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Brainerd/Baxter stores part of 14-state federal identity theft ring

A federal indictment was recently filed charging 12 people in connection with an identity theft ring allegedly responsble for the theft of more than $2 million from financial insititutions and retail businesses in at least 14 states, including from stores in the Brainerd lakes area, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Minneapolis reported.

Sgt. Russ Wicklund, investigator with the Baxter Police Department who also serves on the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force, initiated the federal case. Wicklund, who has been investigating the case since Labor Day weekend of 2008, said fraudulent checks worth thousands of dollars turned up at a couple of stores in Brainerd and Baxter.

According to the state attorney’s office, the original Dec. 5 indictment was filed against Steven Lavell Maxwell, 43, Minneapolis, who was charged with a single count of aggravated identity theft. He pleaded not guilty on Dec. 14. The superseding federal indictment adds conspiracy to commit bank fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering to Maxwell’s list of charges. It also adds 11 co-conspirators and outlines a complex plot to defraud banks and retail businesses, primarily in the Midwest.

Wicklund said without the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force, the federal case wouldn’t have moved forward. The Task Force was established pursuant to state law and is comprised of local, state and federal law enforcement investigators, who are dedicated to combating the growing problem of cross-jurisdictional financial crimes. The task force is overseen by an advisory board.

Wicklund said the investigation took a lot of time and effort of many organizations, including law enforcement agencies in the 14-state area, the United States Postal Inspection Service, the Internal Revenue Service- Criminal Investigation Division and the Minnesota Attorney’s Office.

“We’re still working on it, but the charges are a huge start,” said Wicklund.

According to the state attorney’s office, the superseding indictment, originally filed on Jan. 19, was unsealed following the initial appearances in federal court of all defendants charged with one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud. The defendants are Norman Scott Allen, 42, Frederick Adrianne Hamilton, 56, Joel Delano Powell, III, 19, and Elston Edwards Sharp, 46, all of Minneapolis; Desmon Desmond Burks, 36, and Robin Dawn Finger, 43, both of St. Paul; Russell Raymond Royals, 59, of Cottage Grove; Joel Delano Powell, Jr., 46, of St. Louis Park; Donyea Terrell Collins, 26, of Richfield; Derek Charles Estelle, 24, of Stillwater; and Trey Jeremiah Powell, 18, of Brooklyn Park.

All the 11 defendants, except Hamilton, were also charged with one count of aggravated identity theft.

In addition, Royals, Burks, Hamilton, and Allen were charged with two counts of bank fraud; Joel Delano Powell, Jr., was charged with seven counts of bank fraud; Trey Jeremiah Powell and Joel Delano Powell, III, were charged with four counts of bank fraud; Sharps was charged with one count of bank fraud; Royals, Burks, and Joel Delano Powell, III, were charged with a second count of aggravated identity theft; and Joel Delano Powell, Jr., was charged with four more counts of aggravated identity theft.

The superseding indictment alleges that from 2006 through December of 2011, the defendants conspired with each other and unnamed individuals to defraud banks, bank customers and businesses. Through their places of employment, some members of the theft ring purportedly stole the identification information of other people, providing it to co-conspirators who then used it to create false identification documents, such as driver’s license and identification cards, along with counterfeit checks. Identification information was allegedly stolen through other means as well, including mail theft, vehicle break-ins and business burglaries. Some was even reportedly purchased from other criminals.

According to the superseding indictment, the fraudulent identification documents and the counterfeit checks were subsequently used by co-conspirators, named and unnamed, or those recruited by them, to purchase expensive items and gift cards at retail stores. Later, but often that same day after the receipts had been altered, the items were allegedly returned for cash, which was divided among those involved in the criminal activity.

The fraudulent information and documentation was also reportedly used to open bank accounts or access the existing bank accounts of others. As part of this scheme, co-conspirators purportedly deposited counterfeit checks into the accounts of unknowing individuals, only to withdraw funds from those same accounts a short time later. To avoid detection, co-conspirators only accessed each bank account a few times before moving on to their next victim.

While 12 suspects have been indicted and prosecution will proceed against them, seven others involved in the scam have already been charged and pleaded guilty to their respective roles in the operation. On Sept. 29, Lee Vang, 31, of St. Paul, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and one count of aggravated identity theft. On July 20, Brianna Marie Darwin, 26, St. Paul, pleaded guilty to the same two counts. On Jan. 9, Melissa Jean Beaman, 36, of St. Louis Park, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. On Jan. 10, Majorie Marie Neely, 50, of Red Wing, pleaded guilty to the same two counts. On Jan. 17, Frances Emily Jones, 41, of Superior, Wis., pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. On Jan. 19, Christeena Janell Barker, 44, no known address; Jamie Hubert Branson, 45, of Minneapolis and Darryl Alan Bryant, 54, of St. Paul, pleaded guilty to the same two counts.

Conspiracy to commit bank fraud and bank fraud itself carries a potential maximum penalty of 30 years in federal prison for each count on which an individual is convicted. Money laundering carries a potential maximum of 20 years. For aggravated identity theft, there is a mandatory minimum penalty of two years in prison for each count convicted. All sentences are determined by a federal court judge if and when a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty by a trial jury. Because the federal justice system does not have parole, prison sentences imposed are virtually served in their entirety.

This case is being prosecuted by assistant U.S. attorney Karen B. Schommer.

Wicklund encouraged people to be on top of their finances to protect themselves from identity theft. Wicklund said people should frequently keep track of their credit card statements and if they see a charge that they have no idea about, they should contact the company and law enforcement authorities if they believe it’s fraudulent.

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at jennifer.stockinger@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5851.

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