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Brooklyn DA: School Offering ESL Classes 'A Total Fraud'

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The Brooklyn English schools operated by a married couple were nothing more than a front to scam immigrants out of thousands of dollars, prosecutors say.

Jade Wang told CBS 2's John Slattery that she paid in advance to have her children attend an English as a Second Language school in the Chinese enclave of Sunset Park. She said her kids were among about 100 who showed up for classes at the three Chinatown Outreach Ministry schools, only to find the places locked.

"It was too sudden," Wang said through an interpreter. "And I was pretty angry."

Brooklyn DA: School Offering ESL Classes 'A Total Fraud'

Patrick Panettieri, 63, and his wife, Joanne, 59, were arrested Friday in Syracuse after allegedly fleecing some $25,000 out of immigrant families, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said. The couple has pleaded not guilty to charges of running a scheme to defraud and grand larceny. They were held on $150,000 bail.

"In no sense was this a real school," Hynes said. "Rather, we allege it was a fraud. The defendants were simply selling a product that didn't exist.

"Two of the schools held classes in basements of buildings. All were overcrowded, filled to capacity. Some didn't have books."

Brooklyn DA: School Offering ESL Classes 'A Total Fraud'

Benjamin Gabriel, 18, said he taught at one of the schools for a month and was never paid. He said he was hired on the spot.

"Basically, it was a joke," he said. "They needed me to work that day because they had nobody else."

Hynes and Gabriel say the Panettieris were preying on immigrants who were unlikely to report wrongdoing. Prosecutor Lawrence Oh said the couple has done this before.

"The modus operandi was identical," Oh said. "So they maintained a school that was a school only in name. They took money from parents offering very remedial ESL classes just to keep their scam going. When it collapsed on them, they shut it down and ran off with the parents' money in 2002."

If convicted, the Panettieris face up to four years in prison.

"I want to be clear: No plea bargain until we get the money back for these parents who've been bilked," Hynes said.

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