On March 5, 2018, the Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call reporting an armed robbery at a home in Rio Rico.
When deputies arrived, court documents show, they saw that a back window had been smashed and the home had been ransacked.
The residents, Raul and Martha Escamilla, arrived at the scene and Martha Escamilla told investigators that she had been tied up inside the home and threatened by an armed man in a ski mask. Afterward, she went to a neighbor’s house and called 911.
When deputies searched the Escamilla’s home, they discovered $35,000 in cash – $6,600 in the pocket of a jacket in Saul Escamilla’s closet and another $28,400 in a vacuum-sealed bag covered in masking tape. The packaging had the number “80” written inside.
“The manner of the packaging is similar and consistent to packaging methods used by drug-trafficking operations for transporting the money into Mexico,” Saul Escamilla’s pre-sentence report states.
Escamilla acknowledged that the money belonged to him, but said it was savings from his auto repair business, and he admitted to detectives that he had been underreporting his earnings.
What’s more, he reportedly admitted that he hadn’t put the money in the bank because if he did, it might have caused his family to lose the benefits they were receiving from the government, including food stamps and health coverage through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS).
A subsequent investigation by the Office of Inspector General determined that Escamilla had defrauded AHCCCS of $75,069 worth of benefits for him and his family.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office charged both Saul and Martha Escamilla with fraud, theft and money laundering. However, they couldn’t come up with evidence to support the money laundering charge, Assistant Attorney General Joshua Moser told Judge Thomas Fink during a July 6 sentencing hearing for Saul Escamilla at Santa Cruz County Superior Court.
Moser said investigators looked at Escamilla’s bank account and saw records of cash deposits. But they couldn’t prove or disprove that he was involved in money laundering.
“The defendant said (the cash) came from his business, and that’s his statement. We don’t have information to disprove that, other than the wrapping (and) the circumstances in which it was found, and the training and experience of the detectives involved,” he told the judge.
In response to questioning from Fink, Moser acknowledged that the investigators did not review Escamilla’s business records or tax returns. They also didn’t follow up on a claim reportedly made by Martha Escamilla that authorities had once seized $14,000 in cash from her husband, but that he had gone to court and got the money back.
A big deal
Defense lawyer Charles Spector noted that the authorities had conducted a lengthy investigation into the source of the cash found in the Escamilla home, and came up with nothing incriminating. “I think that’s important to note at this time,” he told the judge.
As for the AHCCCS fraud, Spector said: “I don’t know why he did it, but maybe he had it made up in his mind that it comes from the government and it’s free money, it’s not a big deal. It’s obviously a big deal to him now.”
He noted that Escamilla, now 51, had no prior arrests on his record. He called him a hard worker, family man and a “man of the community.”
“He made financial decisions that were inappropriate, that weren’t correct. But all the allegations of extra activities, those have not been proven, nor should he be penalized for that today,” Spector said.
Escamilla pleaded guilty to one count of theft, a Class 4 felony. As part of his plea deal with the state, the money laundering and fraud charges were dropped. But he and Martha have to jointly pay $44,023 in restitution to AHCCCS – the amount they reportedly cheated the agency out of during the calendar years 2016 through 2018. (Moser said the $75,069 worth of fraudulent benefits reported by AHCCCS was for the period of 2014 to 2018, but the AG’s investigation didn’t include 2014 and 2015.)
Speaking during the sentencing hearing, Escamilla said he was sorry and ashamed for what he did, and promised to pay back what he owes “to the last cent.”
Judge Fink noted that the home invaders had been looking for something in the Escamilla home, and had left behind computers, jewelry and other valuables.
“They were obviously coming into your home to try to find cash that law enforcement officers later found when they searched the house,” Fink said.
The judge asked Escamilla about comments he had reportedly made to investigators following the incident, when they asked him who might have been responsible for the home invasion, and he said the Manzanos.
“Who are the Manzanos and why did you suspect them coming into your home? Why do you think they had an idea that you were hiding a significant amount of cash?” the judge asked.
Escamilla said that wasn’t exactly what he said. He said he had mentioned the Manzanos because the crime matched their m.o., according to what he had heard about them from an acquaintance who had served time in jail.
(It’s possible the reference was to a group that committed a home invasion on Wise Street in Nogales in 2016, some of whose members were said by authorities to be part of the “Manzano Gang.”)
When Fink asked Escamilla why someone would have known he had the cash in the house, he insisted that nobody knew about the money.
Fink then turned to the sentence.
“I want to be very clear that I am sentencing the defendant solely for the offense to which he has entered a plea of guilty,” he said, before announcing a punishment of 1.5 years in prison for the theft conviction.
The criminal case against Martha Escamilla is still pending. Meanwhile, court records show that the AG’s Office is seeking to force the Escamillas to forfeit their home, 10 vehicles and five trailers, as well as the $35,000 in cash found at the residence in 2018, to the state.