CHARLESTON - An indistinct Hispanic convenience store that sold Mexican candy, prayer candles and hot sauce also dealt in fake green cards and other identification documents.
And on Wednesday the scheme landed two men, including an illegal immigrant, in federal prison.
U.S. District Court Judge P. Michael Duffy sentenced the owner of Tele- Envios Tienda Latina at 1750 Savannah Highway, 37-year-old Fermin Gonzalez-Mendoza, to one year and nine months in prison and three years of supervised release for selling the identification cards.
Duffy sentenced another man, 37-year-old Daniel Morales-Ramirez, to two years in prison and three years of supervised release for operating the document-making "plant" out of a Goose Creek home.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dean Secor, who prosecuted the case, said officials made at least six undercover purchases of documents, including Mexican driver's licenses, Social Security cards and false permanent resident cards, commonly known as green cards.
Secor said Gonzalez-Mendoza is a permanent resident of the United States but that Morales-Ramirez is in the country illegally.
Prosecutors said customers had their pictures taken at the West Ashley store, and Gonzalez-Mendoza placed an order. A man and a woman behind the counter at the store Thursday declined to comment, but the man said the store no longer sells identification cards as advertised on its sign outside.
Morales-Ramirez filled Gonzalez-Mendoza's orders from a home at 13 Coral Drive in Goose Creek, according to prosecutors. No one answered the door Thursday at the three-bedroom brick home with dark-blue accents, and a "No Trespassing" and a "For Rent" sign hung in a front window.
Investigators first caught onto the scheme in late 2006. The following year they began using confidential informants to buy the fake documents, which sold for about $100 each and sometimes less if customers purchased multiple identification cards.
Gonzalez-Mendoza's wife, Marisol Pantoja-Loredo -- who manned the counter at his store -- told one undercover customer that men who work at the Navy base often buy the "newer laser style green card" for $300, according to court documents. Pantoja-Loredo received three years of probation for her role in the scam.
Investigators followed a car from the store to the Goose Creek home. When agents brought a search warrant there in July 2009 they seized cameras and phones, printers, a laptop, a typewriter, card stock, and blank Mexican birth certificates, blank green cards and blank Social Security cards, along with a .380-caliber handgun.
Two other men served as runners in the scam, driving the cards from the home to the store, according to prosecutors. Jesus Reyes-Saimont and Eduardo Chikar-Munoz both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to time served, which amounted to more than a year in jail each.
Federal agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Naval Criminal Intelligence Service and the Secret Service investigated the scam.
Reach Allyson Bird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5594.