WICHITA, Kan. — For almost 12 years, a Houston elementary school teacher and an illegal immigrant living in Topeka have engaged in a tug of war to claim the identity of Candida L. Gutierrez in a case that has put a face on the growing crime of “total identity theft” in the United States.
On Monday, the real Candida L. Gutierrez saw her identity thief, Benita Cardona-Gonzalez, for the first time. Their encounter came inside a federal courtroom in Wichita, where Cardona-Gonzalez, a Mexican national, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for possessing fraudulent identification documents.
The plea deal Cardona-Gonzalez struck with prosecutors in January gave her less prison time, but guaranteed she would not contest her deportation. She pleaded guilty to an aggravated felony, which typically results in automatic deportation.
When Gutierrez's identity was stolen, the thief didn't stop at opening fraudulent credit and bank accounts. Cardona-Gonzalez assumed Gutierrez's persona completely, using it to get a job, a driver's license, a mortgage and medical care for her children. She even put the stolen name on the birth certificates of her two U.S.-born children in the spots where they list who's the mother.
Gutierrez and her husband, Brenden Marquardt, flew to Wichita from Houston for the court proceedings hoping to gain a sense of closure.
“I wanted to make sure I could see her face and she could see my face — so that she knew the face of the person who paid for living her dream,” Gutierrez said. “Because her dream was my nightmare.”
Cardona-Gonzales briefly glanced at Gutierrez while giving a hurried courtroom statement in Spanish.
“I accept my punishment and I accept my responsibility and I ask forgiveness of Ms. Gutierrez,” she said.
Gutierrez first learned her identity had been hijacked when she was turned down for a mortgage. Each year she trudges to the Social Security Administration with her birth certificate, driver's license, passport and even school yearbooks to prove her identity and clear her employment record.
She spends hours on the phone with creditors and credit bureaus, fills out affidavits and has yet to clean up her credit history. Her tax records are a mess. She even once phoned the impostor's Kansas employer in a futile effort to find some relief.
Both women had claimed they were identity theft victims and sought to get new Social Security numbers. The Social Security Administration turned down Gutierrez's request and instead issued a new number to the woman impersonating her.