NAPLES -- A couple of years before being accused of laundering millions of dollars stolen from Medicare that ended up in the Cuban banking system, Oscar Lázaro Sánchez had transformed himself into a prosperous real estate investor with a dozen properties in Florida’s west coast.
None of his tenants had any idea that the 46-year-old man who visited every month to collect the rent in cash had been arrested a week before in connection with a massive bank transfer to Cuba of about $31 million.
“I’m shocked,” said Mayte Oquendo, who rents an apartment in Naples for $750. “He was a very simple man. He came wearing flip-flops.”
This is only a part of the trajectory of Sánchez, who came to the United States in the 1980 migratory wave of the Mariel boatlift.
According to public records, he was a driver for a Hialeah company, but he had stolen automobiles before in Miami.
FROM RAGS TO RICHES
He was a father in 2000 when he was accused of building a marijuana laboratory. He filed for bankruptcy in 2002, but a decade later he was living in a huge mansion on a three-acre property and bought duplex houses that he rented to Hispanic immigrants in Naples, Bonita Springs and Fort Meyers.
Now, Sánchez lives in a cell at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami. He faces a sentence of up to 20 years, if convicted, for conspiring to launder millions of dollars from a small check-cashing office in Naples. He pleaded not guilty.
Federal prosecutors say that for the first time, they have documented that money stolen from Medicare has been transferred to banks in Cuba.
It’s precisely on that island where Sánchez’s story begins. It’s not clear where on the island he comes from, though some of his tenants said he was from Havana.
Sánchez used to tell them that he did not like the lack of material resources in his country of origin.
“He told us that he had traveled to Cuba only once since he had left, to show his daughter where he grew up,” said Oquendo, who is from Havana.
The name Oscar Lázaro Sánchez Pérez appears on The Miami Herald’s database among the 125,000 Cubans who came from the Mariel port in 1980. He was 14 and seemed to have traveled alone. When he was not claimed immediately, Sánchez was taken to a camp for Cuban immigrants in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.
El Nuevo Herald could not reach his sponsor, Idalia Pérez. It’s not clear whether he finished school in Miami. However, police records indicate that he was 19 when he started to have run-ins with Miami law enforcement.
In 1984 he was convicted of misdemeanor loitering. Later, in 1987 and in 1988, Sánchez was arrested on theft charges, though they were later dismissed.
In 1989, he was convicted on separate charges of vehicle theft and selling a stolen vehicle, for which he was sentenced to one year of probation.
That year, Sánchez married Suzette Marie Robledo, with whom 11 months later he bought a South Florida condo. He worked as a driver for a printing shop in Hialeah, where he was paid $10 an hour, according to public records. In his free time, he worked repairing air conditioning units.
His only child with Suzette, a daughter, was born in 1995. The couple divorced two years later. Suzette, who is remarried, did not answer a message left at her house by an El Nuevo Herald reporter.
Her husband said the family was not going to comment on the arrest. However, his teenage daughter posted her feelings on her Twitter account. Last Sunday, on Father’s Day, the girl wrote: “I would love to be with my daddy today. I miss you so much.”
Immediately after the divorce, Sánchez began to live with Ilens Regla Martínez, with whom he had worked in the printing shop. In October 1997, the couple bought a house at a new development in Doral. They were married in Coral Gables in 1998.
For unknown reasons, the couple decided to try their luck on Florida’s other coast. In March 1999, Martínez bought a huge house for $156,100 in a rural zone in northeast Naples. Sánchez does not appear as owner of this property.
Martínez, a real estate agent, declined to respond to El Nuevo Herald reporters who visited her this past week. “I have nothing to talk about with you,” said Martínez, with whom Sánchez has another daughter.
A GREEN ENTERPRISE
A year after arriving in Naples, Sánchez again ran into trouble with the law. At that time, court records show, he was renting an apartment about three miles from his house.
In November 2000, employees of the apartment complex reported that they had accidentally discovered marijuana plants in Sánchez’s apartment. The detective investigating the case said that there were 174 marijuana plants, special lighting, a sprinkling system, a tank of carbon dioxide and other farming materials, according to a report from Collier County police.
Police also said that they found fingerprints that matched Sanchez’s on two pieces of aluminum paper covering the walls. He was arrested, but the charges were dropped later. The case records were destroyed after five years in compliance with state law.
Sánchez started having financial problems in 2000. Shortly before the marijuana plants were discovered, he and Martínez were sued by a company that had built them a luxurious pool with a fountain, a project valued at $29,099. The company alleged that the couple owed them $3,614.
They were also sued for not making payments on a credit card and for a Chrysler automobile. They finally filed for bankruptcy.
In 2001, the couple founded All About Billing, a medical billing enterprise. Three years later they opened another business, Estates Business Center, a check-cashing office that also gave immigration advice.
Authorities say that it was between 2005 and 2009 that Sánchez used his position to lead a group of money launderers in a complex web of phony companies that committed Medicare fraud. The companies, created by a group of Cubans in Miami, claimed about $374 million from the federal program and received more than $70 million in reimbursements.
Sánchez cashed checks for a commission and transferred money to Canada, the Caribbean and, finally, to Cuba, according to federal prosecutors. They claim that the scheme transferred $31 million to banks in Cuba.
All of this supposedly occurred in what seemed to be a modest business located between a hair-stylist and a supermarket of Hispanic products in the outskirts of Naples. None of the neighbors had any suspicion of the laundering allegedly taking place.
“I had no idea they were involved in something like this,” said Armando Cabrera, owner of the shopping center. “During the time they were here, they were not a problem.”