Though the former New York City police officers and firefighters were supposed to be fully disabled - some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after the 9/11 terrorist attacks - images in court documents released Tuesday painted a starkly different picture.
One man smiled behind shades and flipped the bird aboard a Sea-Doo personal watercraft. Another sat at the controls of a helicopter. A mixed martial arts instructor posed with arms crossed. They're seen riding motorcycles, hauling in massive sailfish, slugging softballs for the "NYPD Blues," taking jump shots, running half marathons and golfing, and even giving television news interviews while selling cannoli at Manhattan's famed San Genaro festival.
They are among the more than 100 retired New York City police and firefighters indicted in a massive Social Security disability scam involving hundreds of millions of dollars, authorities said. More than half the recipients received funds for fraudulent claims for PTSD in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center.
"We will chase down every penny that these dishonorable thieves fraudulently pilfered so that the truly heroic firefighters, police officers, medics, and civilians who actually risked their lives on September 11, 2001, and are now suffering because of it, can get the care that they critically need," said James T. Hayes, Jr., special agent-in-charge of Homeland Security Investigations New York.
The alleged scam spanned more than two decades, with law enforcement officers and firefighters coached on how to behave during doctor visits in order to qualify for full disability benefits, officials said.
"As a New Yorker, as a U.S. citizen, I can only express disgust at the actions of these individuals involved in this scheme, particularly the 72 former members of the New York City Police Department who have certainly disgraced themselves, embarrassed their families, with their abuse of this system," Police Commissioner William Bratton said at a news conference. "The idea that many of them chose the events of 9/11 to claim as the basis of the disability brings further dishonor to themselves."
The defendants received up to $50,000 a year because, they claimed, they were no longer able to work, officials said. Many of the claims allegedly involved work-related trauma caused by the 9/11 terror attacks. The 9/11-related claims alone totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars.
All the defendants pleaded not guilty Tuesday, according to the Manhattan district attorney's office.
The main defendants were identified as Raymond Lavallee, 83, a lawyer and former FBI agent and Nassau County prosecutor; Thomas Hale, 89, a disability consultant; John Minerva, 61, a union official for the Detectives' Endowment Association; and Joseph Esposito, 64, a retired police officer. Lavallee also was chief of the rackets bureau in the Nassau County District Attorney's office.
Lawyers for Lavallee, Hale and Esposito said the three men deny the charges. Minerva's lawyer could not be reached.
"It doesn't appear that anyone doubts that initially every single one of these 104 defendants was in fact disabled," said Esposito's lawyer, Brian Griffin. "It appears to be the extent of their disability that's in question."
Raymond Perini said his client, Lavallee, a Korean War vet who went to law school on the G.I. Bill, will regain his good name. "We're going to get that reputation back in court when he's found not guilty," he said.
Prosecutors said the men allegedly directed and coached hundreds of Social Security Disability Insurance applicants, including many retirees of the NYPD and FDNY, to lie about psychiatric conditions in order to obtain benefits.
The charges include grand larceny in the first and second degrees, and attempted grand larceny in the second degree. The remaining 102 defendants, all recipients of Social Security disability benefits, were charged with grand larceny in the second degree and attempted grand larceny in the second degree.
"It's a particularly cynical part of the ... scheme that approximately half of the defendants falsely claimed that their psychiatric disabilities were caused by their association with the terrorist attacks of September 11th," said District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. "This fraud not only forced federal taxpayers to finance the lifestyles of New York scammers, it also took away, importantly, the already limited resources we have for people who actually suffered from psychiatric disabilities. That includes, of course, the brave first responders who ran toward the fires on September 11th, and who now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other serious but very real psychiatric disabilities."
The average annual payment was between $30,000 to $50,000 for each recipient, prosecutors said. Of the defendants, 72 were also collecting pensions as retirees of the NYPD, eight from the New York City Fire Department, five from the New York Department of Correction and one from the Nassau County Police Department.
Prosecutors said the defendants were meticulously instructed on how to fail memory tests with plausibility, how to dress and how to behave. Nearly every application included identical descriptions of the activities of daily living: "I nap on and off during the day;" "I have the TV on to keep me company;" "I'm up and down all night long."
The leaders of the scheme allegedly collected one-time cash payments based on the monthly disability awards - ranging from approximately $20,000 to $50,000, prosecutors said. In addition, Lavallee also received $6,000 directly from the government for attorney's fees for each applicant.
The applicants were instructed to withdraw cash from the bank in increments under $10,000 to avoid raising suspicion or require the filing of government currency reports, according to court papers.
Some of those charged went on to hold other jobs, including teaching martial arts, even though the full disability they received involved a diagnosis that they were so traumatized they were incapable of performing any kind of work, officials added.
In some instances, prosecutor said, the total amount fraudulently obtained was nearly $500,000 per applicant. The average Social Security Disability Insurance payment to date for the defendants, which included retroactive lump sum payments, was about $210,000.
"The applicants were coached to tell Social Security Administration they were unable to perform basic life skills, like cooking for themselves, grooming themselves, paying bills and socializing," Vance said.
"Many said they could no longer drive or be out of the house for more than a short walk around the house. The investigation revealed lifestyles that were very different ... One defendant who retired from the police department after an alleged neck injury, and later claimed psychiatric issues ... taught martial arts .. Another former police officer who claimed he could not go outside because he was too depressed and would have panic attacks, posted on Facebook this jetski photo. And ... another police officer claimed identical ailments, and an inability to socialize or leave the house, posted this photo from a fishing trip."
Vance said the indictment was "just the beginning" and that investigation "uncovered additional information which will be carefully reviewed over the upcoming months."
From the loudspeakers of New York police patrol cars and search vehicles, Avonte Oquendo's mother calls for him.
She urges the 14-year-old autistic boy to walk toward the flashing blue and white lights of the emergency vehicles that have been combing the streets for him.
The recording is part of the New York Police Department's stepped up search efforts to find Avonte, who was last seen on surveillance video running out of Center Boulevard School in Long Island City on the afternoon of October 4, Keith Brooks, director of operations for CityWide Disaster Services, said Thursday.
"Avonte, this is your mother. You are safe. Walk toward the lights," the message repeats.
The hope is the teen, who is unable to communicate verbally, will hear the sound of his mother's voice and approach the emergency vehicles.
In New York, a city-wide search is underway for a missing autistic boy, 14, who disappeared two weeks ago.
“A source close to the investigation tells CNN searches are concentrating on a five-block area around the school with particular focus on a marshy landfall, thinking cameras don't show the child going into the neighborhood so he may have headed towards the water,” reports CNN's Don Lemon.
But the young boy’s father believes he's elsewhere.
“I look at it it's part of their job to do that. but I'm pretty sure he's not there,” he says. “He didn't like—he didn't have some kind of feeling toward water, large bodies of water.”
Lemon reports, “water, an ominous fear for these parents.
“For now, they're keeping positive, trying to find one young boy among millions, one family with an entire city behind them.”