By FRED SHUSTER
and DORANY PINEDA
LOS ANGELES — A bench warrant has been issued for a locally based Ethiopian diplomat who apparently fled back to her country rather than face visa fraud charges that could put her behind bars for several decades.
But some Angelenos say the crime of visa fraud doesn’t fit the potential sentence that Desta Woldeyohannes Delkasso is facing if she returns to this country.
The bench warrant was issued Aug. 29 for Delkasso, an Ethiopian national who was assigned to the Ethiopian government’s Consulate General as the deputy consul general in Los Angeles, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She is facing up to 30 years in federal prison if convicted.
“I think definitely being behind bars for several decades for this is kind of a little excessive,” said Jason Darensburg, a competency trainer for clients with mental disabilities. “I think people do way more violent crimes and get less time for stuff like that. She was just trying to help her family.”
It’s a sentiment that Elijah Jones, an employee at Gotta Have S’more in Little Ethiopia, agreed with.
“When you’re trying to fraud … there’s prices to pay for that …[but] I feel the charges are pretty steep for visa fraud,” he said.
Delkasso, 54, is charged in a three-count indictment stemming from the alleged use of non-immigrant diplomatic visas for family members who did not qualify under federal regulations.
At the start of a scheduled status conference in the case last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lana Morton-Owens requested that the judge issue a bench warrant for the missing defendant, telling the court that Delkasso had purchased a one-way ticket to Ethiopia several weeks ago and had flown home.
“Based on the information, she has no intention of coming back,” Morton-Owens said.
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee granted the request, ruling that under the circumstances, “I do think that a bench warrant is appropriate.”
Morton-Owens explained to the court that Delkasso was under no pretrial restrictions, based on her job as a diplomat, although a third party had promised to pay $10,000 if the defendant did not meet her court obligations.
Defense attorney Kelly Swanston told the judge that she had been aware that her client had returned to Ethiopia, but indicated that she expected Delkasso to return to Los Angeles. Gee rejected her request for a continuance in the status conference.
Swanston declined comment outside the courtroom.
Delkasso, who faces three counts of visa fraud, is accused of falsely stating that her brother and his wife were “single” and “fully supported by her” and that their minor child was her “son,” according to the indictment filed in June in Los Angeles federal court.
According to the document, Delkasso caused the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send letters required for the visas to the Embassy of the United States in July and August 2016, stating that she would be accompanied by family members who would stay in Los Angeles until the end of the diplomatic term. The letters stated that her nephew was her “son” and that her brother and sister-in-law were her “dependents,” according to federal prosecutors, who said they were then issued A-1 diplomatic visas to enter the United States based on that information.
However, according to prosecutors, Delkasso’s brother and his son have lived in Washington, D.C., since their arrival in the United States, and as alleged in the indictment, never resided in Los Angeles.
“I think it’s a pretty sad thing that she’s going through that right now,” said Jennifer Barragan, a Hansen’s Cakes employee in Little Ethiopia. “I know she probably wanted to help her family to get out of a situation where they might have been in poverty or something like that, and to be facing so much jail time…
“That’s just a hard thing for me to hear. It hurts my heart that she’s facing that much time. … I pray for her and I really hope the best for whatever happens…”
If convicted, Darensburg believes a more reasonable sentence would be “community service, probation, minor jail time, but not decades,” he said. “That just makes me think of Nelson Mandela being in jail for all those years.”
Morton-Owens said prosecutors would now ask the Ethiopian government to send Delkasso back to face trial.
City News Service contributed to this report.