UPDATE: Palma pleaded guilty to 17 felony counts stemming from a scam involving more than 170 victims and will serve 10 years in prison.
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – An Indianapolis woman accused of running an immigration scam through local churches and stealing tens of thousands of dollars is facing more than a dozen criminal charges.
The suspect met her victims at two churches including one on Sherman drive and another on E 14th street. The accused thief gained the trust of two pastors and told them she could provide legal immigration documents for a fee. Those documents were never produced.
“I paid for me and my wife 35 hundred dollars,” said Victor Gutierrez.
Victor introduced his entire congregation to Judith Palma, who also used the name Roma Smith, and the scam spread.
“My people got mad and said, ‘Pastor what happened?’ We lost the money. We lost everything,” said Gutierrez.
According to court records, Palma claimed her sister-in-law worked in a local immigration office and made all sorts of false promises leading to 17 counts of theft.
The probable cause affidavit filed in this case claims Palma told the victims she had a contact named Ms. Warner who was an attorney in the Indianapolis Immigration Office and could help undocumented individuals receive “papers,” or U.S. Permanent Residency Cards and various other immigration documents.
Palma required down payments for the process of obtaining the documents.
“Probably most heartbreaking in a couple of instances she told victims she could get their children here into the states,” said Marion County prosecutor Terry Curry.
Prosecutor Curry says with widespread immigration protests at airports and cities across the country, immigrants have become a perfect target for criminals.
“Anyone with concerns regarding immigration status is urged to seek services from a licensed immigration attorney,” Prosecutor Curry said. “We understand recent federal policy changes have heightened the urgency to resolve outstanding immigration issues, but such conditions may make individuals easier targets for scam artists. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Prosecutors say 31 victims had $67,856 stolen, but Victor says for every one victim that’s came forward there’s another 10 that haven’t because they’re afraid of being deported.
“Maybe immigration is coming for everybody you know? Everybody is scared,” said Gutierrez.
Prosecutors say Palma pleaded guilty to committing the same scam in 2008 and had previously been deported.
The suspect is in the country illegally herself.
As a result, even if she is convicted she would force deportation after serving her sentence.