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Mexican national pleads guilty in illegal immigration case

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    Martha Buendia-Chavarria, center left, leaves the Federal Court House Friday, June 15, 2018, in downtown Toledo.

    The Blade/Katie Rausch
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  • hearing16

    Martha Buendia-Chavarria leaves the Federal Court House Friday, June 15, 2018, in downtown Toledo.

    The Blade/Katie Rausch
    Buy This Image

A woman charged with forging records and stealing identities in connection to an illegal immigration case pleaded guilty Friday in federal court to manufacturing fraudulent documents and aggravated identity theft, among other crimes.

Federal agents accused Martha Buendia-Chavarria — a Mexican national and resident of Marion, Ohio — of manufacturing false identity documents and passing them to illegal immigrants seeking employment in northwest Ohio, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in October. She would meet clients at the Papa John’s or Domino’s Pizza restaurants near her home in Marion, according to the complaint.

On Friday in U.S. District Court in Toledo, Buendia-Chavarria pleaded guilty to all charges laid out in an indictment filed against her in December. Handcuffed with a metal chain around her waist, Buendia-Chavarria, 44, wore a sweatshirt that bore the initials of the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio, located near Stryker, where she has been held since June 8.

The complaint filed against Buendia-Chavarria marked the beginning of a broader investigation, culminating earlier this month in concurrent ICE raids at Corso’s Flower and Garden Centers in Sandusky and Castalia, Ohio.

Federal agents traced counterfeit documents produced by Buendia-Chavarria to workers at Corso’s, said Mike Tobin, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Ohio.

Buendia-Chavarria through a translator said she came to the U.S. with her husband in 2005 after working in Mexico to earn money for her impoverished family. Her husband had a “sickness of jealousy,” she said in court, that made him overly possessive.

She spent all her time serving her husband and driving him to Columbus, where he conducted secret business, she said. At one point, he left the United States for Mexico, telling her that she would starve without him. Not expecting him to return, she began a relationship with another man, a close friend who later died. But six months later, her husband came back.

More “bipolar” than before, he would stop her from interacting with male customers in fits of jealousy, she said, so she stopped working out of their food truck. To earn extra income, she, her husband, and several others started a counterfeit document manufacturing and distribution business. In her home, she helped manufacture fake identities, which she would pass to a vendor to sell. Buendia-Chavarria described the decision to participate as an act of submission to her husband.

“I was always afraid of my husband. He was always an aggressive person. I can’t understand how it was that he had the power that he used,” she said. “I always obeyed him; I was afraid of him.”

The prosecution claims that Buendia-Chavarria manufactured around 1,000 fake identity documents.

“One thousand documents sounds like a lot to me, but it could be that I’m wrong,” Buendia-Chavarria said through a translator. “I was wrong a lot.”

Buendia-Chavarria’s sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 9. Before then, the defense and prosecution will each submit reports to the judge with recommendations for her sentence.

She has two children in the U.S., ages 12 and 20. U.S. District Court Judge Jack Zouhary said during the hearing that she would likely be deported.

Defense attorney Jeffrey B. Lazarus told The Blade he expects to recommend two years in prison for his client, the minimum period possible, in his presentence report. But Buendia-Chavarria could face more than a decade of prison time, hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, and several years of supervised release.

“We’re going to be asking the judge to give her what we believe is a fair sentence,” Mr. Lazarus said.

Contact Lily Moore-Eissenberg at lillianme@theblade.com, 419-724-6368, or on Twitter @LilyM_E.

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