For his sake, it’s a good thing Jose Gerardo Gonzalez voluntarily returned from Cuba after fleeing there two years ago.
Gonzalez, 26, of Miami, received a more lenient sentence of about five years in prison from a federal judge on Friday for his role in a $130 million healthcare fraud scheme led by his father-in-law, Reynaldo Castillo, 48. He had also fled and is believed to be in jail in Cuba.
U.S. District Judge Robert Scola gave Gonzalez, who was facing between seven and nine years in prison under sentencing guidelines, a bit of a break for returning in February and pleading guilty to conspiracy and other charges the following month.
“There are a significant number of people in Cuba who fled and have not returned,” Scola said. “When someone returns, there has to be some credit for that.”
Never miss a local story.
Escaping to Cuba is commonplace among dozens of Cuban immigrants who have joined South Florida’s healthcare rackets over the past decade. They’ve stolen hundreds of millions from the federal Medicare program, and in some cases from private insurers, then fled to the island or other Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico. The fugitives usually get caught when they travel to a third country or return to Miami.
Rarely does a fugitive voluntarily return, as Gonzalez did in early February. He was among a total of 16 defendants who had been charged in 2015 with operating Miami-Dade clinics that bilked the county’s public school system and other entities.
Federal prosecutor Christopher Clark argued that Gonzalez should be punished within the sentencing guidelines, but defense attorney William Barzee urged the judge to go lower. Barzee said his client was pulled into Castillo’s healthcare ring when he fell in love with the alleged boss’ daughter, Jessica.
“The family is like out of a soap opera — like out of a movie,” Barzee said, comparing the Castillo family to the TV mob clan, the Sopranos.
“Jose needed to win the approval of the father,” he told the judge. “Reynaldo slowly brings him into the family. ... When he married Jessica, his fate was sealed.”
Almost all members of the Castillo family’s racket have struck plea deals, starting with Reynaldo’s brother, Hendris Castillo Morales, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in October 2015.
At the time, he sought a more lenient sentence from Judge Scola. But the judge pointed out that Hendris Castillo showed no remorse, repaid nothing to the victims and his brother fled to Cuba with potentially millions to avoid facing fraud charges.
The Castillo case is unusual because the family’s network of clinics targeted major private insurance companies that managed healthcare plans for self-insured public and private entities.
The city of Miami, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and several companies lost millions of dollars in health insurance payments as a result of being scammed by the Castillo-run clinics that submitted bogus claims for pain injections, physical therapy and other purported services, according to two indictments.
Prosecutors charged the defendants with trying to steal $130 million from the public entities, private companies and major insurers, namely Blue Cross Blue Shield, United Healthcare and Cigna.
All together, the various entities and their insurers paid out $15 million to the Castillo family’s healthcare network, which operated about 35 clinics in Hialeah, Doral and Miami between 2012 and 2015, according to the indictments.
Among the bilked entities: PepsiCo, Macy’s, RadioShack, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Lincoln Property Company, Nextera Energy and Southeast Frozen Foods Company.