A former police officer in Alaska was sentenced Thursday to three months in federal prison and fined $10,000 for living in the country illegally under a stolen identity for more than two decades.
Mexican national Rafael Mora-Lopez was sentenced under a plea deal in which prosecutors sought a year in prison and a $250,000 fine after all sides in the case noted his outstanding record as an Anchorage police officer.
In court, the 47-year-old Mora-Lopez asked for leniency and repeatedly apologized to the public, friends, family, the police department and the court.
"I'm so sorry," he told U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess.
Under the law, Mora-Lopez could have faced a maximum sentence of 13 years in prison.
More than 40 pages of "glowing letters" of support were submitted to the court about the defendant, assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bradley said. Many supporters attended the sentencing.
"This is a very, very hard case because he was such a good person," Bradley said, adding that the flip side of the defendant was a life based on lies.
Mora-Lopez pleaded guilty in June to federal counts of passport fraud and false claim of U.S. citizenship. He had lived in Anchorage for more two decades posing as Rafael Alberto Espinoza, a U.S. citizen who lives in Mexico and works as an attorney.
Bradley said Mora-Lopez received a degree in chemical engineering in Mexico.
Authorities said Mora-Lopez's true identity was discovered after he applied for a passport renewal and the State Department noted someone else appeared to have applied under the same identity.
Defense attorney Allen Dayan sought five years of supervised release for his client without incarceration. He said Mora-Lopez was a good man who worked hard all his life and ultimately came to think of himself as Espinoza.
"He built his foundation on sand," Dayan said in court. "No matter how good a house, how good a person, it was built on sand. Once it was built on sand, he couldn't figure out a way out."
Burgess noted the outstanding reputation of Mora-Lopez as a police officer but said his life was built on a lie. Mora-Lopez was in a much better position to obtain legal residency than the vast majority of illegal immigrants who come to the U.S., the judge said.
"I do think there has to be some consequences for your actions," Burgess said.
Mora-Lopez, who is married and has a child, has been out on bail under home confinement and electronic monitoring. After the hearing, Bradley said Mora-Lopez will remain under the same conditions until the federal Bureau of Prisons decides when and where he will serve his term outside Alaska, which does not have federal prisons.
Mora-Lopez and his attorney declined to comment after the sentencing.
Until his April arrest, Mora-Lopez had worked as a police officer for six years. He previously worked as a city bus driver for six years.
A pre-employment background check by police on Mora-Lopez had found nothing because neither he nor Rafael Espinoza had any known criminal record. Mora-Lopez also passed a polygraph test, authorities said.
Mora-Lopez also was sentenced Thursday to 750 hours of community service and three years of supervised release.
Authorities said deportation issues are a separate matter under the jurisdiction of federal immigration officials.
The case raises questions about arrests and court cases Mora-Lopez was involved in under the assumed name, as well as his pension earned under the false identity. The Police Department has been preparing a spread sheet of all the cases he worked on in anticipation about potential challenges.
"Every time he came to court, the first thing he said was not true," Bradley told Burgess, referring to the practice of police officers stating their names when they are sworn in.
During his long residency in Alaska, Mora-Lopez also collected thousands of dollars in dividends from Alaska's oil-rich savings account available only to legitimate residents.
In June, he pleaded guilty to a state felony count of unsworn falsification. The charge applies to someone who knowingly submits a false application for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, according to state prosecutors.
Mora-Lopez, who has paid more than $27,000 in restitution to state revenue officials, is set for a Sept. 16 sentencing in that case and faces as much as two years imprisonment.
State charging documents say Mora-Lopez was acquainted with Espinoza's sister and somehow obtained Espinoza's identity papers. Federal documents say Mora-Lopez's wife, Margarita Cynthia Espinoza, had been a neighbor of the real Espinoza in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the 1980s.
Mora-Lopez was born in Mexico City and later lived in Guadalajara, according to the state court documents. Federal documents say Mora-Lopez entered the U.S. under his real name on a temporary visa, illegally overstayed the visa, then assumed the false identity.
In Alaska, Mora-Lopez used Rafael Espinoza's name, Social Security number and date of birth to apply for a state driver's license, according to authorities. Besides receiving permanent fund dividends, Mora-Lopez also used the false identity to vote in national and local elections, according to the federal court papers.
Mora-Lopez also used the assumed identity and citizenship to bring his future wife to Alaska and help her obtain naturalization as a U.S. citizen, the documents say. It was not immediately clear if charges have been filed against Margarita Cynthia Espinoza.
In 1998, Mora-Lopez and his wife filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 in the Espinoza name, according to federal court records posted online, which show the case was closed later the same year. Documents filed in the stolen-identity case say Mora-Lopez faced nearly $300,000 in debts and obtained a discharge of indebtedness.
The stolen identity case is similar to one involving a Mexican national who took the identity of a dead cousin who was a U.S. citizen in order to become a Milwaukee police officer. Oscar Ayala-Cornejo was deported to Mexico in 2007.