1 of 6 suspects in Anchorage stolen-check cashing ring at large
A sole suspect in a sweeping Anchorage mail-theft and identity-theft case against six people remained at large Friday on federal charges, after authorities claim they spent nearly a year cashing checks taken from Anchorage vehicles and mailboxes.
A 29-count indictment against the defendants, announced Thursday in a statement from Acting U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder’s office, includes charges of conspiracy, bank fraud and possession of stolen mail, as well as aggravated identity theft and passing counterfeit money. Only David Gonzales, 36, was still sought by authorities.
"Gonzalez has federal warrants for conspiracy to commit bank fraud and aggravated identity theft," police said in a statement. "He was last seen near the Salvation Army Rehab Center at 660 E 48th Ave."
Three of the four defendants initially sought in the case -- Brandon Madrid, 28; Braden Asbury, 20; and Karri Embach, 34 -- had joined Sara James, 30, and Jonathan James, 34, in custody by noon Friday.
According to the statement, from August of 2016 until May the Jameses “conspired together with Gonzales, Madrid, Asbury, and Embach to negotiate checks stolen from the mail and from vehicle break-ins that were falsely altered.”
“Most of the stolen checks were falsely altered to make the payee a separate stolen identity that was used by the defendants to negotiate the stolen checks,” federal officials wrote. “The defendants negotiated the stolen and falsely altered checks at banks and stores throughout Anchorage.”
In addition, the Jameses allegedly used counterfeit money to make a purchase through classified-ad website Craigslist.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward, who is prosecuting the case, said some of the information in the identity thefts came from purses and wallets which had been taken from vehicles.
“The allegations tend to show that this was one of the more successful mail-fraud rings that we have charged in this district, specifically in Anchorage,” Steward said. “All told, with the stolen identities as well as the stolen checks, we have almost 200 victims in this case at this time.”
The 14-page indictment describes a "material scheme" in which the six defendants obtained, or attempted to obtain more than $120,000, using stolen and altered checks and identities, through transactions dating from August of 2016 through May of 2017. Suspects frequently obtained checks through stolen mail, and IDs and Credit Cards from wallets stolen from homes and cars.
The stolen checks were originally payable to private citizens, Bank of America, the Pioneer Hockey Association, and even the U.S. Army, before the suspects manipulated account names and check amounts to cash them in.
The indictment names 10 victims of identity theft by initials, and at least seven banks or credit unions where suspects attempted, and or succeeded to cash in falsified checks. The check amounts were frequently altered, for example, suspects attempted to cash in a stolen check originally for $267.62, for the amount of $2,600.62. In another instance, a stolen check for $600 was falsely changed to $1,600.
In one instance, suspect Sara James is accused of altering a PFD check stolen during a vehicle break in, making it out to a stolen identity, rather than the original recipient, then cashing the stolen check at Denali Federal Credit Union using the stolen identity.
In another transaction, suspects Jonathan James and Sara James allegedly created a counterfeit check using a victim's bank account information acquired through stolen mail. The forged check listed the account holder as Sara James' mother, and the amount of $2,100 was made out to the Jameses.
Both Jonathan and Sara James entered not guilty pleas to all counts during their arraignments Thursday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward urged the judge to deny bail conditions to Sara, saying she was arrested for similar crimes in January and returned to the same activities as soon as she was released on bail. She referenced a previous escape charge in Sara's lengthy criminal history, said Sara's use of aliases makes her a flight risk and told the judge a search of her home turned up heroin.
Steward's argument to keep Jonathan James in custody was similar. She referenced his history of using alias names and said a search of his belongings turned up heroin and a gun-- which he isn't allowed to have as a felon.
Whether they will be released on bond will be determined in later hearings.
Because both defendants are reportedly unable to afford to hire attorneys, the court has appointed representation for them at the government's expense.
Steward hailed Anchorage police for their work in assembling the case alongside the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, with aid from agencies including Anchorage District Attorney Clint Campion’s office, the Palmer Police Department and the state Department of Revenue.
“I think this was a significant case for APD to bring and put together and work with other agencies to make this happen,” Steward said. “I think it takes a significant bite out of crime here in Anchorage.”
Federal authorities say anyone who sees Gonzales, or has information on his whereabouts, should call Anchorage police at (907) 786-8900. Anyone whose mail has been stolen can call postal inspectors in Anchorage at (907) 261-6328.
Daniella Rivera contributed information to this story.