A South Florida mom who brought her five young children along for the ride when she staged car crashes to make cash will spend even longer in prison because she put her kids in harm's way, a judge ruled Friday.
Ana Ovando, was already looking at a four-year prison term. Instead, she'll spend 6 1/2 years in federal lockup, U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks decided.
Ovando, 43, of Lake Worth, wept as her children — ages 3 to 16 at the time of the "accidents" — tearfully told a judge how much they love her and want her home from prison.
But federal prosecutors said the children's welfare was low on their mother's list of concerns when she put them in automobiles and deliberately got involved in three different collisions within a year on the streets of Palm Beach County.
"She put them all in harm's way ... using them for her own criminal gains," the prosecutor said. "These children were not in a position to say 'no' to their mother."
A jury found Ovando guilty of mail fraud conspiracy and mail fraud in October and prosecutors said she was part of a wider criminal ring that arranged accidents involving members of the conspiracy to make fraudulent insurance claims with help from cooperating medical workers.
Prosecutor Marie Villafana said Ovando's conduct was so egregious that she deserved a tougher punishment than federal sentencing guidelines suggested. She recommended more than seven years in prison.
"These children were exposed to physical danger — Ovando put them in a vehicle with the full knowledge that they would be in an automobile accident on a city street. Having the children present in the vehicle made the accident look more 'real,' and Ovando hoped that it would keep the insurance companies from suspecting fraud," prosecutors wrote.
After the accidents, she made the kids lie to insurance companies and medical staff, and had them undergo chiropractic treatments they did not need, again exposing them to potential harm, prosecutors said. The eldest two children were involved in the first accident and all five of the children were in the vehicle for the second and third accidents she staged, prosecutors said.
Not only did Ovando force her children into the accidents, but prosecutors taped her phone calls from jail and caught her trying to make them lie in court about the case on her behalf.
The tapes also revealed the older children desperately pleading with her to stop involving them in crimes and allow them to have a peaceful home where they wouldn't have to worry about police officers knocking at the door, court transcripts showed.
Ovando involved the children in other criminal scams, prosecutors wrote in court records, including a case where she defrauded a Guatemalan couple out of $20,000 by claiming she could help them get immigration "green cards." She also used the youngest child's baby carriage to conceal her shoplifting spoils, got her children to make "three-way" phone calls for her when she called them from jail to try to perpetrate other frauds, and she engaged in food-stamp fraud, prosecutors said.
But the four daughters and one son, now ages 7 to 18, gulped out words of love for their mother between sobs on the witness stand and asked the judge to give her a break.
Ovando's defense attorney had planned only to have the four older children testify but nobody had the heart to stop the 7-year-old daughter, who is not being named by the Sun Sentinel because of her age, when she wandered into the witness stand — while everyone was distracted — and made it clear she wanted to do her part to help her mommy.
Most of what she said was incoherent because she was sobbing so hard but she replied with a vigorous "Yes" when asked if she loved her mother and wanted her to come home.
She tried to smile through her tears at her handcuffed and shackled mother as she walked back to her seat.
Ovando's 18-year-old daughter told the judge she had hoped to go to college because "I don't want to live like my parents." But she had to drop out of high school and works at a fast food restaurant to help the family make ends meet and helps take care of her siblings.
She said their lives are worse without Ovando: "Our mom is everything to us."
The children and their dad, Ovando's husband, Pedro Ovando, told the judge that Ovando is a caring mother who drove her children to school, sports activities and the doctor's office, in between working as a cleaner. Her husband said he gave up his job as a long-distance truck driver to help care for the children after his wife was jailed but the two eldest children have dropped out of school so they can care for the family and one child is being home-schooled.
A neighbor, Jimmy Vidal, told the judge Ovando was "a dedicated mother, a perfect mother for her children."
But the judge told Ovando she had not been a good example for her children and said it was very "unfortunate" that she used them in her crimes and exposed them to danger. He also said she illegally
tried to influence witnesses not to testify against her. Staging accidents is "particularly injurious to society," he said.
After considering everything, the judge sentenced Ovando to 6 1/2 years in federal prison and ordered her to pay $71,300 in restitution to the insurance companies. He also ordered she must be turned over for deportation to her native Dominican Republic when she is eligible for release from prison.