San Bruno Scams: Officials Watch for ‘Vermin’

Demian Bulwa, San Francisco Chronicle, September 17, 2010

Two women were charged Thursday with trying to impersonate victims of last week’s deadly pipeline blast in San Bruno, as state and local authorities warned that identity thieves, unscrupulous contractors and others seeking to wring profit from tragedy would be punished severely.

“We view them as vermin,” said Steve Wagstaffe, San Mateo County’s chief deputy district attorney, referring to anyone caught exploiting the fiery rupture of a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. natural gas transmission line, which destroyed 37 homes and killed at least four people. He said suspects would not be offered plea bargains.

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Wagstaffe said the two women suspected of trying to impersonate fire victims in hopes of getting free food and other aid–Sonya Smith, 44, and Lisa Justin, 42, both of San Bruno–were charged with five felony counts: commercial burglary, perjury, filing false documents, identity theft and welfare fraud.

According to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the women and two other people–Deonte Bennett and Niesha Taylor, a Bay Area couple–went to an assistance center that state disaster officials set up in San Bruno. There, they allegedly submitted driver’s license applications in which they falsely said that they lived in the burned-out area.

Authorities said the suspects could have been eligible for free cell phones and gift cards from PG&E and local stores such as Old Navy and Lunardi’s Market. But Wagstaffe said they were nabbed “in one of their early steps.”

Taylor and Bennett, who are both 25, are free on $25,000 bail, Wagstaffe said. They have not yet been charged.

Bennett, who listed himself as an Oakland resident, is well-known to San Francisco police, and is named in a city anti-gang injunction that restricts his movements in the Oakdale public housing development in Bayview-Hunters Point.

In January 2009 Bennett was charged with plotting to kill a 23-year-old San Francisco woman, but pleaded guilty to assault and got probation after the case unraveled.

Earlier, Bennett was accused of murder in the 2005 slaying of an alleged gang member, 20-year-old Arkeylius Collins. A bystander wounded in the attack, Terrell Rollins, cooperated with prosecutors and agreed to enter a witness protection program.

Authorities warned Rollins not to visit the city unguarded, but he was shot to death in May 2006 when he brought his car to a repair shop on Bayshore Boulevard. No one has ever been charged with the killing, which forced prosecutors to free Bennett and his co-defendant.

Bennett’s attorney, Joe O’Sullivan, said Bennett is a “delightful young man.”

“I’m sure it’s just a big mistake,” O’Sullivan said of the DMV arrest, “and he’ll be absolved of any wrongdoing.”

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“Vermin,” top: Deonte Bennett (left), Niesha Taylor; bottom: Sonya Smith (left), Lisa Justin.

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