Hundreds paid to be ‘robbed’ by phony holdup crews to gain favorable immigration status, feds say. (The ‘robbers’ accidentally shot someone during one caper)

CHICAGO — Federal prosecutors on Friday announced charges against five people in connection with a Chicago-based scheme that staged armed robberies so the purported victims could apply for U.S. immigration visas reserved for legitimate crime victims.

CWBChicago had been working behind the scenes on the story, but withheld publication until charges were announced at the request of our sources. Now, we can tell you the incredible details.

Officials believe hundreds of people, including some who traveled from out of town, posed as customers in dozens of businesses across Chicago and elsewhere, all hoping to win favorable immigration status by becoming “victims” of pre-arranged “armed robberies.”

During a staged hold-up in Bucktown last year, one of the “robbers” accidentally fired their gun, severely injuring a liquor store clerk, according to one source. During that caper alone, five “customers” were “robbed.”

Suspicions

The staged robbery crew operated professionally, we are told. They used stolen cars and sometimes outfitted them with plates taken from other cars, for example. They had a second getaway car on standby. There were obvious signs of advanced planning and know-how.

But cops started to get suspicious. Why would four or five seasoned armed robbers go through all of that trouble for robberies that netted them virtually no cash? Most victims had only a few dollars with them, and the stores generally lost less than $100. Why were robbery victims going to stores to buy something without taking enough cash or a credit card?

Yet, despite the low return on their investment, the robbers kept working—two or three nights a week for at least two years, an investigative source believes.

Bucktown Food & Liquor, 1950 North Milwaukee, was the site of one robbery, federal officials say. A member of the staged holdup crew accidentally fired his gun during the caper, critically injuring a store employee. (Google, wwwarizmonterojazcom)

The police finally caught a break when they arrested one of the fake robbery teams. All of the members were juveniles, and almost none of them had histories of committing serious crimes. They were also more than happy to tell the police that the robberies were staged, that the victims were in on it, but they didn’t know why.

Federal prosecutors said on Friday that each. purported “victim” paid “thousands of dollars” for the privilege of being robbed at gunpoint. Ringleaders then instructed the “victims” to be at a certain location at a specific time to be “robbed.”

Ultimately, state prosecutors either dropped charges or decided against filing charges against the “robbers,” two sources said. After all, was it really a robbery if the victim asked them to do it?

It didn’t matter that the teens typically netted only a few dollars from the “customers” and maybe a little more from the store cash drawer. Cash payments from the scheme’s organizers supplemented their income, officials say.

Federal prosecutors said the “robbers” occasionally hit their victims, hoping to give the robberies an air of legitimacy. But things took a serious turn on July 13, 2023.

That’s when one of the “robbery crews” entered Bucktown Food & Liquor, 1950 North Milwaukee, for a scheduled performance. Around 9:23 p.m., three “robbers,” all masked and each armed with a handgun, entered the store and ordered five people inside to surrender their wallets, police said at the time.

As the phony robbery unfolded, one of the crew members unintentionally fired their gun, striking a 26-year-old store employee in the abdomen. He was critically injured, but he survived. The “robbers” ran out and jumped into a Kia that had been reported stolen from the 2600 block of West Haddon in Humboldt Park earlier in the day.

After the robberies, the “victims” went to their local police departments to secure documentation that they were the victims of a crime that qualified them to apply for a “U-visa.” That’s an immigration status reserved for “victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in an investigation or prosecution,” federal officials explained Friday. Some relatives of U-visa recipients also qualify for special status. In time, U-visa recipients may qualify for permanent residency.

Charges filed

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago filed charges against only six people Friday, including the alleged ringleaders, Parth Nayi, 26 of Woodridge, and Kewon Young, 31, of Mansfield, Ohio. We’re told investigators believe Nayi and Young met while working together at a Subway restaurant. Nayi allegedly recruited interested immigrants, while Young managed the “robbery” crews.

A source said investigators believe Young may have participated in a handful of “robberies,” but he was more of an organizer, telling the teens where to go and when to be there.

Officials believe Nayi and Young pocketed the fees paid by each “victim,” although Young allegedly passed along a small amount to the “robbers” to supplement the paltry proceeds they collected during each “holdup.”

