Stop, Thief!

Commerce City is a strange place to go in search of your identity.

Last fall, Yvonne Lucero was driving north on Brighton Boulevard, past the rendering-plant spires leaking steam and stench, thinking about how to confront her impersonator. Are you Yvonne Lucero? she would ask. The 26-year-old nursing student wondered who this woman was and what her life was like. Kids? A house? A husband?

Two weeks earlier, a letter from the Internal Revenue Service had arrived at Lucero's home in Albuquerque, claiming she owed $2,000 in back taxes. She was even more shocked after she requested the relevant W-2 forms and learned that someone had been working at a Denver business using her name, Social Security number and birth date since 2001.

The employer listed was NER Data Products, a north Denver company that makes high-end office consoles. She called the business and pretended to be a manager checking on a job reference for Yvonne Lucero. Human resources director Cindy Eck told her that, yes, the person she was inquiring about still worked at NER. (Eck failed to return numerous calls seeking comment for this story.)

"I'm the real Yvonne Lucero," Lucero blurted and explained the situation. "This woman is not me."

The W-2 listed a home address of her doppelgänger and a $25,000-a-year salary. "I wanted to see her. I wanted to tell her, &'Hey, this is me. You're using me, my stuff,'" Lucero says. "I felt like she had taken something from me, and I wanted it back."

So when Lucero returned to Denver last October for her sister's birthday, she went looking. While driving aimlessly through Commerce City, she thought about how the two Yvonne Luceros -- the real one and the one who wore the name like a coat -- led similar lives. Lucero grew up near 44th Avenue and Federal Boulevard and lived just six miles away from her identity thief for more than two years before moving with her two children and her boyfriend to New Mexico in 2003. "We could have passed each other before and not even known it," she says.

If Lucero had located a certain 1960s-style bungalow in the quiet Latino neighborhood near Adams City High School, she might have met the 35-year-old woman who lives there with her family. But she didn't, so she called the Denver Police Department, who referred her claim to Detective Kathy Castro in the Check Fraud Unit. For the next three months, as the person everyone knew as Yvonne Lucero continued to show up to work, NER Data's management bit their tongues. Castro had asked everyone to act normally, because making arrests in such cases is more complicated than simply showing up at the impersonator's work and nabbing him. First off, who are they looking for?

"You don't have anything to go by. How old they are, how tall they are," Castro says. "So you have to be real careful. You could be standing there in front of them and say, 'I'm looking for Yvonne Lucero. Do you know who she is?' And you could be talking to the person and not know it. And they'll sit there and say, 'No I've never heard of her. I think she quit.' And how would you know? So it's one of those things where you don't want to jump too soon. It'll ruin everything for you."

It was also difficult for Castro to obtain a probable-cause warrant because the only name she had for the suspect was Yvonne Lucero. Not wanting to cause legal problems for the real Lucero, Castro sought an affidavit for the arrest of "Jane Doe" on two counts of forgery and one count of criminal impersonation. On February 3, the timing was finally right, and the detective took "Lucero" into custody.

Still, Castro is uncertain of the impersonator's true identity. The only thing police discovered that might suggest her real name was a Mexican voter-registration card issued to Guillermina Zavala, but when Castro ran this name by NER Data Products, they discovered a personnel file under the name. Zavala had been employed under her own name, was dismissed, and then was hired back on as Yvonne Lucero. When Castro checked out the resident-alien number listed in the company's documents under the Zavala name, the digits didn't match Immigration and Customs Enforcement records. The same goes for the resident-alien card for Yvonne Lucero that NER Data Products had photocopied. The card had Lucero's name and birth date, but Zavala's photo. In fact, the numbers associated with both names were actually registered to males. "So I don't know who this woman really is," Castro says. "Who is she, really?"

The six-person Check Fraud Unit handles more than 3,000 cases of identity theft each year. It deals with everything from forgery to fraud by check to unauthorized use of financial-transaction devices. Most identity-theft crimes are committed by organized groups looking to score quick money for drugs. "Seventy percent of [identity theft] perpetrators are meth addicts, another 10 percent are crack addicts," says Lisa Curtis, the district attorney in charge of consumer services. The rest "is just fueled by greed."

According to a study released last month by the Colorado Public Research Interest Group, Colorado ranks fifth in the nation for complaints by victims of identity theft. Criminals acquire personal information through purse snatchings, car break-ins, mail theft, online data mining or simply dumpster diving. They then use the names, Social Security numbers and account information to pull any amount of scams, leaving drained bank accounts and ravaged credit histories in their wake. The problem has grown so much over the past five years that last summer the Colorado Legislature enacted a law that requires both non-profit and for-profit companies to shred all personal information of customers and patrons.

Against the backdrop of most ID-theft cases, one could say Lucero got off easy: All her thief wanted was a job.

For illegal immigrants in search of paychecks in Denver, a nine-digit Social Security number can be as good as gold. An undocumented worker from Nicaragua tells Westword that $150 buys an illegal immigrant in the Denver area a Social Security number and a counterfeit ID. However, the top tier of identity documents -- such as a legitimate Colorado driver's license -- can run as much as $3,000. For many, though, the reward is worth the money and the risk, which runs from four and a half years in jail to probation and referral to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Ironically, because Hispanic immigrants require fake identities that match their ethnic background (it's hard to imagine Zavala passing as, say, a Stacy Jones), victims of this type of name fraud are, by and large, other Latinos who are legal citizens. In fact, Lucero knows many friends who have had their identities used in similar ways and has close relations with people who use fake Social Security numbers and names for employment. "It's a pretty common thing among my people, you know?" she says. "What really disturbs me is that it could have been someone close to me that betrayed me. But I'll never know."

On the grayish morning of February 22, Guillermina Zavala's name is near the bottom of the list for second-advisement hearings in Denver County courtroom 12T.

Zavala had been released on bond after being questioned by the police; during that interrogation, she claimed not to speak English and then refused to talk to a Spanish-speaking officer when one was produced. While the original arrest warrant designated $10,000 bail, the judge Zavala appeared before on February 4 lowered the amount to $2,000. Records show that a man from Thornton posted the cash bond, promising that Zavala would appear at a hearing on February 22.

On that day, Judge John Marcucci fires off an impatient monotone at the scraggly procession of suspected crack addicts, serial shoplifters, check forgers and parole violators. Guilty? Not guilty? Next! In the galley, defense attorneys whisper hurriedly with their clients. The female clerk stands and reads names off the docket, flipping to the next file if no one responds.

Slouching at the lectern, a man named Octavio speaks through a Spanish interpreter and pleads guilty to giving police false identification. Marcucci sentences him to five more days in county lockup. "Don't carry false IDs. Don't lie to the police. If you don't belong here," he barks, " go home." A hushed guffaw of disbelief rises from the room.

The clerk reads the next name. No one answers. The clerk repeats it once more, this time more slowly: "Guillermina Zavala." Then she reads the next name on the docket.

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Jared Jacang Maher

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