PITTSBURGH, PA — Three residents of Panama have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh, PA, on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The charges stem from the Department of Justice’s wide-ranging efforts to protect older adults from fraud and financial exploitation.
Stefano Zanetti, a 41-year-old citizen of Canada; Samuel David Ferrer Avila, a 22-year-old citizen of Venezuela; and Cesar Javier Chourio Morante, a 27-year-old citizen of Venezuela and Colombia, were named as defendants in separate two-count Indictments.
“Our office is committed to protecting elderly and other vulnerable victims from fraud schemes targeting residents of Western Pennsylvania,” said United States Attorney Eric G. Olshan. “This case demonstrates that we will use all available tools to identify and hold accountable those who steal from seniors, and we will work with our domestic and international partners to seek justice even when the evidence leads to perpetrators operating outside the United States. We encourage people to make use of the Department of Justice’s online resources to learn about these common fraud schemes and avoid falling prey to them.”
“International financial fraud investigations are at the core of HSI’s mission. As such, we take great pride in protecting our seniors who are among our most vulnerable and valuable citizens,” said Special Agent in Charge of HSI Philadelphia William S. Walker. “HSI will utilize every resource, both here and abroad, to ensure that the American public is kept safe from those that hide in foreign countries while attempting to defraud our citizens.”
As alleged in the Indictments, the defendants orchestrated and executed a sophisticated nationwide scheme to defraud that targeted the elderly and caused losses exceeding $1,500,000 to victims in Pittsburgh and other locations across the United States, including Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, New York, and Tennessee. As part of the scheme, members of the conspiracy contacted victims and falsely claimed that a family member of the victim, usually a grandchild, had been detained in connection with a legal proceeding and needed money for bail. The victims were directed to withdraw cash and provide it to a “courier” who would visit them at their homes. In reality, the victims’ family members had not been detained, and the “courier” was actually a member of the conspiracy. From their location abroad in Panama, the defendants allegedly directed groups of “couriers,” who were tasked with picking up the victims’ money, and “safehouses,” who were tasked with collecting proceeds of the fraud and transferring it to others, including the defendants.
The Department of Homeland Security Investigations and Pennsylvania State Police conducted the investigation leading to the Indictments in this case. They were assisted in the investigation by other domestic and international agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, United States Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and National Police of Panama, Sensitive Investigation Unit.
The Indictments in this case were returned on December 6, 2022 and unsealed on August 21, 2023, following the arrests in Panama of Zanetti and Ferrer Avila on August 2, 2023, and of Chourio Morante on August 11, 2023. On August 30, 2023, all three defendants appeared in federal court in Pittsburgh, after having been extradited and transported from Panama by the Drug Enforcement Administration Airwing. The extradition of the defendants was the culmination of extraordinary cooperation among the primary investigating agencies, with valuable assistance from Panamanian authorities.
The law provides for a maximum total sentence of 40 years in prison, a fine of $750,000, or both. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the actual sentence imposed would be based upon the seriousness of the offenses and the prior criminal history, if any, of the defendants.
Assistant United States Attorney Jeffrey R. Bengel is prosecuting this case on behalf of the government.
An indictment is an accusation. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.