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California wildfire

A home burns as a wildfire called Camp Fire rages through Paradise.

Federal prosecutors have filed fraud indictments against six Northern California residents accusing them of falsely claiming they lost their homes in the Camp Fire in Butte County a year ago — including charges against a woman who tearfully told reporters she had to evacuate her trailer so quickly that she left her dentures soaking in a bowl.

That woman, Deborah Frances Laughlin, 64, was living in Willows, far from the fire, and was in fact in jail at the time, according to an indictment filed in Sacramento federal court by U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott.

Scott’s office said in its court filings that it may introduce several news media articles and broadcasts as evidence, including an interview Laughlin did with Capital Public Radio a month after the fire in which she said that she had stayed at three different evacuation shelters since the fire started and that she had been diagnosed with leukemia.

“I ran out when everybody said, ‘You gotta evacuate! You gotta go now!’” Laughlin told the radio station outside a temporary shelter in Chico. “My teeth were in the bowl soaking.

“I’m a mess. I’m just trying to find a place to live.”

Laughlin is charged with applying for and receiving $9,674.70 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as a federal trailer to live in. Federal officials said she had claimed to be living in a trailer in Paradise that was destroyed in the fire.

A spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the six indictments are part of an ongoing fraud investigation involving people who obtained federal disaster relief.

“In 2018, in the aftermath of the Carr Fire and Camp Fire, we encouraged the public to report any suspected fraudulent activity and promised to aggressively pursue and prosecute fraud and abuse,” Scott said in a press statement. “Today we are announcing federal charges against individuals who abused the goodwill of the taxpayers and claimed losses that they had not incurred. These investigations are ongoing, and we are not done holding people accountable for fraudulent claims.”

The blaze, which was the most devastating wildfire in state history, struck on Nov. 8, 2018, destroying 90% of the town of Paradise and causing more than 20,000 residents to flee. The fire killed 85 people. Many former residents whose homes burned have decided not to return. It has led to a recent land rush for properties purchased at low prices.

Pacific Gas & Electric, whose electrical equipment failed in high winds, causing the fire, has previously reported suspected false claims from alleged fire victims.

Also charged was Kristy Marie Tapp, 34, who is accused of falsely telling officials she rented a trailer in Paradise that was destroyed during the fire. She received $3,263.91 after saying she had lived at the trailer with two people who were her landlords. That couple was killed in the fire.

Federal officials also filed an indictment as well against Patrick Prigmore, 54, who received $12,837.71 and a FEMA trailer after falsely claiming he lived in a Paradise residence that was burned, according to court documents.

A fourth defendant, listed as Evan Palmer, 30, by federal officials, was charged with fraudulently obtaining $26,490.67 in federal payments after claiming he was burned out of a travel trailer in Paradise.

Two more indictments remained sealed as of noon Tuesday. Under federal law, people convicted of fraud in connection with a major disaster or emergency benefits can be sentenced up to 30 years, the U.S. attorney’s office said in court filings.

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