An Elk Grove businessman was convicted Tuesday of cheating hundreds of undocumented immigrants out of their savings in an adoption-for-citizenship scheme that federal authorities called one of the biggest such immigration fraud cases ever.
A Sacramento federal jury unanimously convicted 64-year-old Helaman Hansen of 15 counts of mail and wire fraud and two counts of “encouraging illegal entry by an alien” for financial gain. Hansen could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and fined as much as $250,000.
The 3 1/2 week trial featured a parade of heartbroken undocumented immigrants from four continents who testified that Hansen and his partners in the Americans Helping America Chamber of Commerce migration program had promised they would become U.S. citizens if they paid upwards of $10,000 apiece to be adopted by U.S. citizens.
Assistant U.S. attorneys André M. Espinosa and Katherine T. Lydon portrayed Hansen as a con artist who bullied his clients into sticking with the program even after they learned that they either couldn’t be adopted or that, even if possible, such an adoption wouldn’t translate into citizenship.
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Espinosa called the verdict “a measure of justice for all of the victims in the case” who numbered more than 400 people. “It’s the first prosecution of its kind nationwide that we are aware of,” he said.
It’s not clear how much restitution the victims will be able to recover, but Lydon noted in her closing argument that Hanson’s companies took in just over $1.8 million in deposits, including $500,000 in cash.
Espinosa argued successfully that Hansen’s $250,000 bail be remanded, since the businessman, who entered the U.S. on an Australian passport, faces between 10 and 20 years in prison and represents a significant flight risk.
U.S. District Judge Morrison England rejected the arguments of Hansen’s attorneys, assistant federal defenders Tim Zindel and Sean Riordan, that Hansen had made two dozen court appearances after his arrest and hadn’t fled. England noted the defense had argued Hansen suffered from “grandiosity,” adding that “to a certain extent your client believes he’s smarter than everybody else. … That causes me to wonder about his judgment.”
Lydon, in her closing argument, said Hansen was “getting up to $10,000 a person by the time the scheme was taken down.” Prosecutors said Hansen’s scheme took in 471 victims who paid over half a million dollars total.
“He did this for years and had a 1,000 percent failure rate,” Lydon said. “Hansen knows his program never worked – adult adoption can’t result in citizenship.”
Hansen, who testified in his defense a second time Monday, depicted himself as a self-styled champion of poor undocumented immigrants. He wept on the witness stand, insisting he did everything he could to help struggling immigrants become good citizens, and told the jury, “There will be a big smile on my face in my coffin. I’m ready to go, I’m a happy man now regardless of this trial. … I gave them love.”
His attorneys argued that he suffered from grandiosity, bipolar disorder and an inflated sense of self importance. Prosecutor Lydon responded that the defense psychologist found Hansen was neither delusional nor mentally incompetent.
Outside the court, Zindel said, “We’re disappointed with the verdict. We don’t think our client did anything intentional” to harm his victims.
Riordan, in his closing argument, said Hansen “was either crazy as a fox or crazy as a loon. And squawking in incoherent ways is more like a loon.”
Riordan added, “If Mr. Hansen had intended to defraud or deceive people he wouldn’t have done everything out in the open and posted things on YouTube and seek publicity at every turn and invite immigration officials to his office. … There was no evidence in the record he did any of these activities for personal gain” or financially benefited from the scheme.
“One of the problems he identified is the U.S. is filled with millions of people living in the shadows, not paying taxes, and he sets out to solve the problem,” Riordan said. “A mess was made. People suffered as a result. That doesn’t mean it was fraud.”
The defense plans to appeal the case on procedural grounds. England set sentencing for 10 a.m. Aug. 3.