WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — For almost 12 years, a Houston elementary school teacher and an illegal immigrant living in Topeka have engaged in a tug of war to claim the identity of Candida L. Gutierrez in a case that has put a face on the growing crime of "total identity theft" in the United States.
On Monday, the real Candida L. Gutierrez saw her identity thief, Benita Cardona-Gonzalez, for the first time. Their encounter came inside a federal courtroom in Wichita, where Cardona-Gonzalez, a Mexican national, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for possessing fraudulent identification documents.
The plea deal Cardona-Gonzalez struck with prosecutors in January gave her less prison time, but guaranteed she would not contest her deportation. She pleaded guilty to an aggravated felony, which typically results in automatic deportation.
When Gutierrez's identity was stolen, the thief didn't stop at opening fraudulent credit and bank accounts. Cardona-Gonzalez assumed Gutierrez's persona completely, using it to get a job, a driver's license, a mortgage and medical care for her children. She even put the stolen name on the birth certificates of her two U.S.-born children in the spots where they list who's the mother.
Gutierrez and her husband, Brenden Marquardt, flew to Wichita from Houston for the court proceedings hoping to gain a sense of closure.
"I wanted to make sure I could see her face and she could see my face — so that she knew the face of the person who paid for living her dream," Gutierrez said. "Because her dream was my nightmare."
Cardona-Gonzales briefly glanced at Gutierrez while giving a hurried courtroom statement in Spanish.
"I accept my punishment and I accept my responsibility and I ask forgiveness of Ms. Gutierrez," she said.
Gutierrez first learned her identity had been hijacked when she was turned down for a mortgage. Each year she trudges to the Social Security Administration with her birth certificate, driver's license, passport and even school yearbooks to prove her identity and clear her employment record.
She spends hours on the phone with creditors and credit bureaus, fills out affidavits and has yet to clean up her credit history. Her tax records are a mess. She even once phoned the impostor's Kansas employer in a futile effort to find some relief.
Both women had claimed they were identity theft victims and sought to get new Social Security numbers. The Social Security Administration turned down Gutierrez's request and instead issued a new number to the woman impersonating her.
And in another ironic twist, Gutierrez was forced to file her federal income tax forms using a special identification number usually reserved for illegal immigrants.
Their struggle finally came to a head when Gutierrez got married a year ago, and her new husband set out to clear her credit history. He traced the identity thief to Topeka and on the Internet he found a press release from the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas about the prosecutions of other illegal immigrants working at Reser's Fine Foods, the same manufacturer where Cardona-Gonzalez worked. He contacted federal authorities in Kansas, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson took up their case.
"I don't think we would ever have solved this issue without Brent's help," Marquardt said.
U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren called the case a "classic example" of the harm done by identity theft, saying people who characterize the cases as victimless crimes are uninformed. He said he had some reservations about the 18-month prison sentence and whether it was enough, but decided it was acceptable to meet sentencing objectives and bring closure to the victim.
Defense attorney Matthew Works told the court that his client didn't have an understanding of how difficult it is for the victim to get her identity back. He said after the hearing that Cardona-Gonzalez has authorized him to do anything he can to "try to fix it" so Gutierrez could regain her identity.
Still pending before the court is a prosecution request that Melgren order the Kansas Office of Vital Statistics to correct the name of the mother on the birth certificates issued to Cardona-Gonzalez's two children who were born in Kansas.
Anderson is also helping Gutierrez obtain a new Social Security number and sort out the legal tangle from the foreclosure of the house Cardona-Gonzalez bought in Topeka under the false identity.
Gutierrez said she did not know whether Cardona-Gonzalez's apology in court was sincere, or whether it should even be up to her to forgive her.
"I don't want to think about it anymore," Gutierrez said after the hearing. "It is done."