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Woman Gets Probation in Quake Fraud : Courts: Defendant, who claimed to have lived in Northridge apartments where 16 died, tells judge ‘I’m very ashamed.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After telling a judge she has been plagued by shame and remorse, a Carson woman was sentenced to three years probation Monday for receiving $2,300 in federal aid by falsely claiming to have lived in the Northridge Meadows Apartments, where 16 people died during the Jan. 17 quake.

U.S. District Court Judge Terry J. Hatter decided to give Denise Jones, 36, a chance despite requests by prosecutors to sentence her to three months at a correctional facility for illegally obtaining aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Jones, 36, who has since returned the money, pleaded guilty in April to one count of making a false claim to a government agency to seek FEMA aid by calling an assistance line and giving her address as Northridge Meadows.

“I don’t understand what’s with you,” Hatter told Jones. “What’s your problem?”

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“I wasn’t thinking at all about what I did,” Jones replied. “I (once) had a drug dependency and it caused a lot of problems with my life. I’ve been in agony,” she said. “I’m very ashamed of what I have done.”

Authorities were tipped off to Jones--and to three others who falsely used the Northridge Meadows address to collect emergency aid--by a mail carrier who found himself delivering FEMA material to unfamiliar names at the apartment complex after the quake.

The crimes were considered particularly ghoulish among a rash of quake-fraud attempts because of the high death toll at the collapsed building, which made it the disaster’s deadliest address.

At least three others who used the Northridge Meadows addresses have been convicted of the same charges Jones faced.

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Two received prison terms. Daniel Richards of Hollywood was sentenced to two months in prison and Miguel Cordero of Van Nuys was sentenced to four months in prison. Mary Mitchell of Paramount received three years probation.

In Cordero’s case, authorities said he filed a FEMA claim using the apartment number where mechanic Pil Soon Lee and his 14-year-old son Hwon were crushed to death.

When reviewing Jones’ case, Hatter apparently was influenced by the fact that Jones has a young daughter. Jones also told Hatter that she has been off drugs for a year and a half and that she has been taking parenting lessons.

Prosecutors say Jones is one of as many as 30 people who have been charged with filing false claims after the quake. A multi-agency task force began making the arrests to signal that law enforcement agencies planned to pursue opportunists who took advantage of quake aid programs.

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Additional investigations are continuing, authorities said.


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