Standing together in Westchester County Court in White Plains on March 6, 2014, Jahmai Samuel and Alessia Velez didn’t look like criminal ringleaders. Samuel, who is 28 but could pass for younger, has long dreadlocks, a short beard, and glasses. Velez, 29, has long black hair and was wearing a black jacket with a fashionable scarf around her neck. Both are former employees at the Westchester County Center parking lot. When addressed by Judge David Zuckerman, each spoke softly, almost inaudibly.
From statements made in court documents, it is evident they didn’t think of themselves as criminals. Velez wrote about the struggles of being a single mother receiving no child support and helping her own mother financially. Samuel wrote that he never meant to betray the people who trusted him and added, “I know I’m not a bad guy.”
Yet the couple was in court to hear their sentences after pleading guilty to grand larceny. Samuel faced a maximum sentence of 15 years and Velez a maximum of seven years for their roles as ringleaders of one of the biggest scamming schemes in Westchester County history. In their previous confessions, they detailed the simple but astoundingly effective methods they, along with fellow County Center employee Marcus Harris, used to steal more than $195,000 in county parking-pass funds. In addition, 12 of their friends and family members were charged with helping to operate the scheme. It was a crime brought to light by a Westchester County Police/Westchester County District Attorney Public Integrity Bureau investigation that lasted a year, resulted in revised procedures for the way county Parks Department employees handle payments, and might never have been solved if not for an unexpected act of violence one summer night two years ago.
Following the money
On June 29, 2012, as Samuel and Velez were returning from work to their apartment on Eastchester Road in the Bronx, they were robbed at gunpoint by three ski-mask-wearing assailants. During the ensuing altercation, Samuel was shot multiple times. A story by reporters Erik Badia and Matthew Lysiak in the New York Daily News shortly after the incident portrayed Samuel in a heroic light.
“A Bronx man, defending his girlfriend during a stick-up outside their apartment, survived three point-blank gunshots during a fight with three ski-masked bandits,” Badia and Lysiak wrote. “The trio of robbers was lying in wait when Jahmai Samuel and Alessia Velez returned to their apartment Friday night from their jobs.
“Samuel, 27, was shot twice in the chest and once in the jaw when he came to Velez’s defense—and amazingly survived.”
Velez’s father, Ray Velez, was quoted later in the same article.
“According to [Ray] Velez, his daughter and Samuel were working…and returned home with about $2,000 [investigators would ultimately find close to $3,000] in their BMW.
“As the couple walked toward the staircase to their apartment, the trio of robbers emerged from the darkness and took the cash. Samuel surrendered the cash, but fought back when their demands escalated.
“‘They wanted to get inside the apartment,’ Velez said. ‘But he didn’t want to let them, and they had my daughter’s head down on the ground and he didn’t like it. So he started fighting with them, and they shot him.”
Although it must have been a harrowing experience for the couple, trouble of a different sort awaited them. Even this short newspaper account raised questions about them. Why did two Westchester County Center employees have so much cash? And how could they afford a BMW?
Police investigate shooting at 3245 Eastchester Road in the Bronx
Detectives with the 47th Precinct in the Bronx were wondering the same things.
“The NYPD detectives asked Samuel why he was in possession of a large amount of cash,” explains Kieran O’Leary, public information officer for Westchester County Police, in a detailed email to Westchester Magazine. “He told them that he was supposed to make a night deposit for his employer but he forgot to do so. He was wearing a Westchester County Parks shirt that night and he told them he was employed by the county. The detectives were suspicious of Samuel’s story about forgetting to take the parking proceeds to the bank after work and they subsequently contacted Westchester County Police to pass along their suspicions.”
Westchester County Police launched an investigation, led by detectives Edward Kelch and George Ruiz of the General Investigations Unit, which began the day after the shooting and officially ended more than a year later when indictments against Velez, Samuel, and the others were announced in late September. Detectives found evidence that, over a three-year period—from August 13, 2009, to June 29, 2012—Samuel and Velez were involved in a scheme of selling full-year, half-year, and quarterly county parking permits to unsuspecting customers who were told to write out checks to a third party rather than to Westchester County.
Customers were told that these “third parties” had lost their jobs or moved and no longer needed their parking spaces, and were trying to recoup a portion of their parking-permit fees. The names the customers were asked to write on the checks were usually those of one of the defendants or their friends or family members. Velez would have customers write checks to her son, while Samuel had checks written to his stepmother, brother, sister, and aunt.
O’Leary says investigators were able to unearth proof of the parking scheme through persistent detective work.
“[After suspicions were aroused,] county police began a review of the financial transactions conducted by Mr. Samuel and discovered discrepancies in the number of parking permits he had issued as compared to the proceeds he had turned in for those transactions,” he says. “It was discovered that he had circumvented internal controls to sell parking permits without reporting the transaction.
