Kalihi woman pleads guilty to anthrax hoax
By David Waite
Advertiser Courts Writer
A Kalihi woman faces a maximum possible sentence of life in prison after admitting in federal court yesterday that she sent letters last fall to the Honolulu Police Department and a Waikiki hotel containing a white powder that was said to be anthrax.
Sharon Cardenas, 24, also pleaded guilty to a charge of using the U.S. mail to send a letter threatening to injure the recipient. That letter was sent in April 2000.
Federal Magistrate Judge Leslie Kobayashi set a sentencing date of Jan. 27 for Cardenas before federal Judge David Ezra.
When asked by Kobayashi to explain in her own words what she did that caused her to plead guilty to each of three charges against her, Cardenas each time answered softly, " I did so as stated" in the indictment against her.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson, who prosecuted the case against Cardenas, said he believes Cardenas' guilty plea is the first in Hawai'i involving an anthrax scare after the Sept. 11 attacks.
He said the letter that contained the bodily harm threat and the two anthrax hoax letters were all part of an "elaborate and sophisticated scheme" by Cardenas to try to frame her former boyfriend's mother, who is also her son's grandmother.
In each case, Cardenas signed the letters using the name Caridad Berzamina.
One of the anthrax hoax letters was sent to the Waikiki hotel where Berzamina worked, causing her to be fired from her job as a housekeeper, although she has since been rehired, Sorenson said.
Investigators believe that Cardenas sent as many as five anthrax hoax letters to various people using Berzamina's name, including one to herself.
Based on the phony letter, Cardenas applied for and was granted a restraining order against Berzamina in state Circuit Court.
One of the anthrax hoax letters that resulted in Cardenas pleading guilty to a charge of "threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction" was mailed on Nov. 19 to the hotel where Berzamina worked and the other was mailed to the Honolulu Police Department on Nov. 30.
The letters were sent at a time when the nation was in shock from the Sept. 11 attacks, and at a time when there was growing alarm and concern about genuine anthrax spores being sent through the U.S. mail, Sorenson said after the hearing.
He said Cardenas had been studying at Kapi'olani Community College to become a nurse and played upon the nationwide fear of anthrax when sending out her hoax letters.
"Some of those people opened the letters and powder flew in their face, and they were terrified," Sorenson said. He said the powder contained rat poison and pieces of a tablet used to treat aquarium water, but no anthrax.
Randy Oyama, Cardenas' lawyer, said she has no prior criminal record and estimated that she will receive a sentence of 41 months to 55 months in accordance with federal sentencing guidelines.
Reach David Waite at 525-8030.