A 37-year-old New York woman accused of pretending to be related to a young victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings and of seeking donations through Facebook was arraigned Thursday at federal court on charges of lying to a federal agent.
Nouel Alba, of the Bronx, was arrested as part of an investigation into fraudulent fundraising schemes related to the shootings.
She was released after posting $50,000 bail. She covered her head and face with her coat as she ran from the courthouse in downtown Hartford and, other than denying any wrongdoing, declined to speak to reporters.
Alba was taken into custody Thursday by FBI agents.
"This arrest should serve as a warning to anyone who attempts to profit from this tragedy by contriving fraudulent schemes that exploit the many victims, their families and individuals who sincerely want to help," said David B. Fein, Connecticut's chief federal prosecutor.
Investigators continue to watch the Internet for scams arising out of the Newtown tragedy, he said.
"It's unconscionable to think that the families of the victims in Newtown, and a sympathetic community looking to provide them some of sort of financial support and comfort, have become the targets of criminals," said Kimberly K. Mertz, the FBI special agent in charge of the New Haven division of the FBI. Alba's "arrest is a stern message that the FBI will investigate and bring to justice those who perpetrate Internet fundraising scams, especially those scams that exploit the most vulnerable in their time of shared sorrow."
According to the criminal complaint filed against her, within hours of the massacre, Alba had posted on her Facebook account that her nephew was one of the victims and that she had provided photos to law enforcement officers.
The following day, according to the complaint, she posted this on her Facebook account: "We've set up a funeral fund for my brother and families. Anyone willing to make a donation can make one either through [PayPal] or [deposit to a checking account]. We like to thank everyone for your prayers. We ask that you continue to not just pray for us but for the families who have lost their kid."
Alba claimed to be related to Noah Pozner, 6, one of the Sandy Hook first-grade students killed in the Dec. 14 shooting.
The federal complaint says that Alba provided contact information to several people who expressed interest in donating, including a New York resident. That person told federal agents that Alba "claimed to have had to go to Sandy Hook Elementary School and enter the crime scene to identify her nephew for law enforcement personnel," according to the complaint. No family members were permitted into the school.
Alba also exchanged text messages with the New York resident in which she claimed to have assisted other family members in dealing with the tragedy, the complaint says. In one text, she claimed to have been in Newtown when President Barack Obama went there to meet with victims and to speak at a prayer service. The New York resident asked Alba if she was watching the president, and Alba responded: "No, I'm sitting in my car. Emotionally, I can't deal with it right now. Tomorrow I'll see [Noah] in a casket and that will be hard enough to handle," according to the criminal complaint.
Alba also claimed to have met with Obama, texting to the New York resident: "I'm sure he'll give a good speech. He met with us, hugged us, even cried with us. He's really down to earth."
After the exchanges, the New York resident sent money that went to Alba's PayPal account, and a second person also sent money, according to the complaint.
In an interview with FBI agents on Dec. 21, Alba was warned that lying to a federal agent was a crime. She went on, the FBI says, to repeatedly lie about her conduct related to fundraising efforts on behalf of Sandy Hook victims. She denied posting anything to her Facebook page, denied knowing her PayPal account was being used to solicit donations, denied recently accessing her PayPal account and claimed that others had posted information to her Facebook account without her knowledge. She also claimed to have returned any donations she received, even though she had not done so, authorities said.
The state attorney general's office has fielded a couple of complaints about fundraising on behalf of Sandy Hook victims, according to spokeswoman Susan Kinsman, but she said those probably can't be called fraudulent schemes.
She said that Connecticut law requires fundraisers or charities to be registered before raising money for charitable causes. The complaints, so far, have been about fundraisers that are not registered.
"They're not charities," Kinsman said of the fundraisers that are the subjects of complaints. "They're people who are trying to raise some money for the United Way Fund or piggyback and give money to a charity fund that's been established."
She said the complaints have been referred to the Department of Consumer Protection.
Courant staff writer Hilda Muñoz contributed to this story.