NEW BEDFORD — The Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General announced Friday that a Bristol County Grand Jury indicted Victor Tiu Lopez on charges related to a rental scam targeting undocumented Spanish-speakers in New Bedford earlier this year.
The charges include 11 counts of larceny over $1,100, four counts of larceny under $1,200.
Lopez also faces two counts of witness intimidation, including at lest one threat on the life of a community activist, the Attorney General's office said.
The AG's office alleged that Lopez collected $22,050 in "rental deposits" from 15 people between February and April.
The AG's office accused Lopez of falsely presenting himself as the owner, or soon-to-be owner, of affordable apartments he advertised on New Bedford-area Spanish-language social media pages.
According to the AG's office, he showed the prospective renters the apartments and solicited deposits and fees from them before claiming that the apartment had been rented or changing the move-in date.
"Lopez would also sometimes ask for additional money from prospective tenants, before ultimately failing to return their calls, or simply disappeared," the AG's office said.
Alleged victims speak
The alleged scam was brought to public attention when Adrian Ventura, executive director of the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, condemned Lopez on Facebook in March.
"Many people believed him because they were in crisis," Ventura told The Standard-Times in June during a Spanish-language interview.
Among them was Alvaro, a 24-year old undocumented K'iche' man from Guatemala who accused Lopez of scamming him; who spoke with The Standard-Times in June.
Alvaro said that he and two other men — plus the seven-year old daughter of one of them — contacted Lopez in February to express interest in an $1,100 apartment. He swiftly arranged an apartment visit.
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"It had nothing, not even a kitchen," Alvaro said. "But he said that he would remodel it and we could move in in a couple of months."
Alvaro said that Lopez pressured them to move quickly to pay a $1,500 fee, claiming that others wanted the apartment.
The next day, Alvaro and one of the other men gave $750 a piece. He claimed that he did not hear from Lopez again for a month — despite numerous attempts to contact him.
"People have been saying a lot of things about me regarding what I've been doing," Lopez said. "But I want you to understand what is happening. This person acted really badly by posting my photos to Facebook, saying: 'This person is this. This person is that.' With no knowledge of where I'm at, what are my processes, and what's happening with me."
Lopez's lawyerdid not respond to requests for comment.
Accusation of a threat
Ventura accused Lopez of threatening his life at CCT headquarters in February.
"He told me not to speak to the police," Ventura said. "I told him that I had to.
"He then said: If you go to the police, you know what's going to happen to you," before he claimed Lopez shaped his hand to mimic a pistol and made shooting motions towards him. "That's what will happen to you and everyone with you."
Ventura said that he is glad to see the indictment happen.
"I'm happy to see that the system is working," he said. "We are asking for justice."
He added that the alleged victims are mostly among what the Immigrants' Assistance Center says are an estimated 10,000 undocumented residents in the city.
"There's a fear of deportation," he said. "This is also important for the large indigenous community of New Bedford that often feels ignored by the system."
That population — mainly K'iche' Maya from Guatemala is thought to be about 7,000 strong, according to the most recent estimate of the population in 2016, published by the now-defunct Public Policy Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Corinn Williams, director of the Community Economic Development Center of New Bedford, said that Lopez's alleged actions took advantage of the community's fear and insular nature in a difficult housing market.
"It is shame how he took advantage of vulnerable renters who trusted him with down payments for apartments that didn’t exist," she said via WhatsApp. "It’s particularly sad in this housing market with the scarcity of affordable apartments and rising costs of rent. So many families are so desperate to find a decent place to live."
Lopez's arraignment is set for Monday at 9 a.m. in Bristol County Superior Court in Fall River.
This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: Lopez indicted in housing scheme targeting undocumented in New Bedford