By Marissa Perlman

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – Up to $1 billion in benefit cash was stolen by California inmates, and now prosecutors are tasked with getting that money back. But they say they could spend the rest of their lives on this investigation and still couldn’t get back every dollar stolen.

“It stings, personally,” said Tyler Estabrook, who says he is a fraud victim.

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Estabrooks, an independent contractor says he depends on pandemic unemployment assistance to pay the bills.

“This assistance now is really integral for me making it through to the other end of all of this,” he said.

He says the taxpayer, like him, is the true victim in this mastermind scheme created by inmates in county jails and prisons across the state.

He’s horrified to learn up to $1 billion could be gone.

“You’ve got a huge network of prisoners that are unlawfully just robbing the system of benefits,” he said.

In August, San Mateo County officials charged 21 people, with conspiracy. That includes a Rancho Cordova woman Ronnelle Narvaez who is accused of working with her brother Rommell Narvarez to apply for the fake benefits.

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert says $140 million

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Sacramento County DA Ann Marie Schubert.

has been paid out to some inmates and their accomplices, so far.

“We want to know who is ripping off the system the most,” said Schubert, who’s leading a task force to track down the money.

She says it’s impossible to get back every dollar, but the team will be going after those that stole the most money and organized this scheme.

“Let’s make sure we’re getting the folks that are taking the money from California in the largest dollar amount,” she said.

But at what cost? Schubert says the investigation will take time and resources from the task force, the FBI, and sheriff’s offices all across the state.

“It’s about making sure we do everything we can to prevent it. It’s not like we’re flush with money around here,” she said.

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