The men are charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud along with four others: Bhikhabhai Patel, 51, of Elizabethtown, KY; Nilesh Patel, 32, of Jackson, TN; Ravinaben Patel, 23, of Racine, WI; and Rajnikumar Patel, 32, of Jacksonville, FL. Ravinaben Patel is also charged with making a false statement in a visa application.

A source stated that hundreds of additional “victims” involved in the “robberies,” many from out of state, are unlikely to face federal charges. They said officials had identified more than 100 people who “benefitted” from being robbed, with most being of Latin and South American origin.

The federal complaint identified 17 specific “robberies” for charging purposes:

  • October 6, 2022, at Fas Fuel in Lombard
  • December 6, 2022, at a Subway restaurant in Chicago
  • December 17, 2022, at a Subway restaurant in Elmwood Park
  • December 30, 2022, at Tropical Smoothie in St. Charles
  • January 10, 2023, at a Dunkin’ in Chicago. Bhikhabhai Patel was “robbed” here, officials said.
  • January 11, 2023, at a BP in Hickory Hills
  • January 12, 2023, at a Dunkin’ in Niles. Nilesh Patel and Ravinaben Patel were “robbed” here.
  • January 25, 2023, at Max’s Food and Liquor in River Grove
  • January 26, 2023, at Lake Villa Liquors in Lake Villa
  • February 8, 2023, at a Dunkin’ in South Holland. Rajnikumar Patel was allegedly “robbed” here
  • February 23, 2023, at a Dunkin’ in Chicago
  • February 28, 2023, at a Dunkin’ in Chicago
  • May 13, 2023, at a Subway in Rayne, Louisiana
  • May 30, 2023, at Trolley Rock Truck Stop in Belvidere, Tennessee
  • July 13, 2023, at Bucktown Food & Liquor in Chicago
  • January 9, 2024, at a 7-Eleven in Chicago

Not alone

In a case apparently not related to the men charged on Friday, a phony robbery at a Houston gas station in January ended with the “robber” being shot and killed by a witness, the New York Post recently reported.

Rasshauud Scott, 22, ran up to a couple at the filling station and appeared to be robbing them of their purse and wallet, the Post reported. A bystander killed him as he ran away.

“Police then realized there was a ‘pattern’ of similar reported robberies — and that the victims ‘had applied for, or been granted U-visas due to their status as victims of these crimes,'” said the paper.

CWBChicago reported in February that a man had recently walked into a Chicago police station to report that he had been robbed at gunpoint while walking out of a fast-food chicken restaurant on Christmas Eve 2006. The man, now 52 years old, brought along his wife. She confirmed his story, saying she was there with their daughter, who is now 22.

The officers at the station desk took his report, but noted that the couple told officers that their immigration attorney advised them to report the crime “so that they can expedite their visa application.”

U-visa problems

In December 2022, while the recently-revealed Chicago-based scheme was ongoing, Injustice Watch published a lengthy story that focused on two Chicago police sergeants who “denied hundreds of U visa certification requests from undocumented crime victims” that year.

“Attorneys and legal advocates who regularly work on U visa applications called the number of denials by CPD in the last year ‘unprecedented’ and said they worried it will discourage Chicago’s undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes,” the outlet reported.

Early last year, the outlet published a follow-up, saying Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office had responded to its story by launching an investigation of CPD’s U-visa process. When asked on Tuesday about the status or outcome of that probe, a Raoul spokesperson said the investigation is still ongoing.

The Chicago City Council considered two separate resolutions in light of the December 2022 report, calling on CPD to keep better records and be more transparent about its U-visa program. Six months later, the outlet posted an update: “Both measures were co-sponsored by more than 30 council members — and both died unceremoniously without ever coming to a vote.”

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About Tim Hecke 332 Articles
Tim Hecke is CWBChicago's managing partner. He started his career at KMOX, the legendary news radio station in St. Louis. From there, he moved on to work at stations in Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York City. Tim went on to build syndicated radio news and content services that served every one of America's 100 largest radio markets. He became CWBChicago's managing partner in 2019. His email address is tim@cwbchicago.com