Wounded Warrior At The Mercy of Jackals
As a senior Assistant United States Attorney in San Jose CA in 2013, I was in court when a rookie prosecutor was about to give a gift plea to a low life-scumbag. Always on the alert for an injustice (and believing that I know better than most, especially rookies) I helped myself to her file and was shocked that the proposed plea would be to misdemeanor theft at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Palo Alto. Why did this shock me? Because the victim was the young wife of a Wounded Warrior who had suffered Traumatic Brain Injury and the loss of both legs fighting for his country. And the poor kid was a medic to boot.
The more I learned the angrier I became.
Army Sergeant Brian Jergens was on his first deployment when he lost both of his legs below the knee and sustained a severe traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, internal organ damage, a broken neck, and damage to his right elbow in an IED blast in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, on August 7, 2011.
An Army Medic, SGT Jergens was the driver of the fourth HMMWV in a convoy that day, and was thrown from the vehicle. Life-saving measures performed by his teammates prepared him for medevac to Tarin Kowt Hospital and then the Kandahar Airfield Hospital. Next transported to Bagram Air Force Base, Brian would also be treated in Landstuhl, Germany before coming stateside. Arriving at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX on Aug.14, 2012, Brian remained there until September 19, 2012.
I grabbed the file and made it a mission. End of the story, I discovered a cabal of felons hired by a fraudster contractor – Valerie Lewis (“VLJ”) – as janitors, who were preying on helpless veterans. Felony convictions for aggravated identity theft and related crimes followed, as well as a damn thorough, but disappointingly fruitless, investigation of Valerie Lewis.
Veterans Affairs Police Are On The Case
A couple of hard charging VA Investigators, Brent Ferry and Jim Wahlheithner, took this case quite seriously.
They learned that the card had passed from one of two VLJ employees – Jerome Rigney and/or Joey Lovato (depending on who you believe) – to, ultimately, Lovato’s female friend Jamie Ortiz.
Lovato admitted he traded the card to his “friend” Jamie Ortiz for some pot. Ortiz then used the card to make small purchases and attempt to make large purchases, which attempts were foiled. She also put money “on the books” for a friend who was in jail, Fabian Ruiz, via Canteen Corrections a prison store, -and Global Tellink, a service through which you can purchase telephone minutes for a prisoner.
Valerie’s Lewis’ Employees and their Friends
What a wretched group they were, especially when juxtaposed to a hero like Brian Jergens. Two were hired by one of Valerie Lewis’ businesses, obtained by Government contracts. Consequently, she enabled them to prey on helpless veterans who had served their county with honor.
At the time, Joey LAVATO had arrests for: possession of a loaded firearm on his person in a public place; possession of an illegal controlled substance; under the influence of a controlled substance; , battery on a police officer; resisting arrest; driving on a suspended drivers license; robbery; possession of a controlled substance for sale; transportation of a controlled substance for sale; petty theft; petty theft with priors; receiving stolen property; false personation of another; possession of burglary tools; vehicle theft; false ID to a peace officer; and assault with a deadly weapon. Additionally, for good measure, numerous parole and probation violations and was a fugitive from justice.
Jerome RIGNEY’s criminal record: possession of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance for sale; exhibiting a firearm; assault with a deadly weapon; disorderly conduct; resisting arrest; battery on a peace officer; petty theft; transportation of a controlled substance for sale; receiving stolen property; petty theft with priors; shoplifting; disobeying a court order, and numerous parole and probation violations as well as warrants.
Moving on to Jamie ORTIZ – arrests for: burglary; public intoxication; motor vehicle theft; possession of drug paraphernalia; planting/cultivating marijuana; carjacking; possession of a controlled substance; motor vehicle theft; check fraud, identity theft, and making a fictitious check; being under the influence of a controlled substance; and DUI. Additionally numerous probation violations and several warrants issued for her arrest.
