SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Six people who claimed their homes were destroyed in California’s deadliest wildfire have been charged with filing phony federal claims.
A federal jury last Thursday returned indictments against the six, who received more than $50,000 in reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. attorney’s office announced Tuesday.
Each claimed that his home burned in the Camp Fire that raged through Northern California in November 2018, destroying nearly 14,000 homes and killing 85 people. It was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in recorded state history.
Because of a disaster declaration, some residents of Butte County were eligible to apply for disaster assistance from FEMA. The six defendants claimed to have lived in the town of Paradise, which was nearly annihilated by the fast-moving blaze.
They claimed to have lost their primary homes and received thousands of dollars in FEMA reimbursement. But they actually lived in other cities, federal prosecutors alleged.
One 64-year-old woman who claimed to have lived in an apartment in Paradise actually had been arrested at her real home and was in jail for several days after the Camp Fire begun, prosecutors said.
Another woman falsely claimed that an elderly couple who died in the fire were her landlords, prosecutors said.
The six “abused the goodwill of the taxpayers and claimed losses that they had not incurred,” U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott said in a statement.
Each is charged with one count of fraud in connection with a major disaster or emergency benefit. If convicted, each could face up to 30 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“Disaster fraud re-victimizes communities devastated physically and emotionally by natural disaster by diverting federal funds from communities and stealing from the victims with significant needs,” said Sean Ragan, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Sacramento field office. “Together, we continue to aggressively pursue those who prey upon innocent victims of natural disasters and the people who want to help them.”