MIAMI—An excited Ellen DeGeneres announced the generous donation on national television. A man named Emilio had given $2 million for Puerto Rican victims of two hurricanes during the We Are One Voice — Somos Live! benefit concert.
“Emilio, hi, hi. Look at that,” said DeGeneres as she spoke with the man on FaceTime during the Oct. 14 concert.
It was one more sign of the supposed generosity of Emilio Serralles, who had become the benefactor of a group of volunteers in Miami, working tirelessly to collect donations for victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Serralles, who claimed to be a member of a wealthy Puerto Rican family that owns the Don Q rum distillery, had rented warehouses for the donations and chartered five airplanes to take them to Puerto Rico.
No one suspected that the apparent Good Samaritan was a fugitive with a long criminal record.
But the man nevertheless managed to board a private airplane at Miami International Airport and fly to Aguadilla, in northeastern Puerto Rico, to distribute the donations. He traveled with members of the Florida Puerto Rico Relief Committee, including singer Olga Tanon and Telemundo host Maria Celeste Arraras.
Serralles now stands accused of a nearly $500,000 fraud by two Doral companies — Commercial Property Group, which leased the warehouses to him, and Global Aviation Link, the cargo operator. They claim the man paid them with fake checks and fraudulent wire transfers.
Everyone was duped by an impostor. Serralles’ real name is Emilio Ismael Vazquez, 47. He has an outstanding arrest warrant issued in Orange County, Fla., in 2016, for violating the conditions of his probation after a 15-year sentence for fraud. In a statement, the Serralles family denied any links with Vazquez and repudiated the actions of which he is accused.
The story of the hurricane-donation fraud was first reported by Univision 23.
According to a violation of probation affidavit, Vazquez fled Central Florida after attempting to purchase three houses with fake checks, paying his rent with fake checks and draining his father’s bank account.
“He got his father kicked out of his assisted living facility because he was paying his father’s rent with fraudulent checks,” according to the affidavit.
Several of the alleged Miami victims in the hurricane-donations case interviewed by el Nuevo Herald requested anonymity because they have been contacted by federal authorities who are investigating.
Meanwhile, tons of food and medicine from South Florida and the Orlando area are stranded and spoiling at the Aguadilla airport, Univision 23 reported. Other donations languish in Doral warehouses.
“Nobody knew they were dealing with such a character. I don’t know what this guy was thinking, but Robin Hood doesn’t exist anymore,” said Rodrigo Narvaez, manager of the airline 21 Cargo, owed more than $400,000 by Global Aviation for the flights. “We feel very badly for Global, but we paid for the pilots, airplanes and landing rights, so we have to be paid.”
El Nuevo Herald tried but failed to contact Vazquez by phone and email. A reporter went Tuesday to an apartment building in Midtown Miami where he had told a lawyer he lived. A receptionist called a man listed as a resident under the name Emilio Perez, who claimed to be out of town. Florida arrest records show Vazquez has used the alias Emilio Perez.
Vazquez’s victims and the volunteers now wonder why he did it. There’s no sign he stole money, because the group did not accept cash donations, or that he diverted any of the goods donated.
Vazquez got involved in the Puerto Rico relief efforts on Sept. 22, shortly after Hurricane Maria walloped the island. That day he called the Isla del Encanto restaurants in Kendall, which was collecting donations, with an offer almost as incredible as the $2 million he allegedly offered on television to Ellen DeGeneres.
“We were in the middle of the collections when a man called offering an airplane to deliver the help,” said restaurant owner Rafael Acosta. “I passed the phone to a volunteer … to take down the information.”
Filled with hope, the volunteers quickly established the Puerto Rico Relief Committee. In less than a week, Vazquez signed a one-year lease for the Doral warehouses. He and two committee members then went to Global Aviation to contract its services.
They scheduled the flights for the Columbus Day weekend, Oct. 6-9. Vazquez paid with checks on Friday Oct. 6 and two flights took off over the weekend.
Vazquez and some of the volunteers flew to Aguadilla Sunday, Oct. 8, to distribute the donations. Monday was a bank holiday. By Wednesday, when the banks notified the companies that the checks were fraudulent, it was too late.
“Global Aviation called to tell me to stop the flights, that they had been defrauded,” said 21 Cargo’s Narvaez. “But the last airplane was already in the air.”
A Global Aviation statement said the company “deeply regrets the circumstances that prevented all of the humanitarian assistance from reaching victims in Puerto Rico of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.”
“Unfortunately, we were victims of a fraud scheme by individuals who wanted to benefit from this natural disaster,” the statement added. “We are now working with authorities and the people involved to determine who is the legal owner of the cargo. We hope that the shipment of the humanitarian assistance reaches those who need it as soon as possible.”
Telemundo’s Maria Celeste Arraras said that while the situation was “regrettable,” she took comfort knowing the donations that she and the volunteers delivered in Aguadilla “were distributed to civic organizations that handed them out to the victims.”
When the victims confronted Vazquez with evidence of the fraud, he told them to talk to his lawyer, Anthony Accetta. But the Coral Gables attorney said he never signed an agreement to represent Vazquez.
“He tried to hire me, but I told him we had discovered his true name and criminal history. He even told me that was his twin brother, who is the black sheep of the family,” said Accetta, a former prosecutor. “The man sat in my office and all he did was lie, lie, lie.”