South Florida

'Millionaire' pleads guilty to fraud after hurricane scam in Puerto Rico

Emilio Ismael Vázquez, mugshot
Emilio Ismael Vázquez, mugshot Courtesy

A man who pretended to be a millionaire, and wrote fake checks to pay for flights to send donations to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, has pleaded guilty to wire fraud in Miami federal court.

Emilio Ismael Vázquez, 47, reached an agreement Monday with federal prosecutors and accepted guilt for one charge of wire fraud, according to the the Department of Justice. Vázquez, who has an extensive criminal record, faces up to 20 years in prison and will be sentenced in June. Assistant U.S. attorney Joshua Rothstein is handling the case.

Vázquez duped several Doral business owners, activists and celebrities who, believing he was a good Samaritan and a member of a wealthy Puerto Rican family, helped collect donations for storm victims.

According to court documents, Vázquez rented warehouses and chartered cargo planes to take the donations to the island in October, and tried to settle the cost by writing fake checks and pretending to make bank transfers for more than $685,000.

Despite being a fugitive for violating the rules of his probation in a separate fraud case, Vázquez even traveled to Puerto Rico with celebrities to distribute part of the donations.

El Nuevo Herald and Univisión 23 reported the case in November.

Vázquez left South Florida shortly after his victims realized he had scammed them. He was arrested months later, on Jan. 23, in Brooklyn by federal Secret Service agents.

In South Florida, Vázquez identified himself as Emilio Serrallés, said he lived in Coral Gables and was one of the owners of the Destilerías Serrallés that produces Puerto Rican rum Don Q. The Serrallés family denied having any links with Vázquez and condemned his actions.

But that was not known to the volunteers who collected donations in Miami, who Vázquez contacted shortly after the hurricane battered the island. He offered to pay nearly a million dollars for the storage of the donations and the shipment.

Filled with hope, a group of volunteers quickly formed the Puerto Rico Relief Committee. In less than a week, Vázquez rented the warehouses to Commercial Property Group and negotiated private flights with Miami Air International, which departed between Oct. 8 and 16, according to the criminal complaint.

In November, el Nuevo Herald also interviewed the owner of the cargo aircraft company Global Aviation Link, who said that Vázquez issued fraudulent checks for almost half a million dollars to the company. The business is not mentioned in the agreement reached by Vázquez).

When the banks notified the companies that the checks were false, it was too late. Several charter flights had already landed in Puerto Rico. Amid that dispute, most of the aid was stalled in several Puerto Rican airports. It is not known if all the donations were distributed to people suffering after the storm.

When his victims started notifying him that the banks rejected his checks, Vázquez told them he was in London because his daughter had died tragically and he was finalizing funeral arrangements.

When one of the companies asked Vázquez to settle his debt with cash, he responded by email: “I guarantee you on my beautiful daughter’s grave that you will have [the wire transfer] on the update tonight.”

However, Vázquez does not have any daughters, his sister, Vivian Vázquez, said in 2016 to Florida authorities in Orange County.

“He uses this story as a ruse,” Vivian Vázquez said, according to a Department of Corrections affidavit.

Emilio Ismael Vázquez already had an arrest warrant in Orange County for violating his probation after a 15-year sentence on a separate fraud case. According to the affidavit, Vázquez fled that area in 2016 after trying to buy three houses with fake checks, paying his rent with fake checks and draining his father’s bank account.

“He got his father kicked out of his assisted living facility because he was paying his father’s rent with fraudulent checks,” the affidavit says.

Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar and Facebook: @BrendaMedinaJournalist.
Related stories from Miami Herald