Long Beach man was ringleader in DMV bribery scheme, prosecutors say

A federal grand jury Wednesday indicted four Southland residents for allegedly scheming to illegally obtain driver’s licenses for ineligible applicants by paying bribes to corrupt DMV employees.

Carlos Alberto Zea Londono, 58, of Granada Hills, and Eudelia Lopez Martinez, 50, of South Los Angeles, are charged in an updated indictment with one count of conspiracy to commit honest services mail fraud, a felony offense that carries up to 20 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Also charged are Rogelio Zazueta, 52, of Huntington Park, and Arestakes “Aries” Khachikyan, 54, of Granada Hills, who each face one count of aiding and abetting the illegal production of identification documents, which carries a 15-year maximum sentence.

The updated indictment adds two new charges and three additional defendants to a June 2020 indictment that charged only Zazueta with the aiding and abetting count.

Prosecutors allege that, from April to October 2016, Londono and Lopez negotiated the price that ineligible driver’s license applicants would pay in cash to fraudulently receive passing scores on the written test and/or driving test needed to obtain a California driver’s license. The cash payments ranged from $400 to $1,400, according to the indictment.

The brokers then contacted the scheme’s accused ringleader—Atanacio “A.T.” Villegas, 46, who previously lived in Long Beach and who worked as a license registration examiner at the DMV office in Torrance, according to prosecutors.

Londono and Lopez allegedly paid Villegas cash bribes to approve California driver’s licenses without applicants taking the necessary tests to legitimately obtain a license. The brokers allegedly also provided Villegas the personal identifying information for the driver’s license applicants.

Villegas then solicited the services of other corrupt California DMV employees who took cash bribes to make fraudulent entries in the DMV’s computer database to indicate that an applicant had passed the necessary written or driving tests—even though the applicant never actually took or passed the required tests to obtain a license, the indictment alleges. Based on the fraudulent entries, the DMV employees then unlawfully issued instructional permits or driver’s licenses to the applicants, according to prosecutors.

As a result, the California DMV prepared and mailed driver’s licenses to applicants that they were not lawfully entitled to receive. Investigators believe that more than 100 driver’s licenses were illegally issued because of the scheme.

Villegas is scheduled to plead guilty on June 21 to charges of honest services mail fraud. In his plea agreement, Villegas admitted that he and other DMV employees accepted cash bribes at least several times per week, and otherwise ineligible drivers would be directed to the window of a corrupt DMV employee with an “identifier” such as a red hat, in order to fraudulently obtain their licenses, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In a related case, Jovana T. Nettles, 44, of Norwalk, pleaded guilty on Monday to three counts of honest services wire fraud. Nettles, a former manager at the DMV office in Lincoln Park, admitted to fraudulently entering passing scores for applicants and issuing instructional permits for applicants who had not taken or passed the required tests in exchange for bribes. Nettles’sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 23.

In another related case, Taliesha S. Ratliff, 37, of Gardena, a former DMV employee in Torrance, pleaded guilty in August to a single count of soliciting and accepting bribes. She is expected to be sentenced in the coming months.

Also, Otto Escobar Sr., 63, of Granada Hills, pleaded guilty last November to one count of aiding and abetting involving programs receiving federal funds. Escobar’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 7, at which time he will face 10 years in federal prison.

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