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Inveterate identity thief changed aircraft registration paperwork so she could sell planes to unwitting buyers

Seattle — A repeat identity thief, who tried to flee to Canada while out on bond, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Seattle to 52 months in prison announced U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran.  MICHELLE RENEE HUGHES, 43, previously known as Jose Trinidad Gonzalez, pleaded guilty in April 2020 to two counts of mail fraud, four counts of false statements, and two counts of Aggravated Identity theft.  At the sentencing hearing, Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez said, HUGHES had “demons she was wrestling with in life,” and warned her that she faces increasing prison time if she does not change her behavior.

“This defendant has pursued identity theft and fraud crimes for more than a decade,” said U.S. Attorney Brian Moran.  “These are not victimless crimes—real people have to sort out the damage done to their credit and financial life.  In this case victims’ sense of health and well-being and their ability to help others was derailed by this brazen fraud scheme.”

According to records filed in the case, HUGHES (who has a 2011 conviction for identity theft) used her skill with falsified documents to engage in a scheme where she submitted forged bills of sale and falsely changed aircraft registrations in a public Federal Aviation Administration database.  HUGHES made it appear she had purchased various aircraft and then offered those same aircraft for sale, attempting to get payments from unsuspecting buyers.  One of the ‘buyers’ who responded was an undercover agent for Homeland Security Investigations.  In June 2018, when HUGHES showed up and collected a $1,000 down payment, she was placed under arrest.

When agents searched HUGHES’ Federal Way, Washington, apartment, they found  a large collection of identity theft material including false passport cards and identity material for HUGHES as a certified counselor at a middle school, as a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley, a flight attendant, and a counterfeit “World Passport” book with HUGHES’ photograph but a different name.  They also found identity material related to a victim from HUGHES’ 2011 federal conviction for aggravated identity theft.  HUGHES has a criminal history of fraud crimes dating back to 2007.

In March 2020, HUGHES and a girlfriend attempted to flee to Canada, even as trial on these charges was scheduled for May 2020.  Canadian border officials at the Blaine Port of Entry refused the couple entry, and they were returned to the U.S.  A search of HUGHES’ apartment following that incident turned up more identity information that could be used for fraud.

In their sentencing memo, prosecutors noted that the true owners of the aircraft have incurred legal fees and stress trying to get clear title to their planes restored.  One pilot, who volunteers to fly medical patients to appointments, was unable to assist five different patients while waiting for the title situation to be resolved. 

HUGHES seems unconcerned about living a life of lies. “… Defendant is singularly committed to defrauding people.  For over a decade, Defendant has continually engaged in fraudulent schemes.  Whether it’s stealing an identity, forging court orders, passing bad checks, forging birth certificates, lying to a DSS agent about being undercover, or impersonating a police officer and lying to a deputy sheriff about her death to evade justice, Defendant lacks any compunction about dishonesty,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo.

Chief Judge Martinez ordered HUGHES to complete three years of supervised release following prison and pay one of the victims just over $11,000 to compensate him for the legal fees incurred trying to clear title to his aircraft.

The case was investigated by Homeland Security Investigations and was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Angelica Williams and Brian Werner.

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