Veteran Sweetwater detective William Garcia was so tight with one of his informants that their families would even vacation together, authorities say.
But when the informant got caught making counterfeit credit cards, he turned on the police officer and played an undercover role for the FBI.
On Wednesday, FBI anti-corruption agents arrested Garcia on charges of using phony credit cards himself at Miami Beach, Key Largo and other South Florida establishments, and stealing other people’s card numbers. A federal magistrate judge in Miami granted Garcia a $200,000 bond, and the Sweetwater Police Department suspended him without pay.
His defense attorney said Garcia, who if convicted faces up to five years in prison on the fraud charge and a mandatory two years on the ID theft offense, committed no wrongdoing.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“This is an informant who was working off some debt to the government and turned on Garcia,” defense attorney Richard Sharpstein said outside the courtroom. “He completely took advantage of him and set him up, and Garcia unwittingly walked into a trap.”
But an FBI affidavit portrayed Garcia as a dirty cop at the center of a counterfeit credit-card scheme in late 2010 through 2011.
Among his alleged crimes: He used his own credit card to manufactured fraudulent credit cards with his informant and hid the informant’s laptop computer containing stolen credit card numbers after the informant was arrested.
Ultimately, Garcia used counterfeit credit cards that he claimed he seized from a suspect during his police duties, according to the affidavit filed with a criminal complaint by Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony LaCosta.
In a recorded conversation in July 2011, Garcia told the informant, who had flipped for the feds: “I caught this Cuban guy with five, eight cards and I want to read what’s on the back,” according to the affidavit.
The informant told Garcia that he did not have the equipment to read the magnetic strip on the back of the cards to verify whether they had any value.
“I’ll go wherever you need me to so we can read what’s on the back,” Garcia told the informant.
According to the affidavit, Garcia used some of those counterfeit credit cards to charge hundreds of dollars in meals at establishments such as the EdenRoc Hotel in Miami Beach, Gilbert’s Resort in Key Largo and the Catch of the Day at the Dolphin Mall in Sweetwater.
At one point in his recorded conversation with the informant, Garcia quipped: “Are you going to visit me when I get sent to jail?”
Garcia’s arrest Wednesday by agents with the FBI-led Miami Area Corruption Task Force delivered another blow to the small west Miami-Dade city of Sweetwater.
Earlier this month, the same FBI squad arrested Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño. The mayor was charged, along with his lobbyist friend, Jorge Forte, and another lobbyist, Richard Candia, for their alleged roles in a bogus scheme to fleece the U.S. government of community grant money.
Garcia’s arrest on ID theft and fraud charges is not the first time a local police officer has been implicated in such an alleged scam.
In March, Miami police officer Malinsky Bazile was charged with pocketing about $140,000 by running the names of more than 1,000 people in the state driver’s license database and then using their Social Security numbers to file bogus federal income-tax returns — all to score stolen refunds.
Bazile, 28, and fellow Miami officer Vital Frederick, 26, separately accused of tapping into the same database, were both charged in the first-ever federal prosecution of ID theft and tax-refund fraud involving South Florida law enforcement officers. Both face trials in September.