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August 22, 2018

Eight Indicted in Scheme Using Stolen Tax Refund Checks

On July 9, 2018, an indictment was unsealed in the Western District of Missouri charging eight individuals in a scheme involving the theft of U.S. Treasury tax refund checks. Branden Belvin, Mistie Smith, Dante Chestnut, Susannah Lesaisaea, Cassandra Franklin, Sharieff Sylvester, Joseph Hooks, and Frances Wright were indicted on May 2, 2018, for conspiracy, bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft. Belvin, Smith, Chestnut, and Hooks were also charged with money laundering.

According to the court documents, Belvin and Smith, both residents of California, obtained approximately 99 U.S. Treasury checks that had been stolen from the U.S. Postal Service mail stream. The U.S. Treasury checks had been issued for tax refunds and were printed and mailed in Kansas City, Missouri. Belvin and Smith recruited the codefendants to participate in the scheme by negotiating the stolen checks. They created or obtained fraudulent identification documents, such as driver's licenses, in order to deposit the stolen refund checks.

Between March 2016 and May 2016, the coconspirators traveled through Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri negotiating the stolen refund checks at various branches of Academy Bank, a financial institution headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri. The defendants used the false identification documents in order to open bank accounts in the names depicted on the checks. They then deposited the checks into the newly created accounts and subsequently withdrew the majority of the money.

In April 2016, Denver, Colorado, police officers responded to an incident involving Belvin and Smith at a hotel. Officers recovered an envelope containing 19 counterfeit California driver's licenses. The names on the counterfeit driver's licenses matched the names of victims whose tax refund checks had been stolen and cashed, but most of the licenses pictured the same six individuals, coconspirators Chestnut, Sylvester, Franklin, Lesaisaea, Wright, and another individual.

The scheme resulted in the fraudulent negotiation of approximately 99 checks with a total financial loss of approximately $447,517. If convicted, the defendants could each face a maximum statutory sentence of 30 years' imprisonment for bank fraud, plus a mandatory consecutive sentence of two years' imprisonment for aggravated identity theft.

    Source:  The facts in this case narrative come from the following publicly available documents: W.D. Mo. Indict. filed May 2, 2018; W.D. Mo. Crim. Docket as of July 18, 2018.