As for Jamie’s incarcerated friend Fabian RUIZ: arrests for possession of a loaded firearm;, possession of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance for sale; motor vehicle theft; resisting arrest; evading police; possession of a dangerous weapon; and numerous parole/probation violations as well as warrants for his arrest for failure to appear in court.
Valerie’s Service History
Valerie Lewis was a veteran of the United States Marine Corps (USMC). Lewis served in the Marine Corps from 1979 to 1983 as a personnel clerk – during peace time. We would learn that Lewis made numerous false statements to the VA to the effect that she incurred both mental and physical injuries as a result of her service in the USMC. The VA awarded monthly service connected disability compensation to Lewis as a result of her false statements. The fraud started when Lewis made statements to VA physicians, during a Compensation and Pension examination. Her false statements led physicians to believe that Lewis had complete occupational impairment, including that she had suffered post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – 20 years earlier!
That’s right. Lewis waited approximately twenty years before she advised the VA that while serving in the USMC she was allegedly kidnapped and assaulted by her boyfriend. The VA was unable to corroborate Lewis’s claim. Per VA investigators, no police records existed. There were no USMC records in her Military Personnel File to support Lewis’ claim that she was kidnapped and assaulted. There were no USMC medical records to support Lewis’ claim that she was kidnapped and assaulted. The only evidence that was provided were three very recent letters from her family members and friends, claiming that they recalled Lewis having mentioned something about a sexual assault while serving in the military.
The VA Folds
The VA denied Lewis’ claim several times but Lewis persisted, and was eventually awarded 50% disability for PTSD. Lewis disagreed with the VA’s findings. She subsequently went to a VA physician and convinced that physician that she was completely occupationally impaired. Lewis asked the VA physician to write a letter stating that she was completely occupationally impaired. She then relied on the physician’s letter to file an appeal with the VA in order to obtain 100% disability. The VA reviewed the physician’s letter, and awarded Lewis the 100% disability.
Further investigation revealed that Lewis’ fraud started on 1981 – with outlandish disability claims. A stack of claims “a foot high” according to the agents was assembled by the VA and a detailed timeline prepared. The aforementioned records showed that Lewis was collecting $3,300/month for a 150% VA disability, and another $1,700/month from the SSA.
Lewis then started a janitorial services company doing business as Valerie Lewis Janitorial Service (VLJS). Lewis subsequently certified with the government to be a Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB). The reason Lewis applied for SDVOSB status was so that she could bid on government contracts that were set aside for veterans with service connected disabilities. Lewis subsequently began placing bids on federal government contracts.
As a result she was awarded numerous government contracts with the VA hospital for janitorial services. Some VLJS employees provided information during interviews that Lewis is strong and healthy. Including the fact that Lewis often gets on her hands and knees to demonstrate to employees proper cleaning methods. Several employees provided investigators with information that Lewis personally demonstrated how to strip and buff tile floors using a heavy commercial floor buffer.
We then conducted a sting on Lewis. Her claim that she was a “disabled veteran was completely fraudulent – on a 100+% disability. 100+? No one at the VA could explain that. She was given every accommodation, including a free handicapped luxury car – the whole 9 yards.
So the VA did a sting operation and had a UC solicit her for maintenance on a borrowed warehouse. Lewis was recorded on video tape using one of those large, metal floor waxers, lifting heavy boxes to clear the floor and putting lifting then up on shelving. The VA investigators had her dead to rights.
This was one of my last cases before I retired. It was transferred to a legendary AUSA, Phil Guentert.
Phil would surely bury her.
Alas, a tragic finale.
I didn’t know it, but Phil had cancer at the time, and he was never able to finish the case, which ended up falling through the cracks.
Read his obituary here:
Amazing career, great guy, giant killer. We had a few of them in our office in San Jose.
Update: Wounded Warrior Brian and Jennifer
I hope Brian is and Jennifer are doing well. They now reportedly have 3 children and live in a custom home built to accommodate his injuries.