Documents: Mail theft ring stole checks from Baptist church; altered and cashed stolen checks
Court documents obtained by ABC-7 state an alleged mail theft ring in El Paso targeted a Baptist church, in addition to mail boxes throughout the city.
Detectives with the El Paso Police Department's Financial Crimes Unit arrested and charged 15 suspects. The alleged scheme began in December 2016 when police observed an increase in cases of stolen mail and documents from residential community mailboxes in Northeast El Paso. Police said the 15 suspects worked together to steal the mail and documents for nearly a year.
A police spokesman told ABC-7 the suspects stole checks and credit card applications mailed to the victims as well as discarded credit applications found in the trash. A criminal complaint obtained by ABC-7 also states the stolen documents, primarily personal checks, "were being altered to show a different payee than was authorized by the complainants." The suspects allegedly used the stolen mail and documents to commit fraud against citizens and financial institutions, police said.
Lilian Ainsworth, the principal at Northeast Christian Academy, told ABC-7 the suspects targeted her school. The suspect were allegedly able to steal more than $15,000 from the school by altering its checks.
"It was a very frantic period of time because we are small school - and a non profit school - so the tuition has to cover all the payments, and if we don't have those, it puts us in a world of hardship to pay our staff," Ainsworth said, "We had a large problem with our checks to our creditors that we were putting in the outgoing mail and they were being stolen from the mailbox out front."
Court documents state some of the victims were in their 80s and 90s.
ALLEN BATTLE, JASON SMITH, CODY YORK AND ROBERT BARRAGAN
On May 11, 2017, Allen Battle was arrested for warrants related to the case and a search of the vehicle Battle was driving allegedly turned up a check book belonging to a victim. Police said several of the checks had been forged with the name of Cody York, a passenger in Battle's vehicle at the time of the arrest. "York had attempted to negotiate one of the forged checks at the Chase Bank located at 5209 Wren, but was unsuccessful," the criminal complaint states. The victim told police the checkbook had been stolen from his mailbox.
Court documents reveal another defendant tied to the case, Jason Smith, told police, "I met a guy named Allen Battle and he has a crew of people who are popping boxes, which means they break into mailboxes". Smith allegedly identified the alleged members of Battle's mail theft ring.
Another defendant, identified in court documents as Darryl Brown, allegedly told investigators he cashed checks for Battle and Smith, and "given money back to Battle. Further, Brown allegedly stated, "it's Allen and Gemini who are breaking into the mail boxes, but I didn't have anything to do with that. I would just cash the checks". Brown allegedly told detectives Gemini is an alias used by Jason Smith.
Court documents state police obtained voluntary statements from co-defendants Robert Barragan, Kenneth Bell, Joseph Howe, and Devon Velasquez. All allegedly implicated Allen Battle and Brent Kennedy "as being the primary organizers of the group," the court document states. The criminal complaints further state, that during a voluntary statement regarding a forgery arrest, Desiree Espinoza told detectives Allen Battle had given her the stolen checks. Espinoza allegedly stated Battle and Kennedy "were the ones in charge" and that she once witnessed Kennedy giving York a stolen check.
Barragan allegedly told police he would get paid to collect mail and turn the documents over to other people who would look for items they could use. Barragan allegedly told police, "everybody's names and stuff are there. They do fraudulent ass shit with it, changing the names on the checks."
DELILAH DELGADO, SONJIA DAY, MICHAEL GOMEZ, AND JUNE GRANADO
In July of 2017, personal Bank of America personal checks mailed to a pastor were allegedly stolen from the mailbox of the Sun Valley Baptist Church located at 9901 McCombs.
A criminal complaint states Check #1417, in the amount of $9,000, was negotiated into the account of Ernesto Bejarano on July 24, 017. Surveillance video of the transaction allegedly revealed Delilah Delgado drove a red Ford SUV to the drive through ATM of the First Light Federal Credit Union on Lee Trevino. "Delgado then climbed into the back seat, at which time Co-defendant Sonjia Day crawled from the passenger seat into the driver seat," a criminal complaint states, "Co-defendant Day is observed to deposit the forged check, and then hand the receipt of the transaction to Defendant Delgado.
The document further states Day proceeded to make a cash withdrawal against the account and then handed the receipt of that transaction to Delgado. "Day then crawls back to the passenger seat, and Defendant Delgado then climbs back into the driver seat and drives the vehicle away from the ATM," the court document states.
Investigators said bank records show the account had a balance of $12.85 prior to the deposit, "and the $300 cash withdraw made by the subjects came directly from the forged $9,000 check." The victim reviewed the check and told police he did not sign or issue the check, nor did he authorize anyone to sign his name on the check. The victim told police he did not know Ernesto Bejarano.