Mug shots of Alessia Velez, Jahmai Samuel, and Marcus Harris
“The detectives were able to identify permits that Mr. Samuel sold where he did not disclose the transaction and turn in payment. Then they literally walked through the parking lots adjacent to the County Center to locate the cars that had those permits in them,” O’Leary continues. “Then they ran the license plates on those vehicles and contacted the registered owners. Those vehicle owners all told a similar story—that they had gone to the County Center to purchase a permit and were told that there was a waiting list and none were available. They were also told that an existing permit holder had lost his or her job and was looking to sell the permit because they didn’t need it anymore. Mr. Samuel would tell the customer to make a check out to a third party, who he claimed was a legitimate permit holder, in exchange for the permit. Those third parties, in fact, were associates of Mr. Samuel’s. They would deposit the check in their account and then give him the proceeds.”
Ways to make a little extra money
The picture of Samuel and Velez that emerged during the course of the investigation was starkly different from the image portrayed in the Daily News after the shooting incident.
Both Samuel and Velez started their careers with Westchester County at Playland; Samuel as a ride operator in 2004 and Velez as a zone manager in 2006. Both ultimately were rotated to the County Center, where Samuel became a parking supervisor. In a written confession January 10, 2013, Samuel described how he became involved in the parking scheme shortly after becoming supervisor.
“[I learned] from other employees that there were other ways to make a little extra money by selling permits on the side,” Samuel wrote. “A couple of months later my brother and sister needed help, so I said, ‘let me give it a try,’ and the rest was history.”
In an August 22, 2012, written statement, Velez described how easy the scheme was. “Working inside the office, I had access to the parking waiting list, so would call certain people on the list and inform them that there was a spot available if they were still interested, but it was from someone who had been laid off and no longer needed or wanted their permit,” she recalled. “I would state that this person just wanted their refund and if they wanted their spot to officially get into the system, they would have to either pay in cash or personal check in the name of the supposed individual who was supposed to be retrieving the refund; at this time, I would provide my son’s name.”
Reforms rolled out
As a result of the case, Westchester County Center has revamped many of its procedures. The county appointed a new parking supervisor; it requires the financial staff assigned to the County Center to report directly to the Administrative Division at the Parks Department headquarters; it limits the number of parking permits distributed at any one time to the parking-office staff that handles sales to the public; it has installed security cameras in parking offices and booths; and it has installed a new point-of-sale system with increased controls and reporting.
“With these safeguards, we have a very good numbering system and a redundancy in a lot of what we do,” says Peter Tartaglia, deputy commissioner of Westchester County Parks, Recreation, and Conservation.
He adds that the procedures will continue to be reviewed and improved. “It’s fluid; we are always reviewing what processes we’ve put into place and which ones might need to be changed up.”
Although they were not announced until September 2013, many of these new safeguards went into effect shortly after the investigation began in 2012. “It was not announced right away because this was an ongoing investigation,” Tartaglia explains.
Although Tartaglia is confident the reforms will prevent future scams of a similar nature, he says Westchester residents should be aware of to whom they’re asked to write a check.
“You always have to be vigilant when you’re dealing with money,” he says. “If someone asks you to write a check that’s not to Westchester County Parks, a check being written to an individual, that’s a tip that there’s something wrong. If you’re writing a check for a parking space, you’re always going to be making it out to Westchester County Parks.”
I’m not a bad guy
At Westchester County Court in March, Velez’s and Samuel’s sentencing didn’t take place as expected. Velez’s lawyer, Kevin Griffin, and Assistant District Attorney Brian Conway disagreed on the terms surrounding Velez’s confession; and Samuel’s lawyer, Tony Ricco, missed the appearance. As a result, Judge David Zuckerman ordered the sentencing rescheduled to May 1. Although their court appearance was brief, both Velez and Samuel, who are free on bail, seemed contrite. Samuel asked when he could begin paying restitution before being advised by Zuckerman not to speak without his lawyer present.
Velez admitted to her part in the scheme in August and wrote that “being a single parent and not receiving any form of child support at that time, I would just use the money for my everyday expenses: my bills, gas, food, to help my mom, for my school expenses, et cetera.”
Samuel expressed regret for his actions to investigators in January. “I never meant to hurt the people who cared about me and put so much trust into me,” he wrote. “I know I’m not a bad guy and if it takes me the rest of my life to pay it back, I will. I also would like to add I’m sorry for bringing any of my family members into this situation. My aunt, mother/stepmother, brother, sister had nothing to do with my actions.”
On May 2, Samuel was sentenced to one to three years in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $76,765. Velez was sentenced on May 1 to five years probation and ordered to pay $29,445 in restitution, on top of $15,000 she paid at sentencing. On March 6, Harris was also sentenced to five years probation; he paid $7,325 at sentencing.
Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore has made it clear that she does not see Jahmai Samuel’s and Alessia Velez’s actions as victimless crimes. In a statement made after the initial indictments last September, she said, “This type of criminal conduct serves only to erode the public’s trust and confidence in its government. What makes this scheme all the more egregious,” she added, “is that these defendants thought that they could get away with their crime because they were stealing from some nameless, faceless entity with limitless financial resources, when, in actuality, they were defrauding every taxpayer of Westchester County.”