Reports identify mystery recruiter tied to DeSantis migrant flights as Tampa woman

SAN ANTONIO — The mysterious woman who allegedly lured dozens of migrants on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ flights to Martha’s Vineyard from San Antonio have been identified by several media outlets as Perla H. Huerta, a former combat medic and US Army counterintelligence agent living in Tampa.

The New York Times reported late Sunday that a Venezuelan migrant who was working with Huerta to recruit migrants confirmed her identity, and a migrant in San Antonio whom Huerta had unsuccessfully sought to sign up identified a photo of her.

Related: Florida migrant flight money went to company tied to DeSantis adviser

CNN reported that a friend of Huerta confirmed her identity in a photo provided by a migrant. Pictures have been circulating of the woman — until now known simply as “Perla” — after she allegedly recruited many of the 48 Venezuelan migrants outside a city-operated shelter in downtown San Antonio and moved them at a La Quinta Inn, before they were flown to the upscale Massachusetts island at the expense of Florida taxpayers last month.

The San Antonio Express-News, citing unnamed sources, reported Monday that the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, which includes San Antonio, considers Huerta, 43, a “person of interest” in its criminal investigation into the incident.

Sheriff’s office spokesman Johnny Garcia said in a statement Monday the office had not confirmed or identified any persons of interest in the ongoing investigation. Asked about Huerta, Garcia had told the Express-News, “We are not publicly identifying anybody.”

Related: What to know about DeSantis’ migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard

The Associated Press tried numerous phone numbers and emails for potential matches for Perla H. Huerta or possible relatives, and got no answer or the lines were disconnected.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar has said he’s looking into whether the migrants were lied to or if the two flights last month broke any laws. Some migrants have said they were enticed with McDonald’s gift cards and promises of jobs and housing that never materialized.

Related: DeSantis violated the law with Martha’s Vineyard flights, Democrats say

US Army spokesperson Madison Bonzo confirmed to the AP that a Perla H. Huerta left the military in August and served as a combat medic and worked in counterintelligence. She held the rank of master sergeant when she left the service and was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Djibouti.

DeSantis said he used contractors for the operation, but he has refused to release details or the contracts.

The townhome located in the 5300 block of Bayshore Blvd. belonging to Perla Haydee Huerta pictured on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, in Tampa. Huerta allegedly recruited migrants onto Gov. Ron DeSantis’ flights to Martha’s Vineyard from San Antonio in September. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Huerta was documented in public records several times as living in a condominium near the south end of Bayshore Boulevard. She purchased the property in May 2019 for $335,000, according to Hillsborough property records. The address is also listed on her 2020 voter registration, when she signed up without listing a party affiliation.

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Court records show that Huerta has also personally dealt with the state’s property insurance crisis. In 2020, she sued Southern Fidelity Property & Casualty insurance, alleging a breach of contract after the Bayshore condo, referred to as her residence, sustained “considerable damages” from a “sudden and accidental water loss,” which she said the company failed to adequately cover.

The most recent filing in that court case is a notice that the Florida Department of Financial Services is working to liquidate Southern Fidelity Insurance — since it is one of several Florida insurance companies that has gone under this year.

A woman wearing a real estate company shirt answered the door Tuesday to Tampa Bay Times reporters at the Bayshore condominium where cardboard boxes could be seen inside.

The woman did not give any information about the house and did not say if she knew Huerta. She did say no one by Huerta’s name lives in the house currently. When reporters asked her name, she closed the door.

The property has been on the real estate site, Zillow, for close to 100 days. The listing states the home has three bedrooms and three bathrooms and is 1,617 square feet. It is listed at $489,000.

The townhouse sits in the Ballast Point neighborhood, a few blocks south of where Bayshore’s iconic waterfront stretch meets Gandy Boulevard. Heavy traffic moved north along the narrow roadway Tuesday afternoon beneath a canopy of tree branches.

A car with a Texas license plate was parked near the condominium Tuesday afternoon.

A man who was inside walked out to meet a woman who had recently arrived. Neither identified themselves nor said if they knew Huerta. Both walked back into the house and later left in two separate cars, both with Florida license plates. The woman’s Jeep Wrangler had a New England Patriots bumper sticker on it.

Two unidentified people walk into the townhome located in the 5300 block of Bayshore Blvd. belonging to Perla Haydee Huerta on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, in Tampa.  Huerta allegedly recruited migrants onto Florida Gov.  Ron DeSantis' flights to Martha's Vineyard from San Antonio in September.
Two unidentified people walk into the townhome located in the 5300 block of Bayshore Blvd. belonging to Perla Haydee Huerta on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, in Tampa. Huerta allegedly recruited migrants onto Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ flights to Martha’s Vineyard from San Antonio in September. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

While they were all inside, a real estate agent whose client was interested in the house arrived.

The man, who did not provide his name, said he did not know about Huerta or the history of the property.

Times Political Editor Emily Mahoney contributed to this report.

Related: Making sense of the migrant flights: What’s true — and not true

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