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Orlando Sentinel

System Failure Turns Man Into A Victim Twice

By Mark Pino

February 4, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

It's a horror story, the kind that should make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It could happen to you or me.

Picture it. You're standing outside, minding your business. A cop stops and asks you a question. You answer because there's nothing to hide. The next thing you know you're on your way to jail -- even though you know you're innocent.

Everybody on the way to jail says they didn't do it, whatever it is. We rely on the system to sort it all out. Quickly.

Hector Omy Collazo was telling the truth to Kissimmee police. Officials figured that out 54 days later -- too late to spare him misery, fear and humiliation.

While ending up in jail is unusual, having your identity stolen these days is not. An estimated 9.3 million people shared that experience last year, according to a study released last month.

Collazo thinks his problems started with the loss of his Social Security card during a trip to Puerto Rico in 1998.

Experts suggest shredding documents that contain personal information, paying bills electronically instead of sending signed checks through the mail and monitoring accounts regularly.

That's all preventive. Someone should have checked out Collazo's claim of innocence. What's to prevent this from happening to someone else? Makes you think. If the system failed so thoroughly once, could it happen again?

I'm not sure that any one person or agency is at fault. It seems to me there's plenty of blame to go around. So, who wants to take responsibility?

First, there's the arresting agency. Kissimmee is reviewing what happened. Bet they find themselves blameless. But if the guy you arrest says "you've got the wrong man," aren't you obligated to double-check that you have the right one? Seems to me that the local agency that arrests a fugitive needs to be 100 percent responsible for verifying his identity. Things such as fingerprints and photographs should be readily available.

Next stop, the county jail. There are plenty of computers there, but officials say it's not their job to verify identities. That seems odd, given the fact that they had a copy of the fugitive's mug shot -- which did not match the man they had in custody.

Then there's the Sheriff's Office, which handles extraditions. Collazo was locked up under two different administrations. Did his complaints get lost in the transition? That's not really an excuse. Also, nothing good happened in local court.

Seems as if officials in Texas would have wanted to make sure they were going to get the right man back. The man authorities there want is black, according to information that was available to anyone who wanted to check out the facts of the case. Collazo is light-skinned Hispanic -- about an inch shorter and 30 pounds heavier than the man wanted in Texas.

No one gave any credibility to his claims. They probably hear it all the time. This time, it was true.

I don't think it is a coincidence that Collazo was released after his grandmother visited the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter started checking into the case.

Collazo was a victim of identity theft. Then he was a victim of the system. Let's hope he's the last.

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