in Florida to become victims of the trio’s complex scam, said state Attorney General Pam Bondi at a news conference Friday. At least 10 victims are from Hillsborough County.
"Why do people prey on our seniors? Because they are vulnerable," Bondi said. "We live in a population with a high senior number because they want to retire in Florida. They want to feel safe in Florida."
The three face a total of 48 charges ranging from organized fraud over $50,000 to exploitation of a disabled adult. Two of them have been arrested; one has not.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said the three were from Orlando, and they defrauded 10 women in Hillsborough County, one in Clermont and one in Polk County. Authorities have enough evidence to charge the suspects in those 12 cases, but have identified 14 victims total, he said.
The victims lost $152,034 in cash and $34,400 in jewelry, Chronister said.
Jhon Fredy Figueroa, 42, faces 22 charges and was released on a $107,000 bond June 14. Siomara Jimenez, 52, faces 13 charges and was released on a $120,500 bond June 1. She was the woman who pleaded with Pena-Lebron, a detective said.
The third suspect, Marino Jimenez Quintana, 48, of Kissimmee faces 13 charges and has not been apprehended.
"They face hundreds of years in prison, cumulatively," Bondi said.
Pena-Lebron, who speaks Spanish, met with news reporters at her home Friday. Detective Roberto Ramirez, who was also there, summarized her account in English, describing the complicated lottery scam.
One key element: a phone conversation in the Fresco y Mas parking lot with a fake Florida Lottery official who backed up the claim of the woman in the straw hat that only a documented individual could collect the prize — and that the person would have to put up $10,000 in collateral to get it.
The woman in the hat told Pena-Lebron that she would be repaid once she retrieved the earnings from the winning ticket plus she would earn $2,500 for helping.
Pena-Lebron wanted to help. The two women and one of the male suspects went to Pena-Lebron’s bank and she withdrew $5,000 on a line of credit. But back in the store parking lot, the pair took off with her money.
In Jimenez’s arrest warrant, the details of two of their other heists are described. The suspects conned $7,254 from a 75-year-old victim they found in a Home Depot parking lot Nov. 3. They got $1,800 in cash and $14,000 worth of jewelry from a victim they encountered at a Dollar General Nov. 8.
In addition to the financial toll, the scam robbed Pena-Lebron of her faith in others. She wakes up at night, the incident replaying in her mind, the detective said.
"It’s something that has changed her to the point where she says, ‘I’m not willing to help people out anymore. Now I have to second-guess people,’ " he said.