Prosecutors: Aide who fled arraigned in modeling scam
A 28-year-old woman who fled with her boss to Florida after he was charged with defrauding dozens of modeling clients of hundreds of thousands of dollars was herself arraigned in Nassau County Court Thursday on similar charges, prosecutors said.
Diedre Aquino of Freeport pleaded not guilty to one felony -- scheme to defraud -- and one misdemeanor -- conspiracy -- under a new 54-count superseding indictment. She sold photo-shoot packages and online memberships, and helped extract $2,200 from a client, Nassau prosecutors said.
They said she is the girlfriend of James Muniz, 44, chief executive of New Faces, a Hicksville-based modeling agency that closed after superstorm Sandy.
Aquino helped Muniz evade arrest by securing a car, helping him make cellphone calls and driving much of the way to Florida, where he and Aquino took refuge with his relatives in Hialeah, prosecutors said.
Muniz in mid-October was arrested in Florida and brought back to Nassau by investigators.
Aquino now faces a maximum sentence of 4 years if convicted.
The new indictment adds more charges for the defendants. And it doubles the number of victims to 100 who could have lost a total of as much as $500,000, estimated Diane Peress, chief of Nassau's Economic Crimes Bureau.
The defendants, who include three other employees -- Michelle Alperin-Smith, Jennifer Diaz-Domenech and Jennifer Santiago -- allegedly told parents their children would lose lucrative modeling jobs to other kids unless they paid the agency thousands of dollars to upgrade their contracts.
"That's the promise: 'The Children's Place is ready to shoot next week,' " Peress said. "All of these contracts were nonexistent."
"Some of these people don't speak English -- they're scrambling, going to their relatives because they don't want to stand in the way of their kid's tremendous opportunity," Peress said.
Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice and Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman uncovered the alleged scheme, which ran from January 2011 to November 2012, after parents complained their kids never got the promised jobs.
Other parents turned to Small Claims Court, Peress said. The probe is ongoing.
New Faces first sold parents photos for retailers to view online -- before pressuring them with the upgraded contracts, according to authorities. After it closed, some defendants complained to Nassau prosecutors that their payroll checks had bounced.
Muniz and his three co-workers, who all face up to 7 years in prison if convicted, all pleaded not guilty when they were re-arraigned under the new indictment before Judge William Donnino.