When federal agents came knocking, Sandy De La Fe was not at home. The Miami pharmacy owner had already fled to Cuba with his loot from ripping off Medicare, they say.
But De La Fe apparently didn’t like life on the lam under the Castro brothers. He also had left behind a young son in Miami. So, the fugitive paid for his own ticket to fly back on a commercial airline to Miami International Airport, where he surrendered around midnight Friday to U.S. marshals and agents with Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General.
In the annals of Medicare fraud and fugitives — an estimated 150 South Florida defendants are at large in Cuba, Mexico and other countries at any given time — De La Fe’s voluntary surrender is a first. Normally, fugitives get stopped on federal arrest warrants at foreign airports or upon entering the United States.
On Monday, the 31-year-old De La Fe finally had his first appearance in Miami federal court on 2013 charges that he illegally pocketed $2.8 million in taxpayer-funded Medicare payments through his former business, Goldenway Pharmacy Discount. His bond hearing and arraignment are scheduled for Friday. Prosecutor Roger Cruz plans to recommend no bail, arguing the defendant is a flight risk.
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De La Fe is charged with conspiring with associates Jose Teijeiro and Michael Gonzalez Cabral to pay off recruiters to reel in Medicare beneficiaries so they could bilk the federal health insurance program. Both associates already pleaded guilty to fraud charges and are serving nine-year and five-year prison sentences, respectively.
According to an indictment, De La Fe submitted false claims for prescription drugs — some for more than $1,000 — by using Medicare beneficiaries’ ID numbers and forged doctors’ signatures for medication that was either unnecessary or not provided.
The alleged racket, run between 2011 and 2013, was hardly unique. The U.S. attorney’s office has increasingly made cases against South Florida pharmacy offenders who steal from the so-called Part D prescription drug program under Medicare.
What set De La Fe apart was the fugitive’s voluntary return from Cuba. He hid for more than two years in Matanzas, where he had settled after getting a tip from a co-conspirator that authorities were going to arrest him in Miami in the summer of 2013. He had initially traveled to Buffalo and then Toronto, where he flew directly to Havana.
According to sources familiar with his case, the defendant missed his five-year-old son and wanted to return to Miami. So, his relatives here contacted federal authorities and coordinated his surrender.
At first, he wanted the feds to pay for his return flight. But they refused.
Said one source: “The fugitive paid for his own ticket from Havana to Miami.”