AZUSA — Whenever there were a few pennies left over from her $4.80-an-hour job at a candy factory, 22-year-old Alicia Santamaria would send them home to her family in Mexico.
No matter if it added up to be $50 or $200, she said, the Western Union money order that her mother and grandmother received every few months often would mean the difference between comfort and impoverishment.
"We are poor but decent people," said Santamaria, who lives in Azusa with several cousins. "I wanted to help my family."
In September, the $1,000 check that she had telegraphed to help pay for her grandmother's hospitalization never arrived. When Santamaria went to find the Western Union agent who had sent it, he was gone.
Distraught over her loss, Santamaria told the story to City Clerk Adolph Solis, a longtime advocate for the city's large Latino population.
Soon, nearly two dozen other immigrants, all of whom said they had lost money intended for family in Mexico via Western Union, had visited Solis with similar stories.
Last week, partly as a result of Solis' tireless work on behalf of the mostly Spanish-speaking victims, Western Union officials agreed to repay a total of about $8,000 to customers allegedly defrauded by the Azusa agent.
"I'm so happy for them all," Solis said. "You know there couldn't have been a better Christmas present for these people."
Western Union officials were apologetic about the incident and said that all refunds will be made on all claims with legitimate receipts.
"We like to look at it as a moral obligation to people who have been coming to that office," said Bob Suarez, the company's area manager for Mexico operations. "We're not going to leave people out in the cold."
Former Western Union agent Julio Marin was arrested on Oct. 17 by Azusa police on suspicion of grand theft.
The 26-year-old Costa Rican national posted bail but failed to appear for his Oct. 31 arraignment at Citrus Municipal Court, said Azusa Police Detective Robin Green. A $5,000 bench warrant was issued for his arrest.
Officials for the telegraph company originally had stated they would reimburse only those customers who could produce receipts from before Sept. 8, the day Western Union fired Marin and closed the Azusa office.
By last week, Western Union already had reimbursed customers for those losses, which totaled about $3,200, Suarez said.
However, according to police, after Marin was fired he allegedly set up another office several blocks away, where he posed as a Western Union agent. Marin worked at the sham office until his arrest the following month, police said.
Twenty-one receipts, all dated after Sept. 8 and totaling about $5,000, were collected from that period.
Critical of Company
Solis was critical of Western Union's initial hesitancy to repay customers allegedly defrauded by Marin after Sept. 8.
"The ones, I feel, who are to blame for the compounding of the original embezzlement by Marin, are the Western Union authorities who--in the name of expediency and a fervent wish to glibly hide the matter--instead of prosecuting Marin, merely fired him . . . thus allowing him to continue preying on unsuspecting clients," Solis wrote in a letter to the company.
Western Union officials, however, said they sometimes encounter reluctance from district attorneys to prosecute crimes that involve less than $10,000 and that, by shutting down the Azusa office, they had taken appropriate measures to discourage similar incidents.
"We certainly don't condone anything about this and we will do everything possible to preserve the integrity of our money-transfer business," Suarez said, adding that the decision to reimburse all the victims was delayed because the company wanted to be sure it could verify the authenticity of the claims.
Identification With Victims
Solis, who spent hours making telephone calls and writing letters on behalf of the victims, said that they had come to him mostly because he speaks Spanish and could identify with them.
"These are really dirt-poor, humble people," he said. "They didn't know their way around. They're just sort of dangling out there, and there's these sharks just circling around."
Eighteen-year-old Aniseto Portillo, who works as a cook at a fast-food restaurant, said he was bilked of $400 that was intended for his parents living in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
A 54-year-old Mexican immigrant, who asked not to be identified, said he had lost more than $450 that was supposed to go to a daughter in the state of Michoacan.
And Santamaria, who had given up hope of ever seeing her $1,000 again, said that news of the repayment was a good present for her and her family.
"Because of this," she said, "my Christmas will be happy."