When police arrested Delgado and Day, Day allegedly told them co-defendant Michael Gomez gave the check to Emesto Bejarano, who allegedly asked Delgado and Day to cash the check. Day allegedly said she then gave the money that was withdrawn to Delgado. Under surveillance, police allegedly observed Gomez negotiating a forged check. An investigation led to the arrest of June Granado, who allegedly told police she cashed multiple checks under different names for Gomez.
ILIANA JONES, JASON SMITH AND KENNETH BELL
On March, 21, 2017, Iliana Jones was allegedly observed on security video negotiating a forged check stolen from a mailbox, court documents states. Police said the check was made payable to El Paso Water, but the payee section was changed to show Iliana Jones.
Jones was allegedly observed to be wearing the same clothing on security video as she was on security video obtained for a different case, in which Jones allegedly used a stolen passport in an effort to "pass a forged check stolen from a mailbox."
Police said Jones used an identification card issued to a Leslie Mayol to cash three checks stolen from a victim's mailbox. The payee section on the stolen checks was allegedly changed to the name of Leslie Mayol, court documents states. "Security video of the check transactions at a WestStar Bank drive through show Co-Defendant Battle operating the vehicle, and unidentified subjects in the passenger seats," a court document states.
On April 8, 2017, co-defendant Jason Smith was allegedly "observed on security footage using a Valero credit card stolen from a victim's mailbox. Approximately two hours later, security footage shows Smith, Co-Defendant
Brown, and a third subject attempt to use the same stolen Valero credit card inside the Valero store and outside at the gas pumps," a court document states.
On June 30, 2017, co-defendant Kenneth Bell was arrested on a narcotics charge while driving a vehicle allegedly borrowed from Iliana Jones. An investigation revealed "there were four identification cards, two social security cards and two debit cards in the vehicle that did not belong" to Jones or Bell, court documents state.
Under interrogation, Bell allegedly told police Jones "acquires checks, credit cards, and debit cards by stealing mail from mailboxes." Bell further stated, Jones and those she worked with "share bits and pieces of knowledge that makes them sufficient in their own way." Bell allegedly said Jones often worked with other people to "assist in the theft of mail" in other parts of town. After obtaining the mail, Jones would work with "Jason Smith or Pierre Tanner," who would allegedly "alter the checks and change the payee."
Bell allegedly told police Tanner "specializes" in lettering and is "good with a pen." Bell allegedly said co-defendant Jason Munoz is good with identification cards and "recently obtained a DMV camera and was producing fraudulent identification cards," the court document states.
The criminal complaint further states Bell told police Jones would obtain the checks and then find a person to cash the checks. Once selected, Jones would take that person to Jason Smith to obtain an identification card and then to do-defendant Tanner to have the check written out. "Jones would then drive the subject to the bank and the subject would negotiate the check," the criminal complaint states, "The money would then be divided among all of the suspects involved.
Bell allegedly told police Jones learned how to complete the fraud from Allen Battle, with whom she had lived together and had been dating. Bell further stated Battle was the person who "coordinated everything for the group until he was arrested," the complaint states. Jones allegedly frequented the area near Diana and Hondo Pass in Northeast El Paso, which was consistent with the victims detectives were able to identify.
The court document states Bell even used a map to show detectives the routes Bell had driven with Co-Defendant Jones to steal mail from mailboxes, including the area around Zion and Alabama in Northeast El Paso. Bell allegedly said he was with Pierre Tanner when Jones gave him money reportedly obtained from the negotiation of a forged check.
STOLEN VEHICLE INVESTIGATION
Police said a separate investigation revealed Iliana Jones, Brent Kennedy and Gary Rinker worked together to forge documents "to unlawfully appropriate funds from the illegitimate sale of a stolen vehicle."
The victim told police she accepted title documentation from Kennedy allegedly showing he was the owner of a 2010 Toyota Pickup. Police said the vehicle had been reported stolen. The victim told police she issued the check to Rinker because Kennedy did not have proper identification. The victim allegedly observed Rinker give the money to Kennedy, who then divided the proceeds between himself, Jones and Rinker.
JOHNATHAN JAMES, THOMAS LAWRY AND DESIREE ESPINOZA
On May 11, 2017, police arrested Johnathan James as he was leaving the Advance America check cashing business at 8900 Viscount. Police officers were dispatched to the location when employees reported James attempting to negotiate the forged checks, court documents state.
James was allegedly found to be in possession of two checks belonging to Sun Valley Baptist Church. Court documents further state James was also in possession of a fictitious Texas Department of Public Safety Temporary Driver's License bearing his information as well as other checks and documentation.
