Federal authorities in Minnesota are lowering the boom on a large group of individuals from the Twin Cities suspected of identity theft, bank fraud and money laundering activities that spread out to at least a dozen states and stole at least $2 million.
So far, eight people have been charged in the alleged conspiracy in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, and several have entered guilty pleas and are cooperating with prosecutors. Sources close to the investigation say they expect about 20 plea bargains, and a dozen or more people to be charged by grand jury indictments in the near future.
The U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment.
The first public hint of the alleged scheme surfaced in May, when federal prosecutors in St. Paul charged Lee Vang, 31, of St. Paul, with a single count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Vang pleaded guilty in September and awaits sentencing.
The charging document says Vang obtained fake identification documents and counterfeit checks from a group that prosecutors refer to simply as "the Known Conspirators in Minnesota." She admitted to using bogus checks to buy merchandise between December 2007 and December 2009 at retail outlets in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota and Illinois. The goods were returned for cash, and the proceeds were split among Vang and her associates.
Melissa Jean Beaman, 36, of St. Louis Park, told a similar story Monday when she pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud. She admitted to passing bogus checks at stores like Wal-Mart from August 2008 through March 2009, returning the merchandise, then splitting the proceeds with individuals who supplied her with the forged checks and false identities.
Sources say more than 120 people may have been involved. They'd pilfer financial information and identities from cars, businesses, trash cans and mail boxes, and obtained some information from bank employees.
U.S. Postal Inspector Barry Bouchie described the investigation Nov. 4 in sworn statements that were used to obtain criminal complaints against Steven L. Maxwell, 43, of St. Paul, and Russell R. Royals, 59, of Minneapolis. Each has an extensive criminal history, including convictions for check forgery. They're being held without bond.
Bouchie, who's assigned to the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force, wrote that an informant with the initials R.D. began cashing counterfeit checks at the direction of Royals and Maxwell last spring. According to Bouchie, Maxwell and Royals later asked R.D. to begin printing the counterfeit checks using special software they had. He said R.D. wore a wire and secretly recorded conversations with them.
Maxwell met with R.D. Nov. 2 at a St. Paul apartment building and gave him a list of a dozen bank accounts and routing numbers to use for the counterfeit checks, Bouchie said. Federal agents secretly watched as Maxwell later picked up 261 counterfeit checks drawn on accounts at U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, American Bank of St. Paul, Affinity Plus Credit Union, Healtheast Employees Credit Union, Unity One Credit Union and Western Bank.
The information on the counterfeits appears to have come from checks stolen from a safe during a Sept. 27 burglary at the Lilydale Pool and Yacht Club, Bouchie said.
Maxwell was indicted Dec. 5 in St. Paul with a single count of aggravated identity theft related to a dozen individuals.
The following defendants were charged Friday with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and aggravated identity theft:
Christeena Janell Barker, 44, of Coon Rapids; Jamie Hubert Branson, 45, of St. Paul; and Majorie Marie Neely, 50, of Minneapolis. Barker and Branson are scheduled to plead guilty Jan. 19, and Neely is scheduled to plead guilty Tuesday. In addition, Brianna Marie Darwin, 26, of St. Paul, pleaded guilty in July to a charge of conspiracy to commit concealment/money laundering.
As a group, the defendants have prior convictions ranging from theft by swindle to identity theft, assault, drugs, forgeries and receiving stolen property.
By DAN BROWNING