An 83-year-old Mexican man spent eight months in federal custody in a rare prosecution of illegally collecting Social Security retirement benefits while living in Mexico.

Ruben Valenzuela Cota worked in construction for two decades in Wasco, California, and paid into the Social Security system. But he did it after coming to the United States illegally and buying a stolen Social Security number in the 1970s. After retiring in the 1990s and moving back to Mexico, he collected $242,000 in retirement benefits, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson.

Last Monday, a U.S. marshal rolled Valenzuela into a Tucson courtroom in a wheelchair for a sentencing hearing. Moments later, Valenzuela started sobbing in confusion as his attorney spoke with the judge, interjecting that he was ill and his months in a detention facility north of Tucson were taking their toll on him.

“I’m going to die over there, I just can’t anymore,” Valenzuela said in Spanish through a court interpreter.

“They’re saying what I did was a serious crime,” Valenzuela said as he rubbed the tears from his face. “My son was dying and I needed to work.”

Last July, Valenzuela was arrested in Tucson and indicted on charges of stealing government property by illegally collecting retirement benefits, as well as identity theft, lying on a passport application, and falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen, court records show. He pleaded guilty in December to the passport charge and faced up to one year in prison under his plea agreement.

Valenzuela appeared confused throughout Monday’s hearing and Judge James A. Soto was not satisfied Valenzuela understood the factual basis of his plea. Soto postponed the sentencing hearing until Thursday to give Paul Gattone, Valenzuela’s court-appointed lawyer, more time to explain.

On Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Walters said the federal government was “sympathetic” to Valenzuela’s age and health problems, but prosecuting him was necessary because he stole another person’s identity.

“While he may be old now, he was a much younger man when the fraud began,” Walters said.

The man whose identity Valenzuela stole went through a “high amount of stress” after discovering in the early 2000s that his Social Security number was stolen, Walters said, including an investigation by federal authorities who suspected he made a false claim of U.S. citizenship.

The victim, who also is an elderly man, felt he “couldn’t die peacefully” without resolving the theft of his identity, Walters said. The victim now says he can go to Mexico to be in the same place where his parents are buried.

The victim is not requesting restitution from Valenzuela, but the Social Security Administration does want restitution, Walters said.

Soto questioned whether Valenzuela should be responsible for paying the entire $242,000 or should get credit for the contributions to Social Security he made while working in California.

The judge scheduled a restitution hearing for next month, acknowledging the hearing could be a “futile exercise” because Valenzuela likely will be deported to Mexico and at his advanced age probably could not pay much in restitution.

After telling Valenzuela he caused the victim “a lot of anguish over what you did,” Soto sentenced Valenzuela to time served.

Social Security fraud prosecutions rare

The scope of Social Security fraud by people who are, or were, in the country illegally is unclear. At Tucson’s federal court, prosecutions of Social Security fraud are rare and cases that involve people who lived in the United States illegally are even rarer, according to a search of court records by the Arizona Daily Star.

The Star found seven prosecutions in Tucson’s federal court related to Social Security fraud since 2010. Only one case, besides Valenzuela’s, involved Mexico. In that case, Richard Reeb, a U.S. citizen, picked up checks at a post office box in Tucson for three years after his mother died in Mexico. He collected $36,000 of her benefits and was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison in 2011.

At the state level, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office accused 10 people in the Yuma area in 2014 of using bogus addresses to collect public assistance benefits, including Social Security and Medicaid, according to the Star’s archives. Many of the defendants were Mexican citizens with legal U.S. residency who lived in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico.

In San Diego, a Mexican man was sentenced in July to 37 months in federal prison after he stole a Social Security number and fraudulently drew $350,000 in Social Security and California state benefits, according to a news release from the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General.

In Valenzuela’s case, his arrest in July came after his Social Security payments stopped suddenly, said Gilbert Martinez, the husband of Valenzuela’s niece. Valenzuela renewed his passport, using the stolen identity, so he could speak to officials in Tucson.

Martinez drove him to Tucson to see what happened. Officials told Valenzuela “you need to sign some papers, and that’s when they arrested him,” Martinez said.

A law enforcement official asked if they had brought a lawyer, which they hadn’t, and then questioned Valenzuela for about 20 minutes before taking him into custody, Martinez said.

Fraud victim still alive

Standing in the courthouse hallway after her uncle’s sentencing hearing Thursday, Graciela Martinez said Valenzuela told her he didn’t know why he was being detained.

Graciela said Valenzuela told her, using a common endearment, “‘Mija, I didn’t steal, I never did anything,’ she said.

“He didn’t understand,” she said about her uncle.

Standing next to her, Gilbert said Valenzuela never grasped that the accusation against him was a “serious charge.”

The fact the owner of the stolen identity was still living came as news to Valenzuela and his family.

Valenzuela said in court that he bought the Social Security number from someone who told him “it’s not going to hurt anyone.” After the hearing, his niece said Valenzuela and the rest of his family believed the true owner of the number was dead.

To her surprise, “they interviewed me at Social Security and told me the man was alive,” Graciela said.

The person who sold the number told Valenzuela “I’m going to help you with these papers. This guy already died, he was more or less your age, two years difference,” Gilbert said.

“So he stayed longer and longer, started working. He put money into Social Security, a lot of money,” Gilbert said.

While working in Wasco in the 1970s and 1980s, Valenzuela would buy broken-down motorcycles in the United States and take them to Culiacan, Sinaloa, where he would repair and sell them, Gilbert said.

“He worked, sold things, took them to town, he always came by with his truck full of things that he bought, that he fixed up,” Graciela said. “He came and went for years.”

After retiring, Valenzuela lived with his wife and son in Culiacan before moving to a small town near Ciudad Obregon in Sonora, where he now lives.

On Friday, Gilbert Martinez said Valenzuela had been released from custody and immigration authorities were not getting involved, he said. The public affairs office at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed Valenzuela was not in custody.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar