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Arrests Made in Alleged Katrina Scheme

FBI says four workers at a Red Cross call center in the Bakersfield area funneled relief checks to relatives and friends. The probe is expanding.

October 05, 2005|Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writer

Nine people in the Bakersfield area have been charged with wire fraud in a scheme that siphoned off Red Cross funds intended for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the FBI said Tuesday.

Four were contract workers at a Red Cross national call center in Bakersfield, said Lawrence Brown, first assistant U.S. attorney in Sacramento. The other five were friends and relatives who picked up relief checks they weren't entitled to, he said.

"This may well answer the question of how low people can go," Brown said.

Brown said at least $25,000 had been misappropriated "and that [amount] may grow significantly." He said the investigation was expanding and more arrests were expected.

The call center, which is still open, fields calls from Katrina victims. It is staffed by temporary workers employed by Spherion, a service company based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Once callers are determined eligible for relief, they are given PIN numbers to claim money from Western Union outlets nationwide, FBI Agent Ryan D. McDougal said in one of the criminal complaints. McDougal said a single victim is entitled to $360 and a family of five or more can receive $1,565. The money is intended to help cover day-to-day expenses.

"The [four] employees figured they could create sham victim accounts," Brown said. "They issued PIN numbers to family members and friends."

But Brown said the Red Cross became suspicious.

"They noted that there seemed to be an inordinate amount of disbursement in the Bakersfield area," he said. "They called in the FBI to investigate."

Heather Swenddal, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Sacramento, said the organization is always on the lookout for fraud. "We must be good stewards of the donor dollar," she said.

Officials at Spherion could not be reached for comment.

McDougal said he arrested one of the suspects, Trent Jermaine Preslie, 33, on Sept. 28 at a Western Union outlet in Bakersfield. "The store manager exited ... and informed me that the defendant was inside the store and he was trying to collect money from a previous wire transfer of funds provided by the Red Cross," McDougal said in his complaint. "I asked the defendant if I could ask him some questions, whereupon the subject turned and ran.... I subdued him."

McDougal said Preslie earlier had collected Red Cross checks totaling $1,265.

Also arrested in the days that followed were Aminah Randle, 19; Robert Johnson, 23; Miko Shannia Nobles, 22; Tonjua Randle, 39; Sheena Porter, 21; Stanley Lewis, 44; and Candice Brown, 20. A ninth suspect, Elizabeth Ray, is being sought, the FBI said.

Aminah Randle, Johnson, Ray and Porter were employees at the center and the other suspects were friends and relatives, prosecutors said.

All nine have been charged with wire fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the U.S. attorney's office said. The eight in custody are scheduled for hearings on the charges today in Fresno.

Last month, two San Fernando Valley residents allegedly posing as Red Cross workers were arrested in what officials say was the first federal case involving a Katrina charity scam.

Prosecutors said Tino Lee, 44, of Burbank and Gina Liz Nicholas, 22, of Glendale were picked up Sept. 15 as they sat at a table outside a Best Buy store in Burbank.

Atop the table was a collection box and a sign that read, "American Red Cross -- Hurricane Disaster," according to court documents.

Burbank police said they questioned the suspects after noticing that their laminated Red Cross badges appeared to have been poorly made.

U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales recently created the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force to investigate disaster-related scams.

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