About two months ago a white van pulled up next to Steve Valdez on the streets of Southeast Albuquerque and asked if he wanted to go to rehab.
Those inside offered him $100 for each person he got to go with him and promised that they could all stay together in a group home in Phoenix while they got treatment. They emphasized that he’d have to get food stamps and promised that after 12 days they’d get him a job.
The 53-year-old from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Towaoc, Colorado, told the Journal he was tempted to go — and he did want to get sober. But something about the situation seemed sketchy.
And then he was able to get some work doing roofing so he decided to pass up the opportunity. A couple of his friends were not so lucky.
“When they came back they said they got us for everything,” recalled Valdez, sitting in a narrow strip of land abutting the Albuquerque Indian Center. “They were pissed off. It was awful, they didn’t have no drugs, they were sick. The first day they took them to a motel room, the second day they were in the motel room, then they had them sign some paperwork and the third day … they just left them.”
It’s a story — about people luring victims across state lines, asking them to sign up for benefits to get treatment that they don’t actually provide and then leaving them stranded — echoed by many Indigenous people living on the streets in Albuquerque and Gallup.
Some know people who got in the van and have not returned. Or, like Valdez’s friends, they hitchhiked home from Phoenix, reporting that they were not provided services and were left alone to navigate the city.
Gallup police say they are still looking for 14 people who were reported missing over the past 18 months after they went to Arizona seeking treatment.
The FBI is now investigating a number of group homes for health care fraud, saying the organizers are “allegedly defrauding the insurance system.”
It’s unclear how many residential facilities are engaging in fraudulent practices. In response to questions, an FBI spokeswoman said the agency “continues to seek victims and/or any new information from people and families affected regarding this investigation.”
“Per FBI policy, we do not comment on ongoing investigations,” said Brooke Brennan, a spokeswoman for the agency in Arizona.
In a news release earlier this year, the FBI said they are aware that people are targeting Native Americans from the Navajo Nation and other reservations in Arizona, New Mexico and South Dakota and bringing them to behavioral health residential facilities in Phoenix for treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues. It said in some cases the victims are intoxicated or given alcohol on the trip.
When the patients arrive, the organizers ask them to get food through food stamps or change their driver’s license so they can get Arizona Medicaid benefits, according to the news release. The homes receive government funding to provide patients with therapy, but often “no therapy services are provided and thus no government funding should be received.”
The scheme has gained more media attention over the past several months and advocates have been widely sharing information on social media or on printed fliers. The Arizona State Legislature and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Task Force have discussed ways to take action on the issue.
But people are still falling victim to it.
Scammers seen often in Gallup
The organizers of the group homes are no strangers around Gallup, said Barry Ore, the program director of Four Corners Detox Recovery Center in the border town.
“Countless programs have shown up knocking on our front door that we’ve sort of determined are not reputable,” Ore said. “They’re not only recruiting off the streets, but they’ll show up to the front door of your treatment center, knock on the door saying, ‘please call us.'”
Four Corners Detox Recovery Center is the only residential facility in Gallup. With 45 beds, it houses 30 people for 30-day stays and reserves the remainder for those who are detoxing.
The dearth of options in New Mexico makes facilities in Phoenix seem particularly appealing, Ore said.
“When you’re living in an environment with so few resources for treatment and with so few social resources, it’s compelling to go to a program like that,” he said. “Because of that resource disparity if somebody really wants help and it’s just not available in the community, they might in that moment feel like ‘oh, this is my chance.’ And so they’re more vulnerable.”
In total 32 people who are believed to have gone to group homes were reported missing to the Gallup Police Department, said chief Erin Toadlena-Pablo. She said of 20 cases in 2022, three are still open, and of 12 cases in 2023, 11 are still being investigated. Most recently, on May 1, both a man and a woman were reported missing.
Over the past 18 months Gallup public service officers and detectives posted warnings on social media and distributed fliers to people on the streets who might not have phones or access to the internet about better ways to access treatment.
Toadlena-Pablo said they have been working with other agencies, including the Navajo Nation Police Department, the Albuquerque Police Department and the FBI, since the cases cross so many jurisdictions.
Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, said she first heard about this issue when someone texted her a social media post last year. She forwarded it to Sen. Theresa Hatathlie, a Democratic member of the Arizona State Legislature, who this legislative session introduced a bill to impose certain requirements on behavioral health residential facilities and fine them if they do not comply.
Pinto said a lot of the solutions have to come through policy changes in Arizona or through federal investigations since it involves multiple states and the Navajo Nation.
But in New Mexico she would like to increase funding for services to treat addiction and keep people safe so they aren’t tempted to go elsewhere.
“I‘d like to see more funding dedicated, and see some things built out in the rural communities,” Pinto said. “I know in a way, some view it as a black eye for their communities to have something like that and so a lot of people say, ‘Oh, we don’t have no problem.’ I don’t think it’s just alcohol, it’s substance abuse, addiction.”
Scheme hurts legitimate facilities
In Phoenix, the Creating Hope AZ treatment facility gets calls a couple of times a week from people who say they are at a group home where they are being given alcohol and drugs and they want to leave to get help, said marketing manager Lacey Greer.
She said she started hearing about this scheme about two years ago and has been keeping track of places she’s “heard bad things about — drug use going on and no classes and that kind of thing.” So far she has hundreds of facilities on her list and she has heard there are more than 1,000.
Creating Hope AZ serves the Indigenous community and includes a spiritual elder, drumming circles, beading and therapists who specialize in intergenerational trauma, Greer said.
“These other places have really given us a bad name,” she said. “So we’ve had to go through extra measures — which is not a problem — but to be extra transparent, offering tours for the family, sending out our license number to people, just really going above and beyond to make sure that people are feeling safe.”
Four Corners Detox Recovery Center refers patients to Creating Hope AZ and others they have vetted, Ore said. He said that for a lot of people it does make sense to travel out of state to get treatment so they can get out of a bad environment.
Ore said the publicity around the fraudulent group homes, while necessary to keep people safe, has also added more stigma around seeking treatment and more distrust of the providers.
“Often times if you’re approached on the street by somebody in a white van saying that they can take you to housing or anything like that, or a treatment, just be skeptical,” Ore said. “Ask more about their services, get their information first. I’d say to watch out for those red flags of offering money, alcohol or drugs to people to go to services, and especially out-of-state services.”
Sen. Hatathlie’s bill, which did not make it through the session, would have mandated that facilities notify a patient’s family that they are there. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, the first lady of the Navajo Nation, and Monica Antone, the lieutenant governor of the Gila River Indian Community, testified in support of the bill before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee in February.
However, providers, including Greer and Ore, raised concerns that it’s not always in the patient’s best interest to have family notified of their whereabouts and that they are receiving treatment. In addition, doing so may violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Victims promised treatment
In Albuquerque, Christine Barber, an advocate who works with women on the streets, said she and others working for nonprofits in the International District started hearing about the vans approaching people in January.
Since then she has encountered several people who went to the group home or were asked to go.
Barber shared a video she took in which a man recounted how he was taken to a motel in Phoenix.
The man said he spent about a week-and-a-half there before figuring out a way to get a ride to Gallup.
“I think the biggest lie that I was told was that it would be a fresh start and I was able to get a job and turn my life around and start putting myself in a better habitat and working environment, sober living arrangement,” the man said.
On a recent afternoon, the Journal accompanied Barber as she drove around Southeast Albuquerque handing out water, hygiene supplies and more to people clustered in alleyways and on sidewalks.
Down a dusty dirt alley near Louisiana and Central, a man from the Jemez Pueblo recalled how last month he was walking down the street with his friend, girlfriend and brother when a van pulled over and its occupant approached him.
“Hey, would you guys be interested in getting your life straight?” the driver asked.
He was tempted, saying, “I’ve been tired of living on the street,” and started to ask questions like: “What about detox?” and whether the program was 30 days, 60 days, or 90 days?
The response: “It’s all paid for and we can leave today.”
Ultimately the 29-year-old — who didn’t want to give his name because he’s living on the streets and using fentanyl and doesn’t want family to know — decided the offer didn’t sound legitimate.
“I am ready to go back to treatment and to get my life straight again,” he said. “For some reason, I don’t know why, I stopped to talk to them because … I thought that might have been a good chance to go, but I knew that just going straight to sober living isn’t right.”