The Miami Herald—Old Charges Being Dropped

Posted on Wed, Mar. 22, 2006
The Miami Herald

Old Charges Being Dropped for Unemployment Fraud

In a bizarre case, unemployment fraud charges — filed more than 25 years ago — against a 72-year-old woman who spent two decades as a housekeeper for a Miami Beach hotel will be dropped today.

Clarel Fortune spent more than two decades cleaning rooms at the Seville Beach Hotel on Miami Beach.

But in 1981, her supervisor laid her off for a few weeks, suggesting she apply for unemployment benefits.

Heeding the advice, the Haitian immigrant collected three unemployment checks worth $184. Later, she returned to the job she held for more than two decades.

Last month, some 25 years later, Miami-Dade police came knocking at the door of the retired housekeeper's home with an arrest warrant. The charges: three counts of unemployment fraud and one count of second-degree grand theft.

In the eyes of police, Fortune was a fugitive.

Her family — her son is a Miami burglary detective — is furious, arguing the charges are unfounded.

One thing is certain: The 72-year-old grandmother of three won't be prosecuted because the statute of limitations ran out long ago on the alleged crime. Prosecutors will formally drop the charges today in front of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy.

"We don't believe a 72-year-old whose case is 25 years old is a threat to the public," State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told The Miami Herald.

The circumstances surrounding the arrest were traumatic for Fortune, her family said.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, her son, Miami Detective Yves Fortune, 49, cried in recalling his mother's arrest. He recalled the frantic early morning phone call from his niece minutes after police showed up. "I thought the worst," Fortune said. ``I thought she was dead." Detectives were bound by the judge's warrant, even if it was 25 years old and the three-year statute of limitations had run out, according to Miami-Dade's warrants bureau.

"We have the warrant. Our job is to serve it," said Detective Mary Walters, a police spokeswoman.

Why so long?

Didn't Have Address

Detectives in 1983 didn't have a correct address, so for decades the warrant remained outstanding, police said.

This year, when Fortune applied for a new driver's license, her warrant surfaced in the state computer system. A teletype with her proper address was sent to Miami-Dade's warrant bureau.

Fortune was not singled out; she was picked up during a routine sweep when detectives fanned out to serve hundreds of warrants, Walters said. There were 48 arrests made that day, closing out 64 warrants, Walters said.

But her attorney, Mark Eiglarsh, said Fortune had lived in the same North Miami-Dade house for more than 30 years.

"A rookie incompetent police officer could have found her in a matter of minutes," Eiglarsh, said Tuesday.

The case is so old that it's unclear how the checks came to the attention of the authorities.

Investigators maintained the checks were obtained illegally because she was still employed by the hotel, although Fortune insisted Tuesday that she had been temporarily laid off.

Fraud investigator Aaron S. Lee, of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation and Assistant State Attorney Scott. F. Bergo helped prepare an arrest warrant, signed by County Judge Marshall Ader on May 20, 1983. Fortune says no investigators ever asked her about the unemployment checks. No court notices came in the mail, she said. Unknowingly, she faced three counts of unemployment fraud and one count of second-degree grand theft.

Fortune said she was unaware of the charges until Feb. 25. That's when a knock on the door woke her up at 5:30 a.m.

"Who is it?" she asked.

"Police," a voice responded.

Fearing something had happened to her son, a Miami police officer since 1980, she grew weak. Family opened the door and two detectives told her they had arrived to arrest her.

About 6 a.m., Yves Fortune got a phone call at home from his niece. He heard screaming in the background and had the sickening feeling that, perhaps, his mother had been found dead in her sleep.

He raced to his mother's house and showed his county counterparts his Miami police ID.

Yves Fortune — who said he recently had been at a family outing at the home of Miami-Dade Police Director Robert Parker — pleaded with the detectives to reconsider.

He said the charges were a mistake; he offered to arrange for her to surrender.

But detectives must arrest a suspect if the person is physically in front of them, Miami-Dade police say.

"I don't think he gave me a break," Yves Fortune said of one of the Miami-Dade detectives who insisted the 72-year-old be arrested.

Taken to Jail

Clarel Fortune — who went on to work more than two decades at the Seville Beach Hotel — was taken to the Miami-Dade County Jail and booked for three hours. Later, she posted $22,500 bond.

"I'd rather be dead than come here," Clarel Fortune said of her time in jail.

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