Six people have been indicted by a grand jury, charged with filing false claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency following the 2018 Camp Fire.
Three of those indicted appeared in federal court in Sacramento Tuesday afternoon and were charged with fraud related to a major disaster.
One of those charged, Deborah Laughlin, had previously been interviewed by several news outlets about Camp Fire recovery, including The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and CapRadio.
While she was at an evacuation center in Chico shortly after the Camp Fire started, Laughlin told CapRadio that she evacuated her Paradise home with friends. In a later interview with CapRadio, she said she was trying to replace her teeth because didn’t have time to grab her dentures when she was fleeing from the fire.
But the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento says Laughlin was actually in jail the day the fire started, and that before the fire started she was living in Willows where she was arrested on November 3, 2018.
The federal prosecutors say as a result of Laughlin’s claims, FEMA awarded her $9,674.70 in cash benefits and a trailer.
But Laughlin’s husband, Chris Laughlin, told CapRadio this week that she didn’t willingly lie to authorities to receive disaster relief benefits. He says his wife has a mental illness (which Deborah Laughlin confirmed previously to CapRadio), and that she doesn’t always understand what she reads.
"She was putting down where our stuff was stored, but she had somebody else fill out the paperwork, and she just signed it," Chris Laughlin said. "And it came back as it was her physical address, which it wasn't at the time.”
Chris Laughlin says he was incarcerated the day the fire started, but the address his wife reported in Paradise was indeed where he was living when he was arrested.
“It’s a big mess and we're trying to get it straightened out right now,” he added.
Court filings by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento say that at about the same time, November 24, 2018, Kristie Marie Tapp was claiming she lived in a rented travel trailer on Pentz Road at the time of the fire. Investigators say she filed for FEMA benefits and listed an elderly couple as her landlords.
On November 24, 16 days after the Camp Fire killed 85 people and drove thousands from their homes, Tapp filed for federal assistance, according to the court filing. Investigators say the address was not her primary residence and that she chose it from the Butte County Sheriff’s list of people who died and their addresses.
Tapp is accused of receiving $3,263.91 and is charged with fraud in connection with a major disaster or emergency benefits.
Patrick Prigmore is charged with filing a claim on December 3, 2018 that stated his residence was on Pearson Road in Paradise at the time of the fire. FEMA says it provided a trailer for him and $12,837.71 in assistance.
Evan Palmer is also charged with claiming he lived in a trailer on Clark Road, at a time the U.S. Attorney’s Office says he was actually living in Chico. He is charged with receiving $26,490.67.
Prigmore, Tapp and Laughlin appeared before Judge Deborah Barnes Tuesday afternoon. Prigmore was in jeans and a tan jacket. Tapp and Laughlin were in orange and white “Sac Co Prisoner” jumpsuits. All were shackled by hand and foot.
Their court-appointed federal defense attorney, Rachelle Barbour, noted that all had a history of property crimes, but had no violent crimes on their record and should not be shackled at the wrist. Judge Barnes agreed and ordered they be shackled at the ankle when around other prisoners.
Information related to the backgrounds of the three were foggy enough the judge said it was too early to consider bail. They are all scheduled to go before Judge John Mendez on Thursday for a status conference. Tapp asked to be heard, then asked to represent herself. Barnes denied both requests.
They face 30 years in prison and a $250,000 fine with a supervised release of at least 5 years to life.
According to the Chico Enterprise Record, Evan Palmer is already in prison. He was sentenced to nine years in state prison this summer for child endangerment and making cannabis honey oil at his home in Chico. The home exploded with him and his 5-month old daughter inside, according to the report.
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