Under interrogation, James allegedly told police he received the stolen Sun Valley Baptist checks from Brent Kennedy for "computer repairs." James allegedly said he had no knowledge of or any business with the church.
Court documents state James had previously been arrested with Thomas Lawry when both offenders provided false identifying information to police officers. Further investigation revealed James was in possession of identification cards, debit cards, and stolen checks that had been modified, police said.
James was allegedly in possession of fraudulent identification cards containing the personal information of one of the victims, but with a photo of co-defendant Lawry. Additionally, checks with the victim's information had been added to the top of checks bearing the name Desiree Espinoza. Police arrested Espinoza on forgery charges. Under interrogation, Espinoza told police Battle and Kennedy "were the ones in charge."
MICHELLE HUDSPETH, DARRYL BROWN AND JASON SMITH
In March of 2017, Michelle Hudspeth allegedly tried to cash a stolen check that was modified to include her name, court documents state. Police said Hudspeth allegedly tried to negotiate the check at a First Light Federal Credit Union drive-through teller moments after co-defendant Darryl Brown tried to negotiate a stolen check.
After she was arrested, Hudspeth allegedly told detectives Jason Smith gave her the stolen check. Hudspeth said he had tried to negotiate several checks for Smith during a two to three week period. Hudspeth allegedly told police she once let Allen Battle borrow her vehicle. When Battle returned, he allegedly had a box filled with mail that did not belong to Battle. Hudspeth acknowledged she did not report the stolen mail to the post office or police.
During an investigation, police allegedly observed Smith "to be in possession of a scanned payroll check that appeared to be from Airgas USA, LLC." Police said Hudspeth's name had been affixed
to the payee section of the check, and attempts where made to make the check appear as if it was issued payable to Hudspeth, court documents state.
On May 9, 2017, the office manager at Sun Valley Baptist church was notified by the church's bank about fraudulent activity on its account. Several checks sent out in the mail now appeared to have been cashed with different names in the payee section. One of the checks was allegedly altered and made payable to Samantha Vasquez, court documents state.
Court documents state Bank of America records for Vasquez show the stolen check was deposited into the account, and then numerous charges were made against the account. "Many of the charges were phone calls to the jail, consistent with the dates that Vasquez's boyfriend was incarcerated," the documents state.
BRENT KENNEDY AND ROBERT BARRAGAN
On April 3, 2017, Brent Kennedy was allegedly recorded on security footage, along with Allen Battle, trying to negotiate a check stolen from a mailbox, court documents state. Kennedy allegedly used a fake identification card while trying to cash the check, but First Light Federal Credit Union identified the check as "being an obvious forgery," the documents state.
On August 30, 2017, police arrested Robert Barragan as he was allegedly stealing mail from mail boxes. Under interrogation, Barragan allegedly admitted to a Postal Service Inspector he stole mail from mail boxes. Barragan allegedly said he collected mail, "but did not know what to do with it," a court document states. Barragan allegedly said he would give the mail to other people "who knew what to do with it."
"They do fraudulent ass (expletive) with it," Barragan allegedly said as he reportedly told investigators Battle, Kennedy and Jason smith were the ringleaders. Barragan said Kennedy would change the name on checks and that Smith would give Barragan money for the mail he collected. Barragan allegedly described the the scheme as a "pyramid," while telling investigators that beneath Battle, Kennedy and Smith, there were several subjects who would collect the mail. Barragan told police Kennedy had templates to "make fake Texas Identification cards," court documents state.
Those arrested and facing charges:
- 25-year-old Darryl Clinton Brown of El Paso
- 32-year-old Allen Battle of El Paso
- 24-year-old Cody Ray York of El Paso
- 35-year-old Johnathan Wayne James of El Paso
- 35-year-old Brent Harrison Kennedy of El Paso
- 34-year-old Jason Curtis Smith of El Paso
- 33-year-old Iliana Molina Jones of El Paso
- 47-year-old Michelle Hudspeth of El Paso
- 31-year-old Pierre A. Tanner of El Paso
- 35-year-old Thomas Kevin Lawry of El Paso
- 28-year-old Kenneth Burk Bell of El Paso
- 38-year-old Delilah Amanda Delgado of El Paso
- 29-year-old June Granado of El Paso
- 32-year-old Michael George Gomez of El Paso
- 23-year-old Samantha Vasquez of Socorro
The 15 people arrested have been charged with Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity: Forgery and Fraudulent Use of Possession of Identifying Information. Police said more arrests are forthcoming and additional charges are anticipated. Detectives learned at least 37 people were targeted by the suspects. Investigators believe there are more victims. Detectives are working with the U.S. Postal Inspector and are asking victim of mail theft to contact the Postal Inspector.
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