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Stolen-ID Nightmare Finally Ends
A man spent almost 8 weeks in an Osceola jail. A photo could have freed him sooner.
By Willoughby Mariano | Sentinel Staff Writer
January 29, 2005
KISSIMMEE -- After nearly eight weeks in jail, Hector Omy Collazo pleaded with deputies one last time: Let me go. You have the wrong man. A criminal stole my identity.
The Kissimmee man had made the demand dozens of times since Dec. 4, when police arrested Collazo outside his grandmother's house on a Texas warrant for felony forgery. He has never been to Texas, he insisted. Collazo has proof he was in Orlando on the date of the crime.
No one checked out his story until Thursday at Orlando International Airport, just as a Harris County, Texas, sheriff's official was about to escort him onto a flight to Houston. Collazo said that didn't happen until the Orlando Sentinel began making inquiries. After faxing Collazo's photograph to Harris County authorities, the cop handed over $45 for cab fare and told him he was free to go.
Now Collazo, 23, and his family are asking why authorities allowed him to spend 54 days in jail when deputies, jailers and other authorities in Texas and Florida had access to a photograph and other identifying information that clearly show they were holding the wrong man.
"All I was asking for over and over again was for them [authorities] to fax my picture over to Texas," Collazo said. "All it takes is five minutes."
The Osceola County Sheriff's Office is looking into the matter to see whether authorities here followed proper procedures.
"I've extradited people all over the United States. I've never heard anything like this," said Lt. Mark Thompson, who took over as head of the sheriff's extradition office Jan. 4.
The local agency that arrests a fugitive is responsible for verifying his identity, said Scott Haywood, a spokesman for the Texas Governor's Office, which asked Florida officials to extradite Collazo. Texas' Office of the Governor sends information such as fingerprints or mug shots to verify the identity of a suspected fugitive as part of its extradition request. A photograph was sent to Osceola, but it is unclear if prints arrived. If the request meets state requirements, Florida's Governor's Office allows the extradition.
Used birth date
The man who remains at large called himself Hector Omy Collazo of Houston and listed his birth date as Nov. 10, 1981 -- Collazo's birthday, said Gabriel Vasquez, an investigator for the Harris County District Attorney's Office. He is a 5-foot-6-inch black man who weighs 120 pounds, according to Vasquez.
Prosecutors think he is an undocumented immigrant who forged someone else's name on a federal immigration document Aug. 8, 2003, so he could keep his job, Vasquez said. His real name is not known. Collazo said he lost his Social Security card in 1998 in Puerto Rico; that's how he thinks someone was able to steal his identity.
Collazo of Kissimmee is a 5-foot-5-inch, 185-pound, light-skinned Hispanic. On the date of the crime, he was at Hogar Crea, a drug-treatment program in Orlando.
"The residential program is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There's no way possible he was in Texas," said Joseph Hammerl, assistant to the program's executive director.
Soon after Collazo arrived from Carolina, Puerto Rico, in 2003 to join his mother and grandmother, he entered the rehab center to kick a drug habit. After Collazo left treatment in late fall 2003, he found work at Walt Disney World in housekeeping. He moved in with his grandmother, Carmen Jimenez, 60, who has cancer, to care for her and help pay her bills.
Collazo's life was improving. Then, late on the night of Dec. 4, he was walking outside his grandmother's house smoking a cigarette. A Kissimmee police car approached.
"Are you Louis?" Collazo recalls an officer hollering.
"No, I'm Hector," he replied and showed his drivers license. He was taken into custody when a computer check showed a person with his name was wanted in Texas.
Collazo thought he would straighten everything out at the jail and that he would be back at his Disney housekeeping job the next morning.
"I said 'Man, this can't be true,' " Collazo said during a jailhouse interview Thursday.
Instead, he entered a complex extradition system involving multiple agencies in Texas and Florida.
An arresting officer must verify the identity of a suspected fugitive, Thompson said. Harris County officials sent a description of the fugitive to the Osceola Sheriff's Office, which handles extradition issues in the county. A judge can assign the suspect a public defender to help straighten out a mistaken-identity issue.
In January, the Osceola County Jail obtained a copy of the fugitive's mug shot, which clearly does not match that of Collazo, according to jail documents. Jail officials said they play no part in verifying the identity of their inmates.
"I don't know if it's for us to determine the identity. We go by the paperwork we have," said the Osceola County Jail's interim director, Joyce Peach.
Family in disarray
After Collazo went to jail, his family fell into disarray.
Collazo's family retained an attorney in Texas who was unable to sort out the mess.
"We're a good family. We're a close family," Sandra Rivera, 40, Collazo's mother, said Friday. "What happens to one, happens to all."
Rivera took days off from work at an assisted-living facility in Hunter's Creek to fight for her son's release.
There was no one to care for Collazo's grandmother, Jimenez, so his cousin, Jacob De La Cruz, 17, had to help out. But he couldn't pay the bills as Collazo had done. Jimenez filed for bankruptcy in early January, Collazo said.
Collazo also missed a trip to Jamaica with his brother, a soldier serving in Iraq who was on leave during the holidays.
Now Collazo and his family must put their lives back together. This morning, he plans to ask for his old job back.
"All it took is a fax," Collazo said of the mistaken-identity case. "They've spent all this money to jail an innocent person rather than send a fax."