Operation Candlelight went into effect in 2007 when an informant alerted police and fire officials about arson scams for insurance money. The State Attorney's Office investigated a dozen house fires that it said were intentionally set for the sole purpose of insurance fraud.
"The ringleader was Alina Nunez, and she would enlist the help of six other organizers," said State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
Those organizers would then bring renters into the ring, have them buy renter's insurance and then set fire to the homes they were living in, prosecutors said.
Claims would be filed averaging in the amount of $100,000 for each of the 12 fires, adding up to a total of $1.4 million ripped off from fake insurance claims, the State Attorney's Office said.
"Everybody should be mad. This is a crime against all of us," said Fernandez Rundle, as she detailed the charges against the group of 20.
The suspects have been charged with arson, grand theft and filing fraudulent insurance claims, and the seven people accused of being the ringleaders earned an extra charge of racketeering, which could mean 30 years in prison.
Over a five-year span, the group of renters and organizers would purposely set fires to houses in southwest Miami-Dade and Homestead, according to prosecutors. Investigators said the criminals became so bold, they would even use the same furniture, family pictures, bedding and personal items from one fire and then plant them in the next house for the next arson scene.
The State Attorney's Office estimated this bust saved $350,000 before the ring could file any more fraudulent claims. Some of the homeowners that were renting their homes even had to file for foreclosure as a result of these arson fires, prosecutors said.
The suspects have been identified as Gustavo Diaz, Maria Ferrer, Alina Nunez, Raul Ferrer, Beltis Cabrera, Yanet Baldeiche, Carlos Castillo, Lizbeth De la Nuez, Daylin Espinosa, Mercedes Ferrer, Higinio Garcia, Teresa Garcia, Raul Hernandez, Mailliwnia Jimenez, Jorge Milanes, Maribel Mora, Ceilin Perez, Mario Perez, Camilo Ramos and Eduardo Rodriguez.