NEW YORK (AP) — A Marine Corps reservist who was charged in last year’s riot at the U.S. Capitol also schemed with a nurse to steal, forge and sell hundreds of fake coronavirus vaccination cards and destroy vaccine doses to fake inoculations, federal authorities said Thursday.
Sgt. Jia Liu, 26, was released on $250,000 bond to home detention with an ankle monitor after a court appearance Thursday. Nurse Steven Rodriguez, 27, was released on $100,000 bond.
“By deliberately distributing fraudulent COVID-19 vaccination cards to the unvaccinated, the defendants put military and other communities at risk of contracting a virus that has already claimed nearly 1 million lives in this country,” Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement.
Liu’s lawyer, Benjamin Yaster, declined to comment. A message was left for Rodriguez’ attorney.
The defendants are charged with conspiring to commit forgery and to defraud the federal government. The charges carry the potential for up to 10 years in prison for Liu, of Queens, and Rodriguez, of suburban Long Beach.
According to an indictment, Rodriguez, who worked at a clinic on Long Island, pilfered blank COVID-19 vaccination cards.
The two men allegedly offered customers the choice of buying blank or fraudulently filled out cards, with a premium-priced option: a fake vaccination record in the New York state and city databases that are used to issue vaccine passes.
A buyer who sprung for the add-on would go to the clinic, where Rodriguez would dispose of a dose of vaccine, forge a card and make a phony entry into the databases, the indictment said.
Covering their tracks by referring to “gift cards,” “Cardi Bs,” “Christmas cards” and “Pokemon cards,” Liu and Rodriguez conducted the scam through encrypted messaging apps and social media and instructed buyers to mask online payments as “consultancy” or “Korean BBQ,” the indictment said.
“I need to make an appointment for you with my buddy who will destroy a vial, scan your ID and give you a Band-Aid,” Liu told one contact in a message last May, the indictment said.
It said some of the fake cards went to Liu’s fellow Marine reservists, following a Pentagon order in August that all members of the military be vaccinated.
The scheme ultimately involved over 300 ill-gotten vaccination cards and over 70 fake database entries, according to prosecutors.
The Marine Corps “is aware of the situation, and we are fully cooperating with federal authorities,” Lieutenant Colonel Craig W. Thomas said in a statement.
He said the Marines had already taken steps toward administratively separating Liu before Thursday’s arrest. Administrative separation is a military term that’s akin to firing in the civilian world.
Liu was charged this past fall with climbing through a broken window into the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that delayed Congress’ certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Security cameras recorded Liu entering the building, according to a criminal complaint.
In that case, he has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges including entering a restricted building and disorderly conduct.
This story was first published Feb. 17, 2022. It was updated Feb. 18, 2022, to correct that Jia Liu is a sergeant, not a corporal.