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Fake victim faces prison in San Bruno explosion case

September 12, 2011 |  4:15 pm

An investigator sifts through the remains of a home following the San Bruno pipeline explosion. 
A San Francisco woman will face up to two years in prison for posing as a victim of last September’s San Bruno gas pipeline explosion in order to receive benefits.

San Mateo County District Atty. Steve Wagstaffe said Niesha Taylor, 26, was one of a dozen people charged with falsely claiming to be a blast victim for financial gain. All were charged with felonies. She is the sixth to be convicted.

“We heard the stories that came out of Hurricane Katrina and it offended everybody,” Wagstaffe said. “These were similar in taking advantage of people’s tragedy. From the beginning I said, ‘We have no sympathy, no lenience for these people,' and we’ve maintained that the whole way through.”

The Sept. 9, 2010, blast killed eight people, injured dozens and destroyed 38 homes.

According to prosecutors, Taylor and her boyfriend, Deonte Bennett, told staff at the benefits center that all their belongings in their rental unit were destroyed and that they needed replacements as well as new identification and other services.

Taylor pleaded no contest Friday to second-degree burglary for entering the disaster center with the intent to commit theft, filing a false document and identity theft. A plea agreement caps her punishment at a maximum of two years in prison. Sentencing is set for Nov. 9. The case against Bennett, 26, is pending and will be set for a hearing Tuesday, Wagstaffe said. He faces similar charges.

Wagstaffe said the flurry of fraud attempts in the wake of the blast showed striking similarities: people who falsely identified addresses in the blast zone as their own and claimed to have lost everything, including identification.

“They were all following the same routine,” he said. “Did the word get around on the street? We don’t know.”

The “worst” case to date, he said, involved Daniel Stansbury, 41, of Los Altos, who was sentenced in March to two years and eight months in state prison. Stansbury had twice posed as a blast victim, allowing him to collect two $1,000 gift cards from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. He also received a nine-day stay at the San Francisco International Airport Hilton. Wagstaffe said he then left for a four-day stint at the San Jose Hilton when he found the accommodations not to his liking.

Stansbury had also reacted angrily when he met resistance while trying to rent a car using disaster benefits, the prosecutor said.

“The arrogance of the guy,” Wagstaffe marveled. “He couldn’t get good room service. The chutzpah!”

Just a handful of cases related to the blast are still pending. Arrest warrants are outstanding for others charged in similar schemes who are at large, Wagstaffe said.


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-- Lee Romney in San Francisco

Photo: An investigator sifts through the remains of a home after the San Bruno pipeline explosion. Credit: Kimberly Archie / Associated Press